In May, the Senate voted for an amendment (to the credit card reform bill) pushed by the National Rifle Association allowing individuals to carry loaded guns in national parks, as long as they are in compliance with state law. One purpose of the amendment, according to its sponsor, Senator Tom Coburn (R-Ok), was to allow individual states to make the rules governing gun possession. As Senator Coburn argued on the Senate floor, "we are going to allow the States the right to determine, under their gun laws, who can have a gun and where . . . ."
Just this week, the gun lobby was pushing an amendment (to the Defense Authorization Act) offered by Senator John Thune (R-SD), and supported by Senator Coburn, to allow persons with concealed weapon licenses to carry their guns into other states, even if they are prohibited from possessing guns in those states and even if they have not met the training and other requirements in those states for carrying concealed weapons. As to these non-resident gun-toters, the Thune amendment would virtually nullify a state's gun laws. What happened to the principle that individual states should have "the right to determine, under their gun laws, who can have a gun and where"?
Fortunately, Senator Thune's amendment failed, as it fell two votes short of the sixty needed to stave off a filibuster. Eleven senators who voted for the Coburn amendment turned around and voted against the Thune amendment. Perhaps the "states rights" hypocrisy of the gun lobby became too stark for those senators to bear.
To have voted for both the Coburn and the Thune amendments, a senator would have to believe (a) a state should be able to set its own rules on guns even in federal parks within the state, and (b) a state should not be able to set its own rules on guns carried into the state from other states. Even the most nimble mind would have trouble reconciling those positions.
But wait, say the "gun rights" senators. Isn't there equal inconsistency on the gun control side, with senators like Schumer of New York and Feinstein of California, who usually argue for strong federal gun laws, now defending state prerogatives to regulate guns?
It is true that gun control supporters argue that federal law should supply a "floor" to gun regulation, recognizing that gun traffickers can exploit states with weak gun laws to obtain guns for use in other states where strong laws make guns more difficult for criminals to obtain. But existing federal gun laws expressly do not preempt state laws, thus allowing states to enact regulations more stringent than the federal floor. Indeed, the supporters of both the Coburn and Thune amendments seem to agree that such a floor is a good thing. Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) argued in favor of the Thune amendment by asserting that existing federal gun control laws ameliorate the risk of more dangerous people carrying concealed weapons. Those on both sides of the issue, therefore, seem to agree that federal law should establish some minimum regulatory standards. We are still left grasping for a rationale justifying applying state gun laws to national parks and then nullifying them on concealed weapons.
Actually, there is one way to reconcile support for both Coburn and Thune. Of course, it has nothing to do with good public policy. During the debate on the Thune amendment, Senator David Vitter (R-La) noted that the National Rifle Association was "scoring" the vote, making it clear that senators could lose their NRA "A-rating" with a vote against the amendment. (By the way, is there any other issue where a U.S. senator would be so brazenly political as to point out that a powerful lobby is going to "score" the vote?) Of course, therein lays the answer to our search for consistency. This is not about states making the rules for gun ownership. It's about the NRA making the rules.
For more information, see Dennis Henigan's new book, Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy.