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Paul Helmke Headshot

Future of Guns Laws After McDonald

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Listen carefully to the members of the gun lobby; in particular, Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA. Listen carefully not just to what is said, but what isn't. If you listen, you'll hear that even after the landmark Heller and McDonald decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court that gave individuals across the country a right to have a gun in the home for self-defense, the gun lobby still isn't happy.

While Heller and McDonald have taken the extremes in the gun debate off the table, and given us the opportunity to decide what kind of gun restrictions make sense in our communities, that's not the way Wayne LaPierre wants to proceed. In a debate with me on PBS's News Hour the day the McDonald ruling came down, LaPierre rejected every opportunity given to him to accept, or even discuss, reasonable, commonsense gun regulations that this country does and should have.

When PBS Anchor and Moderator Gwen Ifill suggested that more lawsuits were going to follow the June 28 McDonald decision, which applied the 2008 Heller definition of the Second Amendment to states and localities, LaPierre replied, "We're going to have to fight to make sure this constitutional victory isn't transformed into a practical defeat." When Ifill followed up later and asked, "Is there any acceptable limitation on guns?" LaPierre answered, "Let me tell you what we ought to do.... every time a drug dealer, gang member, or violent felon touches a gun, there's 100 percent prosecution..."

When I said that I also believed violent felons ought to be prosecuted fully, but that it makes sense to try to prevent dangerous people from getting dangerous weapons in the first place, LaPierre responded by changing the subject.

His intent, and the intent of the gun lobby, is clear. They are going to fight for their vision of anybody being able to have any gun anywhere in America, all the time. And I believe the courts will continue to reject that vision and endorse sensible restrictions, short of complete handgun bans, that save American lives.

As I reminded News Hour viewers, Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the Court's 5-4 McDonald decision, "repeated the language from Heller that said you can have restrictions on who gets guns, where they take the guns, how guns are sold, how guns are carried, and even how they are stored."

Specifically, in Heller, Justice Antonin Scalia affirmed that "the longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms, are presumptively lawful."

What's more, the 260-plus rulings on challenges to gun laws by lower courts in the two years since Heller give me confidence that the McDonald decision will not undo the few strong gun laws we have on the books.

While Wayne LaPierre and others are already supporting new lawsuits challenging state and local guns laws since the McDonald ruling, let me explain why I think these will fail by giving you hypothetical scenarios of challenges that we believe don't stand a chance, based on these recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions and the lower court rulings.

· A Virginia Tech student files suit against the university's policy prohibiting concealed weapons on campus. Will the McDonald decision have an impact?
We believe the answer is "no," because as a school, a college campus is one of those "sensitive places" that Justice Scalia cited as being allowed to enact gun prohibitions.

· A farmer in Kern County, California files suit against California for prohibiting him from purchasing an AR-15 rifle with a folding stock and scope, which he wants to have for coyote control on his land. How does McDonald relate to this case?

· Justice Scalia also noted that laws protecting Americans from "dangerous and unusual weapons" are "presumptively lawful." An AR-15 is a military-style assault weapon, which elected officials in California have decided is so "dangerous" that they have banned it.

· John Hinckley, Jr., who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the shootings of President Ronald Reagan and Jim Brady, has been approved for extended visits to family away from a D.C. institution for the mentally ill. If he files suit against the federal government for rescinding his gun rights, does McDonald give him a legitimate case?

Again, the answer is "no." The Brady Law specifically prohibits the dangerously mentally ill from being able to buy or own guns, and Justice Scalia alluded to this prohibition in the Heller ruling.

· Brian Borgelt, the former owner of Bull's Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, Washington, which "lost" the gun used by the snipers who murdered 10 and shot three others in the Washington, D.C. area in 2002, files suit against the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for rescinding his federal firearm dealer license. Does the McDonald decision provide support for Borgelt's case?

Absolutely not. The McDonald decision is limited to the right to own a gun in the home and both Scalia in Heller and Alito in McDonald affirmed that federal, state and local governments can put conditions on the sale of firearms.

I encourage those of you who want to help us ensure a safer America -- one where not every gun can be wielded by anybody, anywhere, any time -- to join the Brady Center and Brady Campaign to fight these new challenges.

If you're the DC-area, please come out to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee session on closing the gun show loophole that will take place Wednesday, July 14, at 2 PM in Room 2141 of the Rayburn House Office Building. It's one of many efforts we're pushing to make sure that our communities -- your communities -- are as safe as possible from gun violence.

Paul Helmke is president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Follow the Brady Campaign on Facebook and Twitter.