They say America has always been a gun culture — but it’s also been a gun-control culture. So I learned in a rare book called “Gun Fight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America” (W.W. Norton, 2011). What makes it rare? It’s a careful, unflinching, middle-ground analysis in a sea of polemic about the polarized (and now freshly painful) topic of gun control. It criticizes the National Rifle Association; it criticizes the gun-control movement. None of this is easy to read only weeks after the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn. But now, as we brave the hard discussion across the harder divide, it can shine light into the dark.
Author Adam Winkler is a constitutional law professor at UCLA. And he’s sure good at afflicting the comfortable. Favor more gun control? Then wrestle with the fact that gun-control groups historically had the worst motives: Take the Ku Klux Klan, whose mission was to disarm freed blacks who had been issued guns as Civil War soldiers. Or take the Sullivan Dangerous Weapons Act of 1911, which was applied discriminatively to jail immigrants. Do you back gun rights? Then know that the gun-embracing golden era of the Wild West is a sham. Turns out gun control thrived back then; as Winkler writes, “[f]rontier towns handled guns the way a Boston restaurant today handles overcoats in winter.” Meaning you came to town, you traded your weapon for a token. The Clanton brothers didn’t heed this ordinance in Tombstone, Ariz., which is why the Shootout at the OK Corral took place: The Earps were trying to enforce a gun-control law.