In 1982, Chicago instituted a handgun ban in the hope of cutting down crime. Twenty-eight years later, resident Otis McDonald decided he wanted to own a gun to protect himself in his crime- and drug-ridden neighborhood. Last week, the Supreme Court sided with McDonald in a 5-4 vote, ruling that the federal right to bear arms also applies at the state and local level. Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, calls McDonald v. Chicago a "landmark decision," but says that doesn't mean the NRA's fight to protect the Second Amendment is over. LaPierre spoke with U.S. News about the need for legislation to safeguard the Supreme Court decision and to enforce criminal prosecution of those who obtain guns illegally to commit crimes. [See who in Congress gets the most from gun rights groups.] Excerpts:
What does this ruling mean?
The Second Amendment as an individual right becomes a real part of American constitutional law, and I think that's a vindication for the great majority of Americans who have always believed this is an individual right and worth defending. The question the Supreme Court asked was "do individual citizens have a right to go out and buy and own a firearm?" And the Supreme Court said "yes, anywhere they live." And so this incorporated freedom now has to be a real freedom and, at the NRA, we aren't going to rest until every law-abiding man and woman can get up and go out and buy and own a firearm for personal protection or any other lawful purpose.
How far does this new ruling go?
It clearly reflects something that's at the very core of American consciousness, which is, I have a God-given constitutional right to own a firearm and protect myself. The task now is to make this real, city by city, town by town, and state by state, and to make this constitutional individual right real now for citizens around the country. And only when that happens will the NRA declare a victory.
Will local officials be able to have any say in creating gun laws?
There are always behavioral restrictions on the books which the NRA supports. The drug dealers with guns, gangs with guns, violent felons with guns, they are all prohibited from touching a firearm. Those laws need to be enforced, and the NRA supports them. What the NRA is working for is a program called Project Exile to put laws in every American city under which every time a drug dealer or a gang member or a felon touches a gun, you prosecute the criminals 100 percent of the time and take them off the street and put them in jail. And that's the only thing that works. That program cut crime by 70 percent in Richmond, Virginia the very first year it was put into effect. We put signs on every bus in Richmond saying an illegal gun gets you five years in federal prison. Any law enforcement officer knows that laws mean nothing without jail time and enforcement. More laws and red tape and paperwork against honest citizens do nothing to cut crime rates. Good people ought to have the right to own guns to protect themselves, and bad people ought to be prosecuted and put in jail.
Is there anything about the Supreme Court ruling that you don't like?
I think the real challenge is going to be getting law-abiding citizens access to it. The individual freedom in the Supreme Court decision turns into dust under a blizzard of legislative roadblocks. What if you had to go through roadblocks before you could vote? Or before you could file a petition for habeas corpus? Or before you could attend the church of your choice or practice your religion? The courts repeatedly held that government restrictions that are intended to deny the exercise of constitutional rights are inherently unconstitutional. So I have no doubt that we are going to end up back in court fighting, what I call, cynical politicians for this freedom.
What are the next steps for the NRA?
We are going to keep working to fight for this freedom. It is just words on a piece of paper until someone battles for them. We are one of the last countries in world where citizens have a constitutional right to own a firearm, but they have to fight to protect it. American culture is deeply embedded in the individual right to own a firearm. And the NRA's strength, I've always said, is a reflection of how the American public feels about that freedom. The good news is that the American public overwhelmingly supports this freedom.
Are there any court cases coming up that involve gun rights?
It's almost like what happened after Brown v. Board of Education, when politicians and segregationists tried to deny and prevent the Supreme Court decision from taking effect. In my opinion, this is no different. I don't think people are going to tolerate politicians thumbing their noses not only at their individual rights but also at Supreme Court decisions, treating the Supreme Court like some crazy old uncle and simply disregarding the clear decision. We are going to look city by city to make sure that all law abiding citizens being denied their constitutional freedom will get relief.
How would Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan impact future high court rulings on gun rights?
Her record is the Clinton administration's record, which was one of the most anti-Second Amendment administrations in the history of the United States. The administration believed the Second Amendment applied only to government and not to individual citizens. So we are opposed to her nomination. On the Second Amendment, she says it's settled law. The American public hears that and they think, okay it's a settled individual right I can be calm and go to sleep. What settled law really means inside the beltway, in the coded script, is "it's not settled at all and when I get on the Supreme Court I'm going to destroy it."
What should Congress be doing?
I would hope that Congress in a bipartisan way will join together and make sure that the words in the Supreme Court decision becomes real for all law abiding citizens by legislative actions. [See a slide show of the members of the Supreme Court.]
Are you worried about any negative impact this ruling could have?
No, because bad guys have no protection in the Second Amendment to the Constitution. The whole McDonald decision is about good people and not bad people. Bad people are offered no protection. The point is, the bad guys already have the guns. They couldn't care less about the McDonald case. I think what Otis McDonald was saying is the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. And the good people in Chicago want to be able to protect themselves from the bad people who ought to be in jail. Yet because of a collapsed criminal justice system in Chicago, the bad people are roaming the streets, killing and robbing and raping the good people of that city. There needs to be a whole change in the culture of prosecution at the federal level. We've got the laws to make people safer, but we've got to enforce them.
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