In Colorado and Connecticut, the Gun-Rights Fight Gets Local

Gun rights advocates from Connecticut fill the hallways of the Capitol in Hartford, Conn., on April 3 Photograph by Charles Krupa/AP Photo

“The NRA” is not just the NRA.

Gun-control advocates alternatively marvel at and condemn the effectiveness of the National Rifle Association. Liberals mistakenly accuse the gun lobby of being in the thrall of firearm manufacturers when, if anything, the opposite is true: The NRA leads the industry around by the ear.

NRA foes also fixate on the organization’s dues-paying membership, which has jumped since the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., and now approaches 5 million, according to the NRA. Still, skeptics demand, why should a mere 5 million people set national gun-control policy? The question betrays a misunderstanding of the reach and appeal of gun rights in the U.S.

Gun-rights advocacy does not begin and end with the political pressure exerted by the national office of the NRA. It also flows from hundreds and hundreds of state and local gun and hunting groups, which may or may not formally affiliate themselves with the NRA and many of whose members do not pay dues to the Washington organization.

That’s evident from lawsuits that lately have been filed by local activists challenging the constitutionality of newly enacted state-level gun-control measures in Connecticut and Colorado. While pro-gun forces blocked the U.S. Senate in April from approving President Obama’s gun-control initiative, several states have moved ahead with their own laws imposing stringent restrictions on military-style semiautomatic rifles (“assault weapons”) and large-capacity ammunition magazines. Gun-rights groups, most of them small and organized at the state level, have now gone to court to seek the invalidation of the state laws as violations of the Second Amendment’s protection of the right to “keep and bear arms.”

In a May 22 suit filed in federal court in Bridgeport, the Connecticut Citizen’s Defense League (membership: 7,600), the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen (35,000 members), a couple of local gun shops, and several individuals are seeking to kill new curbs on potent weapons. Among the individual plaintiffs are a pistol-packing 80-year-old widow who lives alone, a rabbi whose synagogue was burglarized, and a disabled former Navy SEAL team member. Talk about a portrait of America. These are law-abiding citizens, and they don’t want to be told what kind of guns they can purchase to protect themselves.

In Colorado, host of the 2012 Aurora movie theater massacre and the 1999 Columbine high school killings, 54 county sheriffs teamed up with a gun industry trade association to file suit against that state’s new laws banning magazines holding more than 15 rounds and requiring more comprehensive background checks of gun buyers.

As a matter of Second Amendment jurisprudence, it will be fascinating to see how the courts deal with these challenges. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Heller case that jurisdictions could not ban homeowners from keeping handguns for security. The majority opinion emphasized, however, that less aggressive forms of gun control would remain permissible under the Second Amendment. Do the Colorado and Connecticut provisions pass constitutional muster? According to my reading of Heller, the answer is yes. The popularly elected legislatures of these states have spoken—after intense debate—and I think the judiciary ought to step back and let democratic politics control. But last I checked, no one has nominated me to the federal bench.

However the state laws fare, the suits attacking them will become potent fundraising tools for pro-gun activist groups, ranging from the Connecticut sportsmen to the NRA. And if Democrats try to revive their attempt to pass stricter laws at the national level, you can count on the NRA to rally red state allies not to follow the examples set by Colorado and Connecticut. The energy and focus of the gun-rights movement should not be underestimated.

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