Earlier this month, Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff wrote to California Senator Dianne Feinstein and stated that he opposed gun legislation she is proposing. Sniff noted that he does not enforce federal gun control laws, but said he wanted Feinstein to know, from a law enforcement perspective, why the law does not work as presently drafted.
Sniff allows that there are legitimate reasons for banning or restricting certain types of automatic weapons from civilians’ possession, but that the approach Feinstein is taking is overly broad. In his Feb. 1 letter, Sniff objected to the proposed ban on weapons that have long been in legitimate use for hunting, competition and sporting purposes for generations of Americans, for over a century.
Sniff said his problem with Feinstein’s “Assault Weapons Ban of 2013” is the overly broad focus on what he calls cosmetic features that can be added to an assault weapon’s basic platform. He acknowledges some of those features could be banned or regulated as appropriate only for law enforcement or military use. But he noted the basic platform, of say the AR-15, is widely customizable for legitimate and currently legal use without adding additional cosmetic features that could elevate the rifle’s purpose to one for law enforcement or military purpose, to be used only by those organizations, but not by civilians.
Sniff believes Feinstein’s bill does not acknowledge the distinction between rifles customized for military as opposed to civilian use. Consequently, if passed, the legislation would result in the wholesale prohibition of guns with longstanding legitimate civilian use, according to Sniff. He believes the prohibitions are too wide-sweeping, and fail to differentiate between what is clearly a military rifle, customized to be effective for battlefield use, and the same platform customized for legal civilian use.
Sniff made the analogy that a formula racecar shell can be very different from an identical shell with more high-powered and different technological components.
Sniff makes an interesting distinction in his letter, noting that rural areas, like the Hill, that are far removed from law enforcement have different needs. He states, “It would seem that same self-defense use for our citizens, not in law enforcement, in much of our nation’s rural areas, should also be part of their inherent right pursuant to the Second Amendment. In this same fashion, some of the shotguns you seek to ban are used by our officers and should also be available to citizens for hunting, recreation and self-defense as well. Again the cosmetic attributes seem to be the defining criteria.”
Sniff suggested legislators should distinguish between what an assault rifle looks like and what it does or is capable of doing. “I think it’s always important to weigh out what is reasonable,” said Sniff. “I’ll look at each restriction and if it makes sense I’ll enforce it.”
The Second Amendment has long had advocates citing very different interpretations. It is the only amendment to have its own preamble that refers to the right for citizen militias to arm. The key question in this amendment that is often faulted for its ambiguity is whether the drafters intended the right to bear arms be limited to state militias. The amendment was drafted prior to the formation of a national army, and the mention of militias was designed, in part, to keep the federal government from running roughshod over the rights of the states and citizens.
For many years, until 2008, the Supreme Court interpreted the amendment favoring the militia interpretation. But in a 2008 case, District of Columbia v. Heller, Justice Scalia writing for the majority, focused on the second clause, after the preamble, which states, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Even though Scalia sees the broader right, what is not clear in the wording is whether the drafters meant “people” as individuals, or “people” in the collective as participants in armed militias.
Scalia argued that “people” meant individuals and the Second Amendment granted citizens the right to bear arms for self-defense and other legitimate purposes, not related to militias. But even in the Heller decision there are exceptions that allow bans for certain guns that don’t have legitimate civilian purpose.
California already has in place restrictive assault weapon and other gun controls.