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A Gun Lobby Bill That Conservatives Should Hate

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Packing Heat ReportThe first piece of gun-related legislation to reach a vote in Congress since the Tucson massacre has passed the House and may be taken up soon by the Senate.

Is it a bill to ban the high-capacity assault clips that allowed Jared Loughner, in a span of around sixteen seconds, to kill six people, including a nine-year-old child, and wound thirteen others, including the grievous injury to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords? No.

Is it a bill to strengthen the Brady background check system to prevent dangerous people like Jared Loughner, the Tucson shooter, from getting access to lethal weaponry? No.

The legislation recently passed by the House would allow the Jared Loughners of the world to carry their loaded, hidden handguns virtually anywhere in the country. Two days after their wounded colleague's extraordinary courage was on display to a national audience in her first TV interview since the shooting, the House majority summoned not an ounce of courage to defy the gun lobby. No wonder the approval rating of the Congress is below 10%.

H.R. 822, which should be known as the "Packing Heat on Your Street Act," would force states to recognize the concealed carry permits of visitors from other states, even if the visitor would be ineligible to even possess a gun in the state where the carrying occurs. Arizona's gun laws are so nonexistent that Jared Loughner, with his history of mental problems and threatening behavior, was a legal concealed carrier until the moment he pulled the trigger outside that Tucson Safeway. He didn't even need a permit to carry, though he could easily have obtained one from Arizona authorities. If he had, under H.R. 822 he could have carried his Glock and its 33-round assault clip into Times Square.

Even conservative senators who aren't troubled by the public safety danger of more people carrying concealed weapons in public places should oppose this bill. Why?

First, when it comes to gun issues, we often hear the refrain from the right, "We don't need new laws, we need to enforce the laws we have." Yet the "Packing Heat on Your Street Act" is a proposed new law that undercuts the authority of states to enforce their existing laws on concealed weapons. Even states that have relatively permissive concealed carry laws still have restrictions that have been built into current law in the interest of public safety.

For example, the State of Arkansas bars concealed carry by persons who have voluntarily committed themselves to a mental institution or who are chronic abusers of alcohol. Under H.R. 822, Arkansas could enforce those restrictions against its own residents, but not against visitors who have licenses to carry from states that lack the same restrictions.

Why should a state's law be unenforceable against visitors from other states?

Second, it should make a difference to conservatives that H.R. 822 involves Congress telling states what laws they can and can't enforce. Conservatives who generally oppose the invasion of state prerogatives by the federal government should blanch at the reach of this bill. Recently Robert VerBruggen of National Review, who thinks "concealed carry is a good idea," nevertheless condemned H.R. 822 as "bad policy from a conservative perspective, as it tramples on states' rights."

As he points out, states now have concealed carry reciprocity agreements with other states, but these are voluntary agreements with other states. Reciprocity forced by the Congress, as in H.R. 822, "goes beyond the proper functions of the federal government," according to VerBruggen.

This is why Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) voted against H.R. 822 in the House Judiciary Committee and on the Floor, even though he wrote Tennessee's permissive concealed carry law when he was in the state legislature. Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Cal.) was one of seven House Republicans to vote against the bill. He cited his "deep and abiding commitment to preserving states' rights."

But what about the Second Amendment? Proponents of H.R. 822 assert that the Second Amendment right to carry a concealed weapon should not stop at the state line and that the Constitution trumps the authority of states to enforce their own gun laws. This assertion invokes the Supreme Court's 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, but in defiance of what the Court actually said in Heller.

The right recognized in Justice Scalia's majority opinion in Heller is that of "law abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home," not the right to carry guns in public. Indeed, Justice Scalia, a conservative judicial icon and no friend of gun control, in determining that this right "is not unlimited," used as an example the fact that "prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons" have been held lawful by courts since the 19th century.

The right to carry concealed weapons across state lines exists only in the fertile constitutional imagination of the gun lobby. Justice Scalia's "originalism" apparently leaves no room for such a right.

Conservatives don't have to believe that concealed carry of loaded guns in public places poses unacceptable risks in order to be opposed to H.R. 822. Principled conservatives -- even those who think concealed carry is a positive good -- should be driven to the same conclusion.

Individuals from across the ideological spectrum should register their opposition to legislation like H.R. 822. Go to www.bradycampaign.org and we'll make it easy for you.

For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009)