After a series of new laws under the administration of President Bill Clinton instituted background checks for handgun purchases and banned assault weapons, gun rights took a significant step forward during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration that followed.
Although Bush himself supported several mild gun control measures and vowed to sign a renewal of the Assault Weapons Ban if it reached his desk, his administration saw several advancements of gun rights on the federal level, especially in the courts.
A Supporter of ‘Common Sense’ Gun Control
In debates during both the 2000 and the 2004 presidential campaign, Bush stated his support for background checks for gun buyers and for trigger locks. Additionally, he said on multiple occasions that the minimum age for carrying a handgun should be 21, not 18.
However, Bush’s support for background checks stopped at instant checks that did not require waiting periods of three or five days. And his push for trigger locks extended only to voluntary programs. During his administration as governor of Texas, Bush implemented a program that provided voluntary trigger locks through police stations and fire departments. During the 2000 campaign, he called for Congress to spend $325 million in matching funds to enable state and local governments across the country to set up similar voluntary trigger lock programs. While his advocacy was for voluntary trigger locks, Bush said at one point during the 2000 campaign that he would sign a law requiring trigger locks for all handguns.
On the other hand, Bush was an opponent of state and federal lawsuits against firearms manufacturers. An 11th hour victory of the Clinton administration was a landmark deal with firearms manufacturer Smith & Wesson that would see lawsuits cease in exchange for the company including trigger locks with gun sales and implementing smart gun technology. Early in his presidency, Bush’s stance on gun industry lawsuits led to Smith & Wesson withdrawing from its promises made to the Clinton White House. In 2005, Bush signed legislation providing the gun industry federal protection against lawsuits.
The Assault Weapons Ban
With the Assault Weapons Ban set to expire before the next presidential term was complete, Bush stated his support for the ban during the 2000 presidential campaign but stopped short of pledging to sign an extension.
As the 2004 expiration date neared, however, the Bush administration signaled its willingness to sign legislation that either extended the ban or made it permanent. “[Bush] supports reauthorization of the current law,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters in 2003, as debate over the gun ban began to heat up.
Bush’s position on the ban represented a break from the National Rifle Association, which had been one of his administration’s staunchest allies. But the September 2004 deadline for renewing the ban came and went without an extension making it to the president’s desk, as the Republican-led Congress declined to take up the matter. The result was criticism on Bush from both sides: the gun owners who felt betrayed and the gun ban proponents who felt he did not do enough to pressure Congress into passing the AWB extension.
“There are a lot of gun owners who worked hard to put President Bush into office, and there are a lot of gun owners who feel betrayed by him,” keepandbeararms.com publisher Angel Shamaya told the New York Times. “In a secret deal, [Bush] chose his powerful friends in the gun lobby over the police officers and families he promised to protect,” said U.S. Sen. John Kerry, Bush’s opponent in the looming 2004 presidential election.
Supreme Court Appointments
Despite a cloudy picture on his overall stance on gun rights, the lasting legacy of the Bush administration will be his appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court. John Roberts was nominated by Bush to replace William Rehnquist in 2005. Later that same year, Bush nominated Samuel Alito to replace Sandra Day O’Connor on the high court.
Three years later, the court took up arguments in District of Columbia v. Heller, a critical case revolving around the District’s 25-year handgun ban. In a landmark ruling, the court knocked down the ban as unconstitutional and ruled for the first time that the Second Amendment applies to individuals, providing a right to own guns for self-defense inside the home. Both Roberts and Alito ruled with the majority in a narrow 5-4 decision.
Just 12 months after the Heller decision, another monumental gun rights case made its way before the court. In McDonald v. Chicago, the court struck down a gun ban in the city of Chicago as unconstitutional, ruling for the first time that the gun owner protections of the Second Amendment apply to states as well as to the federal government. Again, Roberts and Alito sided with the majority in a 5-4 decision.