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Shotgun News, April 1, 2007, pp. 26-27

Is Compromise A Dirty Word?

 I know how a lot of gun rights activists feel when they hear that dirty word “compromise.”  I was in Maryland recently promoting my new book, and I had the privilege of meeting with several pro-gun members of the Maryland legislature, from both parties.  They were confronting two difficult problems: how to prevent their fellow legislators from passing an “assault weapon” ban, and the even more difficult problem of how to pass a “shall issue” concealed handgun license law.  What I found depressing was that not only were they having to worry about about how to outmaneuver gun control advocates, but also some gun rights activists!

Compromise is a dirty word for gun rights activists, and with good reason.   Over the last thirty years, politicians who claimed to be our friends have told us, “Be reasonable.  We gotta compromise with the gun control crowd!”  But giving up some of our rights this year, and maybe some more rights a few years hence, isn't “compromise”: it's losing our Second Amendment rights on the installment plan.  As a fellow gun rights activist in California used to point out, “compromise means you give up something and I give up something so that we both get part of what we want.  It doesn't mean that I give you half of what you want, and I get nothing.”  Got that?  Both sides give up something to get something that both sides want.

A really skilled deal maker gives up something that he doesn't care too much about in exchange for something that he really wants.  For example, in 1961, legislators in Washington State came up with a compromise about concealed handgun licenses.  Gun control forces wanted unlicensed concealed carry to be a felony; our side traded that for what was, at the time, an extraordinary law, requiring issuance of a concealed handgun license to anyone who could legally own a handgun, regardless of whether they were a Washington State resident or not.  You might not see that as a reasonable exchange, but at the time, this was a pretty astonishing swap.

Similarly, in 1989, Vera Katz, Speaker of the lower house of the Oregon legislature, wanted a 15 day waiting period on handgun purchases.  Pro-gun legislators compromised with her—and Oregon went from a discretionary concealed handgun license to shall issue.  In Multnomah County, where Portland is, there were eleven licenses in 1988.  Ten years later, there were 11,907.[1]  Would you say that was a reasonable compromise?

Compromises aren't forever.  Remember that supporters of restrictive gun control, no matter how extreme their long-term goals might be, know that they won't get everything they want in a single law.  Nelson “Pete” Shields, Jr., the second chairman of Handgun Control, Inc., (the first was a retired CIA official) explained in 1976 what his long-term goal was—a ban on handgun ownership by civilians with a few limited exceptions.  He did not expect to get to his goal all at once.  He thought it was possible to get there one law at a time.  He compared it to trying to get a whole loaf of bread, and suggested that it was more realistic to get it by taking one slice at a time.[2]  Shields obviously knew what he was talking about as a political strategy; for a number of years, his organization took enough slices to start a sandwich shop made from our gun rights.

That same strategy can work the other direction, too.  We can get our rights back one slice at a time—and usually it will involve some compromises.  For example, Alaska was one of the states that adopted a shall-issue concealed handgun license a few years back.  We had a number of opponents, and the first version of the law had all sorts of annoying prohibitions on where one could carry[3]—and a provision that allowed cities by popular vote to completely ban concealed carry.[4]  But guess what?  Alaska now has “Vermont-carry”: the legislature finally scrapped the requirement for a permit.[5]  Similarly, Texas's shall-issue concealed carry law had a number of restrictions on where you were allowed to carry—but over several years, the Texas legislature kept making subtle improvements. 

The concealed handgun law that your legislators may be considering right now may not be perfect—but is it better than the law you have now?  If it is, instead of accusing your legislators of “selling out” to the other side, see this as one slice towards your eventual goal.

Compromise can also mean giving our opponents a meaningless trophy.  Remember that most politicians don't really care about gun control.  They want to be able to tell their constituents, “I did something about crime!  I sponsored a tough gun control law!”  (Try not to laugh when you read those two sentences—many Americans don't recognize those ideas as logically unconnected.)  While I would never be happy with a law that treated assault weapons as “special,” consider this scenario: legislators on our side count noses and figure out that the gun control forces have enough votes to pass a ban on assault weapons.  Some of those votes are legislators who, as I said, don't really care strongly about such a ban—they just want their home town newspaper to not say nasty things about them.  What to do?

Here's an approach to consider if you live in one of the small number of states that do not yet have a shall-issue carry law.  If it looks like an assault weapon ban is going to pass, our side could propose a compromise—you know, they give up something and we give up something.  We could propose an alternative to a ban that instead required a concealed weapon permit to transfer or possess an assault weapon—and have the same bill require that concealed weapon permits be issued to anyone that can legally own a gun.  Legislators can go home and say, “We did something about assault weapons!”  Gun control extremists could try to torpedo such a “compromise,” and make themselves look like extremists (you know, like the news media portray gun rights activists).  If the compromise bill passes into law, we get something that we really want—shall-issue carry permits, without an assault weapon ban.

Now, compromises such as the one that I just mentioned don't sit well with me.  The category of firearms with the strongest claim of being protected by the Second Amendment are assault weapons—guns that would be most effective at overthrowing a tyrannical government.  As Rep. Robert Dornan (R-CA) pointed out in debate some years ago on the floor of Congress, the Second Amendment isn't about making Huey, Dewey, and Louie into orphan ducklings, but about fighting dictators.  I would not propose such a compromise unless there was a strong possibility that the legislature was going to pass a ban on assault weapons anyway.  That said, if your choice is a complete ban that gets us nothing in return, or an annoying restriction on assault weapons plus a shall issue carry permit law—well, is compromise really such a dirty word?

There's always a risk when you pass a law that it will be used against you later.  For example, a license fee for a concealed handgun license might be set at $50 for a four year license—which isn't particularly high.  A later legislature might raise the fee to $500—strongly discouraging poor people from obtaining permits.  Think about it for a while, and you can certainly imagine how laws that we get passed can be amended by a later legislature to subvert the original intent.  But what's the alternative?  Shouting loudly that, “We're not willing to compromise” may make you feel good, but it isn't going to do much if the other side has enough votes to pass their bill.

As I said before, laws aren't like diamonds; they are not forever.  It would not be difficult to include in such a compromise law a requirement that the state department of justice record detailed information on all crimes committed with assault weapons (however the legislation chooses to define them).  Anyone who is familiar with the existing scholarly literature on the subject knows that such a study will show that unless the definition is extremely broad (all semiautomatic weapons, for example), the number of crimes recorded will be tiny—a fraction of 1% of all murders, and not even that high for crimes such as robbery.[6]  Two or three years later, the legislature can revisit the issue, and use the data collected from that study to ask, “What was the big deal about assault weapons?”

There's a saying that politicians are like diapers: both need to be changed often, and for the same reason.  Like many stereotypes, there's some truth to it, but do not let the average blind you to those legislators who are on our side.  You should never let yourself get too trusting of politicians, but remember that a pro-gun legislator probably knows a lot better than you do what makes our opponents in the legislature tick.  He knows what is possible in any given session, with the personalities and pressure groups involved.  A reflexive assumption that every legislator has to be mistrusted will, over time, damage the willingness of pro-gun legislators to draft and push pro-gun bills.  It's bad enough having the news media insult you for being pro-gun—the last thing they need is for our side to be treating them like the enemy.


Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer and historian. His sixth book, Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie (Nelson Current, 2007), is available in bookstores.  His web site is

[1]    Patty Wentz, “Packing Heat,” Williamette Weekly, October 20, 1999,, last accessed February 25, 2007.

[2]    Richard Harris,“A Reporter At Large: Handguns,” The New Yorker, July 26, 1976, 57-58.

[3]    Alaska Stats. § 18.65.755 (1994).

[4]    Alaska Stats. §§ 18.65.780, 18.65.785 (1994).

[5]    Mike Chambers, Associated Press, Anchorage Daily News, June 12, 2003.

[6]    Jeffrey A. Roth and Christopher S. Koper, "Impacts of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban: 1994-96," NCJ 173405, (Washington: National Institute of Justice, 1999), available at, last accessed February 25, 2007.