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Published on Friday, June 23, 2000
Gun Control, Burma and Corporate Rule
by Robert Naiman
 

Remember the "New Federalism"? State and local governments were supposed to be "laboratories of democracy," where new ideas could be tried out to address social problems, where government would be more responsive to citizen input at the local level. This was one of the justifications given for shrinking the role of the federal government in social spending (but not military spending) during the Reagan era.

In recent years, as reform initiatives have been blocked at the federal level by budget cuts and the strong corporate lobby in Washington, attention has turned to the states on a number of issues, including health care reform, education reform, and campaign finance reform.

But the New Federalism took a body blow last week. The Supreme Court, whose "conservative" justices supposedly like "states' rights" and dislike "judicial activism," struck down 9-0 a Massachusetts ordinance which granted a preference in bidding for state contracts to companies which were not doing business with the military dictatorship in Burma, whose repression of democracy and use of forced labor have made it a pariah to human rights activists.

Strikingly, the Court rejected Massachusetts' argument that its sanctions against companies doing business in Burma were identical to sanctions it had in the 1980's against companies doing business in South Africa, stating that the Court had never ruled on the constitutionality of the anti-apartheid sanctions. In other words, the Court implied that if it had been given the opportunity to find the anti- apartheid sanctions unconstitutional, it would have done so.

The court noted that the Massachusetts Burma law had run afoul of the rules of the World Trade Organization, and cited this as evidence that Massachusetts was interfering in U.S. foreign policy. The Court said that Congress pre-empted the state sanctions when it passed federal sanctions, even though Congress never said this was its intent. It seems that while many were focused on whether nominees to the Supreme Court were pro- or anti- abortion, we wound up with nine justices who are pro-Wall Street.

What does this mean for gun control? On gun control, progress in Washington has also been blocked.

You might not think of gun control as a corporate power issue. After all, judging from most press coverage, it's the National Rifle Association that stands in the way of reasonable regulations of guns.

But the National Rifle Association is increasingly a front group for the gun manufacturers and the national Republican party.

The corporate lobby at large doesn't care that much about access to abortion, gun control, or prayer in schools. But they do care about Republican control. With Republican control of the Congress and perhaps even the White House, corporations can expect a very sympathetic ear for their demands for lower taxes on corporations, lax regulation and enforcement, and no anti-trust scrutiny. These positions are good for getting campaign contributions, but they're not so good for public consumption. "Vote for me so corporations can pay less taxes, dump pollution and employ sweatshop labor" doesn't play in Peoria. That's why it's useful to Republicans, as the more blatantly pro-corporate party, to mobilize their troops on issues like guns, abortion and school prayer.

This strongly suggests that initiatives outside of Washington are necessary to force change. More than 30 local governments around the country - joined this week by New York City - are suing the gun industry for deceptive marketing practices and for medical and law enforcement costs of gun violence.

The threat of lawsuits induced Smith & Wesson to strike a deal with Philadelphia to install safety locks on its guns. Philadelphia agreed to give Smith & Wesson a preference in city contracts, as a reward for being more responsible than other gun manufacturers.

This bid preference could also run afoul of WTO rules. A foreign gun manufacturer could argue before the WTO that Philadelphia, by granting a preference in granting city contracts to companies that install safety locks, discriminates against foreign gun manufacturers. For now the latest Supreme Court ruling on the Burma laws would not apply, since there has been no Congressional action.

This indicates the wide scope of the issues at stake. Democracy and the corporations are in a race. Right now, the corporations control international economic policy and have preponderant influence in Washington. At the local level, democracy still has good odds on some issues. Corporations are doing their best to squeeze those opportunities out of the system, and tighten their control. Local governments should be pressed to assert their authority more strongly than they have in the past.

Robert Naiman is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

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