From left: Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Beto O’Rourke, and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro during the Democratic presidential debate in Houston, Texas, September 12, 2019. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
At the Democratic-primary debate in Houston last night, Beto O’Rourke formally killed off one of the gun-control movement’s favorite taunts: The famous “Nobody is coming for your guns, wingnut.” Asked bluntly whether he was proposing confiscation, O’Rourke abandoned the disingenuous euphemisms that have hitherto marked his descent into extremism, and confirmed as plainly as can be that he was. “Hell yes,” he said, “we’re going to take your AR-15.”
O’Rourke’s plan has been endorsed in full by Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, and is now insinuating its way into the manifestos of gun-control groups nationwide. Presumably, this was O’Rourke’s intention. But he — and his party — would do well to remember that there is a vast gap between the one-upmanship and playacting that is de rigueur during primary season, and the harsh reality on the ground. Prohibition has never been well received in America, and guns have proven no exception to that rule. In New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, attempts at the confiscation of “high capacity” magazines and the registration of “assault weapons” have both fallen embarrassingly flat — to the point that the police have simply refused to aid enforcement or to prosecute the dissenters. Does Beto, who must know this, expect the result to be different in Texas, Wyoming, or Florida? Earlier this week, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives was unable to marshal enough votes to pass a ban on the sale of “assault weapons” — let alone to mount a confiscation drive. Sorry, Robert Francis. That dog ain’t gonna hunt.
And nor should it, for O’Rourke’s policy is spectacularly unconstitutional. The AR-15 is the most popular rifle in America by a considerable margin, and is therefore clearly protected by the “in common use” standard that was laid out in D.C. v. Heller. Put as baldly as possible, confiscation is not a program that the federal government is permitted to adopt.
It is also a disaster on its own merits. Much has been made of the fact that an attempt to round up millions of guns would obviously be met with widespread non-compliance. Much has been made, too, of the fact that this is an odd target for a country-dividing panic, given that rifles of all types are used less frequently in murder than hands and fists, than handguns, and than knives. Less, however, has been made of the fact that such an attempt can not even be squared with characterizations of American life that O’Rourke, Booker, and Harris are themselves fond of making. If the trio’s testimony is to be believed, America is a deeply unequal place in which minorities and the poor bear the brunt of draconian legislation while wealthier and better-connected people romp scot free — which, if true, would lead one to expect a little less bravado in defense of what would be the most significant federal crackdown since the start of the War on Drugs than a self-congratulatory “Hell yes.” Such are the perils of making policy by T-shirt slogan.
For years, advocates of the right to keep and bear arms have suspected that confiscation was the endgame but have been rebuffed as paranoiacs in the press. Such a rebuffing is no longer possible. If it ever was, “Nobody is coming for your guns!” is no longer true — which means that a host of commonly posed inquiries now have the same simple answer. “Why do you oppose federal licensing?” Because leading Democrats are threatening confiscation. “Why do you oppose ‘universal’ background checks?” Because they would create a registry. “And why do you oppose a registry?” Because leading Democrats are threatening confiscation. Unwittingly or not, O’Rourke and his acolytes have stuck a dagger into the exquisitely calibrated gun-control messaging on which their party has worked for the better part of 20 years. No voter can now say he wasn’t warned.