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Debate on gun control should ask whether Congress has power to regulate

President Obama called for more gun control in his State of the Union address last night. The effectiveness of his proposals have been the subject of heated debate. But both sides are missing the larger question: Does Congress even have the right to regulate or ban guns?

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President Obama gestures while giving his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill Feb. 12. Op-ed contributor William J. Watkins says nothing in the Constitution, or common law at the time the Constitution was ratified, 'supports an outright ban on certain weapons possessed by sane, law-abiding citizens as urged by Obama.'

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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Gun control has become one of the preeminent battles of 2013. During a press conference last month, in which he was surrounded by children, President Obama urged Congress to ban “assault” (semiautomatic) weapons, limit magazines to 10 bullets, and introduce universal background checks for all firearm buyers. And last night, Mr. Obama again called for this regulation in his State of the Union address. Naming those affected by gun violence, he asserted to a cheering, standing crowd: "They deserve a vote."

Across the country, Americans are debating the effectiveness of Obama's gun-control proposals. Commentators on the left argue that semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity magazines aren’t necessary for home defense or hunting. On the right, the president’s critics say limiting guns won’t end violence and point out that no matter what laws Congress passes, criminals will still find ways to be well armed. The proposed legislation, they contend, simply would put law-abiding citizens at a disadvantage.

Both sides are missing the larger question in this debate: Does Congress even have the right to regulate or ban guns? Where does Congress derive the power to prohibit ownership or manufacture of certain weapons or magazines? It seems that many gun-rights advocates and opponents have forgotten their basic civics in assuming that Congress can act as long as 51 percent of the members agree.

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