07/04/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Biggest Triumph So Far for Gun Rights Advocates

Not so long ago, "liberal" U.S. opinion leaders felt firearms, at least handguns, could and should be banned in the United States. They did not regard the Second Amendment as a barrier to achieving this goal. In fact, they derided the Second Amendment as having nothing to do with an individual's right to keep and bear arms. They argued that, despite its being included in the Bill of Rights, the Second Amendment guaranteed the states a right to maintain a militia. The ACLU, which enthusiastically supported practically all arguments in favor of expanding rights, would not side with gun owners in asserting the people's right to keep and bear arms.

Proponents of gun owners' rights were called paranoid when they purported to see a gun control movement that aimed to make the U.S. gun free. However, the so-called paranoia started to look like political realism in 1991 when the Communitarian Network, an organization led by noted sociologist Amitai Etzioni, issued a high profile "Case For Domestic Disarmament." proposing a ban on handguns for everyone except military and law enforcement personnel, licensed pistol clubs. security services, and collectors. This manifesto was signed by 75 prominent academics, politicians, and other opinion leaders, including Independent Party presidential candidate John Anderson, former Illinois senator Adlai Stevenson III, former FCC chairman Newton Minow, former San Antonio mayor (and later secretary of Housing and Urban Development) Henry Cisneros, and many prominent academics including Benjamin Barber (Rutgers), John Coffee (Columbia), John Gardner (Stanford), Mary Ann Glendon (Harvard), Albert O. Hirschman (Princeton), Charles Moskos (Northwestern), Philip Selznick (Berkeley). Lester Thurow (MIT) and dozens of others. To these leaders and intellectuals the Second Amendment was an embarrassment. So was the very existence of firearms in civilian hands in a country wishing to call itself civilized.

In 1993, when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency, Congress passed the first federal gun control legislation in 30 years. That law required federally licensed firearms dealers to obtain a government background check on prospective firearms purchasers before completing a sale. Some of the Brady Law's proponents heralded it as proof that the National Rifle Association was no longer an insuperable impediment to real gun control. They were further heartened when Congress passed the Assault Rifle Ban; never mind that assault rifles hardly ever appeared in crimes and that there was no agreed upon definition of what an assault rifle is. All sorts of new gun control proposals appeared -- waiting periods, one-gun-per-month, trigger locks, smart guns, manufacturers' tort liability and registration. How, if at all, these proposals were linked to crime fighting was not clear. Meanwhile, the nation's violent crime rate began to plummet.

The Republican landslide in 1994 persuaded many Democrats that gun control was a losing political issue. Moreover, some politically savvy observers blamed Al Gore's defeat in the 2000 election on his support for some gun controls. Thereafter, the Democrats more or less abandoned gun control as a political issue. Momentum shifted to gun owners who began passing gun rights legislation at the state level and challenging gun controls in court. In 2004, The Assault Rifle ban was allowed to sunset with hardly a voice raised in its support. In just one decade it had gone from being an essential tool in the war on crime to an irrelevancy. They won a stunning victory in 2005 when Congress passed and the president signed a law extending to firearms manufacturers immunity from tort suits.

Today's Heller decision marks the biggest triumph so far for gun rights advocates. It establishes what was for so long denied, that the Bill of Rights guarantees individual Americans a right to keep and bear arms. The Second Amendment is now recognized as protecting Americans from ever being disarmed by their (federal) government. Debate will now ensue as to what this right entails and when it must bend to other rights and strong societal interests. But the gun control debate and American politics will never be the same.