(First op-ed in a NY newspaper which brings up the history of the Sullivan Act.)
Big Tim Sullivan was a notorious Irish gangster whose mob controlled New York City south of 14th Street around the turn of the 20th century. Throwing in his lot with the likes of Monk Eastman, Paul Kelly and Arnold Rothstein, Sullivan became an expert on that dark nexus where organized crime and politics consummate their unholy alliance, and soon became an influential figure in the corrupt Democratic machine there known as Tammany Hall.
He made the relatively easy transition from dangerous street thug and political ward heeler to New York state senator first in 1894. He left Albany in 1903 for a term in the U.S. House of Representatives, and returned to the legislature in 1909 after complaining that he lacked the juice in Washington he'd grown accustomed to on his home turf.
In 1911, the Irish and Jewish mobsters who put him into office faced a growing problem -- the Italians. Immigrant mafiosi newly arrived from Sicily and Naples were horning in on what had once been their exclusive domain. Gunfights on the Lower East Side and the neighborhood around Mulberry Street that was to become Little Italy grew more and more frequent, and it was getting so that you couldn't even shake down a barber shop or a greengrocer without some guy fresh off the boat taking a shot at you.
Not to worry, Big Tim told the boys. And in 1911, he took care of the problem.
The Sullivan Act was passed into law in New York state in 1911 and remains Big Tim's primary legacy. It effectively banned most people from owning and, especially, carrying handguns. Under the onerous conditions of the corrupted law, a peaceable citizen of sound mind could apply for a pistol permit, but if any of a number of elected or appointed officials objected to its issuance, he or she could be denied the license. The law remains in effect to this day and has been used as the basis for gun laws in many other states and municipalities.
One of those is Washington, D.C., which enacted its handgun law in 1973. Like the Sullivan law, it was written as a "may issue" permit statute, rather than the more common "must issue" permit statutes of many states. Under the "may issue" provision, a person can pass a police background check, take a gun safety course and jump through whatever other hoops the law requires, and still be turned down for a permit at the discretion of government officials.
Actual criminals, who have no problem breaking the laws against robbery,rape and murder, routinely ignore the absurd pistol-permitting process.
Last week, a challenge to the D.C. law wound up being argued before the United States Supreme Court. The case stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Dick Anthony Heller, 65, an armed security guard, who sued the district after it rejected his application to keep a handgun at his home for protection. A lower court threw the D.C. statute out, ruling it to be unreasonable and in violation of Heller's rights under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The district appealed, and for the first time in our nation's history, the high court is preparing to rule on what the framers actually meant when they wrote the Second Amendment.
For many, that meaning has long been clear as glass: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
Two clauses that some smart editor might have made into two sentences -- the first of which calls for the establishment of a "well regulated militia," thought by most authorities to be the present National Guard, and the second, "the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed," which needs no interpretation at all. Beginning in the 1960s, however, left-leaning legal theorists and postmodern politicians began putting forth the notion that the Second Amendment had nothing to do with individual rights, that it instead was intended simply to make sure that the state-regulated militia members had guns. This ridiculous reading flew in the face of much that was written by Jefferson, Washington and the other men of action who bought our country's independence with blood and ink and gunpowder, but scant attention was paid.
Guns kill people, the revisionists said. We have the police to protect us, and the truths of 1776 have no place in 20th century society.
Big Tim Sullivan's law was mimeographed, retyped and copied out by hand, and sent around to state capitols and city halls around the country, where politicians -- primarily liberal Democrats -- took up his tainted cause.
The old gangster would have gotten a laugh had he lived to see the results of his crooked efforts. But a year after the Sullivan Act was passed in Albany, he went insane -- the result, it is said, of tertiary syphilis -- and was placed in a lunatic asylum. A year after that, he escaped, lay down on some railroad tracks up in the Bronx and was cut into three ragged pieces by a slow-moving freight train.
As a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat of nearly 35 years' standing, I never thought I'd say this, but thank goodness for Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. They are the majority on the first high court in our nation's history to have the courage to tackle the Second Amendment issue head on.
And if the statements they made and the questions they asked last week as attorneys presented their oral arguments in the case are any indication, D.C. residents and those throughout the country may be liberated from the most outlandish and onerous gun control measures the states and cities have been able to pass in the four decades since the silly "Summer of Love" turned this great nation of ours on its head.
To begin with, the five justices clearly indicated that the "well regulated militia" clause is indeed separate from the "keep and bear arms" clause, and that alone is a huge step forward. How exactly they will rule on the specifics of the Washington law is less clear, but any easing of the restrictions it carries will represent a huge victory for gun owners everywhere.
Once the court sets its precedent, New York's Sullivan Act seems a likely next target for challenge by downtrodden gun owners whose rights have been violated for far too long.
Gun control has been a losing issue for Democrats for decades, and in national elections has cost them most of the western and southern states, as well as helping to create "swing states" out of such traditionally Democratic bastions as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Florida.
If Sen. John McCain has any sense, he'll use the Republican-appointed Supreme Court majority's decision, which will be handed down well before November, as a major campaign issue, pointing to either Sen. Hillary Clinton's or Sen. Barack Obama's past anti-gun stances.
And if Clinton and Obama have any sense -- which, thus far, they haven't shown they have -- they will avoid the gun issue like the plague, zipping their lips and acknowledging the Supreme Court's mandate to interpret questions regarding the Constitution. If they don't, they'll be handing the election to the GOP on a silver platter.
Since its ratification by congress on September 21, 1789, the Second Amendment has never before been interpreted as to its actual meaning and intent by the Supreme Court.
Hopefully, once the justices have done the right thing by Jefferson, Washington, and the American people, the matter will not come up again for another 219 years, at least.