Gun Control, Civil Rights, and Avoiding Orwellian Dystopia in the Age of Trump
It’s tempting to equate conservative fear over losing the right to guns with liberal fear over losing civil liberties. After all, they’re two of the major pressure points each side pushes during almost every partisan debate. They're also the main things each side tells the other side to quit whining about when the feared party comes to power. Historically, however, one is a more pressing and realistic fear than the other. For example, while propaganda machines and fear mongers said Obama was coming for our guns from before his first inauguration all the way through the end of 2016, the actual record shows otherwise. Gun owners actually came out of 2016 with more gun rights than they had in 2008 under George W. Bush.
Seriously. Rhetoric aside, let’s look at Obama’s actual gun record. Over eight years in office, President Obama passed only two gun laws, both in his first term, while he controlled both Congressional houses. In 2009, Obama passed a law expanding gun owner’s rights, allowing them to carry unloaded firearms in checked baggage on Amtrak. This move reversed a ban put into place during the Bush years and after 9/11. In Feb. 2010, President Obama passed another law expanding gun owner’s rights, allowing licensed owners to carry loaded firearms into various national parks and wildlife refuges, including the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone, as long as doing so didn’t violate any existing state laws. The move, which the NRA supported, went against gun-control advocates. Restrictions Obama passed and/or heavily advocated for through executive action included improved background checks, especially for certain types of weapons sold or purchased through a trust, corporation, or other legal entity (i.e. not person to person). These background check improvements also expanded the licensing and background check requirements to people “in the business of selling” firearms no matter where they conducted the sale (i.e. online or at gun shows).
These licensing and background check requirements did not, however, apply—as some conservatives claimed—to individuals selling a single gun out of their personal collection (what’s considered a “one-off” sale). In fact, the language specifically exempts anyone “who makes occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms.” Obama’s actions also included working with individual states to more adequately track persons who are prohibited under existing laws from possessing a firearm, such as felons, the mentally ill, and those with disqualifying domestic violence charges. (The executive actions also expanded mental health services—a move President Trump should be on board with, if recent comments are to be believed.) President Obama also established an Internet Investigation Center to track firearm sales made illegally over the internet, and increased funding to hire additional FBI staff and ATF agents to process background checks and enforce existing laws. In fact, though a 2016 rumor claimed that Obama had signed an executive order banning assault rifles, that rumor ultimately was proven false. (Though many conservatives still believe it happened.) He did mention in a 2016 speech that he wanted to make it "harder for people who want to kill Americans to get their hands on assault weapons that are capable of killing dozens of innocents as quickly as possible,” but none of the actions or laws that he signed or proposed actually banned the weapons. Instead, he focused, as mentioned above, on improving background checks to ensure that only those legally allowed guns—and sane enough to have them—were able to obtain them. Doesn’t sound much like "taking away our guns,” does it? Especially when Obama himself said, "I believe in the Second Amendment. It’s there written on the paper. It guarantees a right to bear arms. No matter how many times people try to twist my words around—I taught constitutional law, I know a little about this. I get it.” It’s plain then, that the hub-bub surrounding President Obama and guns was significantly overstated. Sadly, after only four days in the Trump presidency, it doesn’t look like the same can be said for President Trump and civil liberties. To begin with, the Civil Rights page from the Obama White House website - listed as the top issue on the site - was immediately taken down by the Trump administration on January 20. When you hover over Issues on the current administration’s website, nothing remotely related to civil rights or liberties appears. It isn’t even a useful search. (Searching “civil rights” on the current site produces little but a number of profiles on various presidents. Nothing on current events.) Trump’s current pick to lead the CIA also has seemingly softened his opinionon waterboarding and other torture tactics, stating that he is open to revisiting the army field manual if it can be shown to be an “impediment to gathering vital intelligence to protect the country.” He also said he is open to initiating changes to increase the amount and kind of information the government can obtain and keep on citizens, especially if that information comes into U.S. government hands via foreign officers, individuals, or agencies, as long as it arrived without the express request of the CIA. This is important considering Russia’s hand in recent events. (Strangely enough, by the time I went to search for Pompeo’s written statements, they were no longer available on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence website. Thankfully, they were archived by Google at the time of this writing. However, as of 4/2/17 the archived link no longer works.) This Monday, January 23, Tump also re-instated the Mexico City Policy, also known as the Global Gag Rule, despite the United Nations’ firm stance that reproductive rights are human rights. A day later, on January 24, Trump’s administration ordered a media blackout for both the USDA and the EPA, along with several other agencies, banning them from communicating with reporters or the public, whether via social media or other conventional methods. (The move was made, many claim, after the National Park Service re-tweeted side-by-side pictures showing the difference in crowd size from the 2009 and 2017 inaugurations.) One National Park tweeter defied the president’s gag order, sending out three climate-related tweets, which went viral before being deleted. According to the AP, “The South Dakota park posted tweets Tuesday that accurately quoted climate science data, including the current record-setting high concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. President Donald Trump has called climate change a hoax.” Piling bad on top of worse, the new administration also has made it harder for the public to talk back – at least without revealing too much information about ourselves. As of today, the public comments line at the White House is no long listed on the Get In Touch page. You can obtain the comments number through Google, but you’re rewarded only with an automated message telling you (at least, as of 6:54 p.m. Central on January 24) to contact the president via emailor a direct message on Facebook. It took me several minutes to find the FB page after calling the cached number, as there is no White House page other than the historical Obama page, but I did manage to find it by searching “POTUS.” These two options, however, practically eliminate commenting anonymously (something that could have been done previously via a public telephone), unless you want to set up an entirely fake email account and/or FB account for this single purpose. Republican congressmen are also jumping on the bandwagon, filing a record number of bills to trample on the rights of everyday citizens, dissenters, and/or women, including a six-week nationwide abortion ban, anti-picketing laws, and a bill that would make it okay for a motorist to kill a protestor if the protestor was obstructing a public highway. All together, it’s been only four days since Trump’s inauguration, and we already have press secretaries distributing disinformation, government-ordered media black outs, executive actions that deny human rights, the introduction of bills that restrict civil and constitutionally protected liberties, and double-speak phrases like “alternative facts.” I’m beginning to think 1984 is our new administration’s operating manual, and that should scare all of us – liberals and conservatives alike. After all, neither liberties nor firearms were allowed in Orwell’s dystopia.