Former GOP senator breaks out the "I'm a Second Amendment supporter, but..." argument

J. Scott Applewhite

Back when Bill Frist was representing Tennessee in the U.S. Senate, the physician-turned-lawmaker had a pretty good record when it came to Second Amendment issues. Now, however, the former Senate majority leader is demanding a host of new restrictions on legal gun owners, even while he claims to still support the right to keep and bear arms.

It’s hard to square that professed statement of support with the policies that Frist is now calling for, including a ban on so-called assault weapons, requiring gun training courses for all would-be gun buyers, and even making the firearms industry “liable for harm” caused by the criminal misuse of their products; a complete 180-degree turnaround for Frist given that he voted in favor of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act back in 2005.

In a new column at Forbes, Frist declares that while he “always and will continue to strongly support Second Amendment rights”, rising rates of violent crime (particularly since 2020) have led him to the conclusion that more gun control laws are needed. A lot of new laws, in his opinion. Here’s the list:

  • Red flag laws
  • storage mandates
  • mandatory training courses for gun owners
  • expand categories of prohibited persons
  • ban “high capacity” magazines and “assault weapons”
  • raise the age to purchase a firearm to 21
  • Make gun makers liable for the actions of criminals

With all those desired restrictions, I can’t help but wonder why Frist is bothering to call himself a Second Amendment supporter at all, or what (if any) gun control laws would go too far for the supposed defender of the right to keep and bear arms.

To be fair, Frist also calls for a handful of other policy changes that aren’t true gun control items, including funding mental health and requiring a school resource officer to be inside every public school, but the vast majority of his Forbes column is taken up with anti-gun talking points like this:

Many of us grew up hunting with our parents and grandparents, with our first successful hunt a cultural rite of passage. And we know every hunter in Tennessee must complete a hunter education course before that first hunt. Indeed, as explained by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency: “Tennessee’s Hunter Education program works. Since 1975, when a formal hunter education program was introduced, the number of hunting and firearm-related accidents in Tennessee has declined dramatically.”

Given that this form of education has been shown to decrease the incidence of firearms injuries and accidental deaths, it seems logical to require education and training for firearms ownership. Such a requirement would enhance safety and could also provide an opportunity to identify individuals who have malicious intentions or who may be mentally unstable.

I’m all in favor of encouraging training, but a mandate is a different thing altogether. What other constitutionally-protected right even requires licensing by the state to begin with, much less a mandatory training course? We don’t have to go take a creative writing class or learn about libel laws before we can exercise our First Amendment right, so why would we have to subject ourselves to a firearms training course before we can exercise our right to keep and bear arms?

A more logical step would be to encourage firearms training and to make it more widely available. I’d be in favor of grants to fund free firearms training for anyone who wants it, but a mandate is a non-starter.

I’m sure that Frist is genuinely concerned about violent crime and school shootings like the one that took place at Covenant School in Nashville, but that doesn’t mean that the gun control wishlist he’s outlined at Forbes would make any difference. Frist, for instance, claims that “while the horrific Columbine shooting occurred in 1999 during the ban, we did not see a continued trend of school shootings,” adding that “[t]oday, that has clearly changed.”

According to the Washington Post‘s analysis of “school shootings” (which include incidents of accidental discharges and suicides on a school campus), the rate of school shootings was fairly static until 2018, when the number climbed from 15 incidents to 30. It’s hard to blame that on the demise of the federal “assault weapons” ban 14 years earlier, as Frist does, and adopting a gun ban in response would not only violate the Constitution but would take us further away from what really works to prevent these shootings, starting with identifying the threat before a shooting takes place and ensuring that the individual in question gets the attention they need from the criminal justice or mental health systems.

The former senator spent more time talking about the public polling on these gun control proposals than any studies proving their effectiveness, which is pretty telling. No matter how popular things like “universal background checks” or “red flag” laws might be with the public at large, there’s also evidence that when voters learn more about the specifics of these proposals their enthusiasm wanes considerably. But no matter how popular a proposal might be, if it’s unconstitutional then its off the table, and the vast majority of what Frist is calling for would undoubtably have a far greater impact on peaceable gun owners than violent criminals and cowardly killers who try to murder as many innocent victims as possible.

While Frist is shooting blanks in his calls for more gun control laws, that doesn’t mean he’ll be unable to persuade some Republican lawmakers in Tennessee to go along with Gov. Bill Lee’s demand for a “red flag” law when legislators are called back to Nashville for a special session later this year. In fact, Frist’s call for an “assault weapons” ban and other restrictions on legal gun owners may end up providing cover for Lee and other establishment Republicans to push for similar policies going forward. Tennessee Second Amendment advocates and those who don’t believe we can ban our way to safety at the expense of our right to self-defense need to be speaking up and pointing out the fundamental flaws in Frist’s approach… while advocating for sound policy prescriptions that can reduce the threat of violence without treading over our civil rights.