What do you call it when political leaders respond to what the public perceives as a crisis, like rising magnitudes of gun slaughter, by taking steps that fly in the face of reason, law and history?
I'm reminded of the last lines of "Bridge Over the River Kwai," the 1957 movie about British POWs and their neurotic commander building a wooden span in the steaming Burma wilderness for their Japanese captors during World War II. Its last lines, delivered by Major Clipton: "Madness! ... Madness!"
How better to describe the Arkansas legislature's response, and that of other Southern and Western legislatures, to a gunman's massacre of children at a rural Connecticut school. The answer has been the same after each assault on the public sensibility. The solution to rising gun violence is more guns — in the schools and colleges, in churches, on the square and on the byways. Every study, reinforced by every morning's paper, concludes the opposite, that more guns in the home or anywhere else produces not greater safety but more violence.
Everyone knows the arguments pro and con, including the National Rifle Association's, and the NRA prevails in these parts. But this is about a new round of gun madness, which if there's time at this legislative session will make it into the Arkansas code, at least until there is an occasion for the courts to throw them out.
Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, and Rep. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, introduced separate but similar bills declaring any gun law that Congress enacts unenforceable in Arkansas. That includes bans on semiautomatics and big clips or efforts to register guns. Neither the president nor Congress is proposing gun registration, but the NRA always says that it is in the works.
If there is only one bit of settled law in the United States, it is that states may not block the enforcement of federal laws, whether they are acts of Congress, federal rules or judicial orders. The U.S. Supreme Court held that way in 1896 and uncountable times since then. The Arkansas legislature would be advised to remember just one: Cooper v. Aaron. The legislature and voters had passed laws to thwart the school integration orders of the federal courts, and a unanimous Supreme Court said the state violated the Supremacy Clause and the 14th amendment of the Constitution. Arkansas has paid a heavy price ever since, and the legislature continues to pay it every year.
The promoters of this nonsense usually lay gun regulation and especially registration at the feet of Hitler, although the Treaty of Versailles imposed Germany's strict gun laws after World War I.
For fearful precedents, King and Ballinger should look closer to home: at their own legislative seats. In 1923, the legislature passed Act 430, which prohibited anyone in Arkansas from owning a pistol or revolver unless he got unanimous permission from the sheriff, county judge and county clerk, registered the weapon and paid an annual one-dollar tax to the county school fund to keep it. You had to prove you were in the right occupation and of good character. If you circled "Colored" on the registration form, you were not of proper moral character. If you owned a pistol and did not or could not register it, the sheriff confiscated it and destroyed it and you were fined from $50 to $100.
No one objected that the bill violated the Second Amendment, for the simple reason that the Second Amendment seemed not to prohibit gun regulation but mandate it.
See, the National Revolver Association, part of the NRA, was pushing states to enact tougher gun laws, including requiring people to register their pistols and revolvers and get a permit to carry them. In Arkansas and the rest of the South, the Ku Klux Klan was resurgent. James A. Comer, a lawyer, Republican politician and the Exalted Cyclops of the Realm of Arkansas, organized a KKK political coup in 1922. Klansman Homer Adkins was elected sheriff of Pulaski County and the Klan slate won every legislative seat from Pulaski County and other bailiwicks.
Every day, Arkansas newspapers highlighted blacks somewhere in the South shooting white people. Four years earlier, black sharecroppers who were sore over crop payments met at a church at Hoop Spur in Phillips County one night and someone fired at lawmen who came to break up the meeting, killing one and wounding another. Vigilantes then slew hundreds of black men, women and children and arrested more than 100 blacks. After trials that lasted a few minutes each, 14 were sentenced to die for the "uprising," but the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 19, 1923, said the trials were a sham and stopped the executions. The white public and the newspapers were outraged at the Supreme Court's arrogance.
So the 1923 legislature, like its 2013 progeny, acted rashly and quickly passed the pistol registration law. Sheriff Adkins — later the most conservative governor in Arkansas history — pleaded with Gov. Tom McRae to sign the gun bill so he could secure the countryside from rebellious Negroes and warring bootleggers, and McRae did, on March 19.
But white men were furious about paying a dollar a year to the schools just to own a pistol, and the sheriffs, county judges and clerks were catching flak. The Klan took a shellacking in the 1924 elections. The 1925 legislature decided to just let blacks and bootleggers have their pistols and repealed the law.
The moral: there's always next year.