Like most people, I guess, I had feelings after the recent Newtown school shooting in the US. I spent nearly a week there last year with some lovely, lovely friends of my wife’s family, so the news evoked images in my head of the picture-perfect town and its close-knit community trying to come to grips with something beyond comprehension.
And like most people, I guess, my feelings lead to opinions about gun control — or I should say feelpinions because they were informed by not much more than gut. I knew very little about the actual history of guns and gun control in the States, not the mention the scope and nuance of cultural and other factors that influence the issue. So, I decided to read Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America by Adam Winkler, a constitutional lawyer at UCLA.
Gunfight is meticulous examination of guns in America since pre-independence that reveals not only a strong culture of guns throughout the country’s history, but a simultaneously strong culture of gun control. It takes the reader through the “Wild West”, the Civil War, the gangster ’20s and ’30s, and modern day. Among numerous surprising revelations, I learned that the frontier was nowhere near as trigger happy as it’s depicted in films and had extremely strong gun control laws, and that the modern NRA bears little resemblance to its past self which was often quite pro-gun control.
The book’s narrative is built around the landmark Heller Supreme Court case of 2008 that upheld (with substantial conditions) an individual rights view of the Second Amendment. While the ruling was seen as a victory for the so-called constitutional “originalists”, Winkler argues that it looked a lot more like “living constitutionalism” than the ruling’s author would’ve liked to admit.
The irony of Scalia’s opinion was that the heralded “triumph of originalism” in fact reflected a thoroughly modern understanding of gun rights. The primary justification for the right of individuals to bear arms, in Scalia’s view, is self-defense in the home. At the time of the founding, however, the primary justifications for it were to preserve the right of the people to throw off a tyrannical government, to serve in a militia for national defense, or to go out into the wilderness and hunt.
The living constitutionalism underlying the decision was further illustrated in the explanation offered by the Court for why the government could ban machine guns but not handguns. In contrast to handguns, Scalia wrote, machine guns can be restricted because they are “dangerous and unusual weapons” not “in common use” … however, civilian ownership of machine guns has been heavily restricted by federal law since the 1930s. Federal gun control of the twentieth century has made machine guns unusual and uncommon, while the serious restrictions on the availability of handguns has given people the opportunity to choose them for self-defense. The scope of the Second Amendment’s protections was not, in other words, defined by the original meaning of the Constituition. The protections were shaped instead by the marketplace choices of twentieth-century consumers, made within the confines of contemporary government regulations.
Overall, the book paints a compelling picture of a country that has had a dynamic relationship with guns since inception, and of a debate in the 21st century that often has few roots in history despite claims by protagonists at both extremes. Gunfight certainly challenged many of my opinions while reinforcing the idea that a solution to the USA’s gun “problem” will not be easy. Perhaps the only position I hold for certain now is in line with Winkler’s conclusion:
Instead of questioning whether we should have guns or not, we should accept the permanence of guns and focus instead on what types of policies can effectively and efficiently reduce gun violence. If we can move beyond the shouting match over whether guns are evil and lawless — as gun control hard-liners insist — or are the embodiment of liberty — as gun-rights absolutists claim — perhaps we can begin careful discussions of the serious empirical work on gun crime that criminologists are doing. The solutions to America’s gun violence are not going to be found by simplistic sloganeering about whether we should have more guns or fewer guns.