OP-ED: Defending the Constitution and Semi-Automatic Firearms

GovWeldGovernor William Weld. Johnson/Weld 2016 on Flickr.

Being a committed supporter of the Constitution means that I support the First Amendment, the Second Amendment, and the entire Bill of Rights.


The rights to speech, association and the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment are fundamental to our Republic.

The same is true for the Second Amendment, which keeps Congress from infringing on Americans’ right to keep and to bear arms. Indeed, the Second Amendment helps insure the First.

Fortunately, in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Second Amendment when it overturned a District of Columbia law banning the possession of a licensed and fully operational firearm. I agree with the D.C. v. Heller decision. Politicians can’t simply ignore part the Constitution because they think it doesn’t or shouldn’t apply in today’s society.

Shortly before I was nominated as the running mate to join former Gov. Gary Johnson on the Libertarian Party ticket, one of the delegates asked me where I stood on gun rights. I replied: “I would not support any bill to outlaw classes of weapons unless it was a gun that could fire a tactical nuclear weapon.”

It was a joke, but only to a certain point. As Heller itself recognized, the Second Amendment doesn’t mean that certain weapons with extraordinary killing power are not subject to regulation.


That has been the law of the land since the National Firearms Act of 1934, and the sale of, for example, fully automatic weapons has been banned since 1986.

While the Heller decision affirmed the individual’s right to keep and bear arms, it also affirmed that the Constitution specifically permits “laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms”.

Whether a law passes Second Amendment muster depends upon whether law-abiding individuals may continue to enjoy the right to own and use, if necessary, a firearm for lawful self-defense.

Owning rifles and handguns has long been a means of self-defense. Certainly, firearms are also capable of deadly violence. The same can be said for cars and airplanes. All such violent crimes should be vigorously punished.

But what should our government do with the call to regulate or ban semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15. It is perhaps the most widely used rifle in the U.S., with more than 20 million of them. While handguns are more widely used to commit violent crime, semi-automatic weapons receive the sensational headlines after episodes of tragic violence. In fact, certain models of the AR-15 were among those rifles banned during the 10 years, from 1994 to 2004, in which the Assault Weapons Ban was in force.


The problem with banning semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 is that it is functionally no different from a standard hunting rifle. It fires one shot per trigger pull, and it cannot be fired as a machine gun. So the 1994 law ended up banning some semi-automatic weapons while exempting 650 types of functionally equivalent guns – Brownings, Remingtons, and Berettas. That wasn’t good law-making.

However, it makes sense to draw a clear line between legitimate semiautomatic weapons and fully automatic ones. If you hold the trigger on a machine gun, it fires repeatedly. Hence it is an “automatic” weapon. Federal law imposes strict penalties on the possession or sale of machine guns.

It’s also the case that the law defines as a “machine gun” the receiver of a machine gun, and any parts that are designed to turn the gun into a fully automatic weapon. Such a conversion is also highly illegal.

For example, if a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle is assembled with its M16 military-grade parts and is capable of fully automatic fire, it becomes contraband. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms issued a bulletin warning about this combination, which it said would “shoot automatically by manipulation of the selector or removal of the disconnector.”


While it’s possible to build a machine gun receiver from scratch, it is not something that everyday gun owners can do easily. The truth of the matter is that you cannot walk into a gun shop today and buy a fully automatic weapon unless you possess an expensive and difficult-to-obtain federal permit and are purchasing it from a federally licensed dealer.

Too many in our nation talk past one another on firearms and the Second Amendment. I support the Constitutional right to keep and bear firearms.

Gov. Bill Weld is the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential nominee. The former Massachusetts governor is running mate with Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico. Learn more at http://www.JohnsonWeld.com.


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