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.
"Gun Fight" doesn't just dwell on the gun/gun-control culture of the past, though. The book brings us up-to-date on readings of the Second Amendment — whether the right to bear arms pertained just to those serving in militias or expanded to "the people" in general — and probes District of Columbia v. Heller, the landmark 2008 Supreme Court case, which held that the Constitution does guarantee a personal right to own firearms for self-defense. Lots
of irony here: Liberals, who mostly reject originalist rulings, were hoping for just that, while conservatives took an uncharacteristically interpretive stance.
This story drives "Gun Control on Trial: Inside the Supreme Court Battle over the Second Amendment" (Cato Institute, 2008). Brian Doherty, a senior editor at the libertarian magazine Reason, walks us through why various gun-rights litigants decided to file a gun-control challenge in D.C. : As a district, it bypassed thorny state issues, plus it had some of the nation's strictest gun restrictions. How strict? It was perilously hard to get a permit, and if you did, you had to keep your weapon disassembled in your home. The only way to use a gun in D.C. was, as one of Doherty's sources cracks, "if you made an appointment with a burglar." Heller himself was a cop who wanted to maintain his weapon off-duty, and his fellow plaintiffs were meticulously chosen for balance of race, gender, and background — for instance, Shelly Parker, a black software engineer, was especially sympathetic since she wanted protection from neighborhood drug dealers who often threatened her.
Moving past the case, Doherty plumbs the cultural chasm between those familiar with guns and those not. Clark Neily, co-counsel on Heller, puts it colorfully. The unfamiliar-with-guns group believes having a gun in the house is "literally as dangerous as having a rattlesnake in the house.'' They think "the gun will find its way out of the closet into the children's room and before anyone can do anything about it, it'll do something to them." Those comfortable with guns see them as a tool that requires respect. As Neily says: "A power saw can be a hell of a dangerous thing; so can a wood-burning stove, a chainsaw, an axe; you just have to treat [dangerous things] with respect."
Responsible gun owners, therefore, are upset when they're lumped in with criminals or the mentally ill who don't treat guns responsibly. Thus the NRA bumper sticker sentiments: "Guns Don't Kill People. People Kill People" and "When Guns Are Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Have Guns." This next book rips through each of these sayings in barely chained fury. "Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy" (Potomac, 2009) is by Dennis A. Henigan, former vice president for law and policy at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. In a rare moment of humor, he counteracts the "guns don't kill people" belief by quoting "renowned social scientist Ozzy Osbourne." Ozzy says if people kill people then "why do we give people guns when they go to war? Why not just send the people?"
Much of Henigan's fervor falls on dispelling the NRA's "slippery slope" argument — that any infringement, no matter how common sensical it may sound (background checks, safety standards) can serve as a sinister first step toward eventual total disarmament. Here's the deal, though: NRA members in polls support certain gun-control measures. Yet the NRA itself is all or nothing. Why? Because fear mongering fuels fund-raising, says Henigan. To read a onetime NRA insider saying the same thing turn to "Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist" (Wiley, 2007). Author Richard Feldman, who views himself as a Second Amendment supporter, characterizes the NRA as a "cynical, mercenary political cult" whose extreme positions threaten to bolster the efforts of the harshest gun critics.
Of course, the NRA thinks the gun-control side is full of shoddy science and willfully denies the power of deterrence. When you hear NRA president Wayne LaPierre call for armed guards in schools, know that his case is made, through many studies, in "More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws" (University of Chicago, third edition 2010). Economist John R. Lott Jr. stresses how the news is skewed: It lavishly reports incidents of gun violence but it doesn't cover the innumerable "non-stories" of crimes prevented by law-abiding citizens showing (but not shooting) their weapons.
Which brings me to one of our most ubiquitous guns, the semiautomatic pistol used by much of the American police force — as well as Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Jared Loughner in Tucson in 2011. "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun" (Crown, 2012) gives us Gaston Glock, the Austrian curtain-rod manufacturer who managed to create this chilling, reliable, lightweight weapon and market it stateside in the 1980s. Paul M. Barrett, a Bloomberg Businessweek editor, uses the Glock as a proxy to chronicle armaments history, like the 1994-2004 assault-weapons ban, whose efficacy is maddeningly inconclusive.
I'll end with the most buzzworthy
title: "Living With Guns: A Liberal's Case for the Second Amendment" (PublicAffairs, 2012). Craig R. Whitney, a New York Times reporter for many years, calls his book an "attempt to
defuse . . . hysteria." And he sees Heller as an opening: If firearms are deemed a personal right, that right, as all rights, can be regulated. The left must accept that, with an estimated 60 million Americans owning 300 million guns, we'll never be gun-free. The right must accept that reasonable gun-control measures shouldn't be rebuffed by "slippery slope" scare tactics.
Whitney proffers many thoughtful ways forward. In light of Newtown, I read his nuanced take on background checks to uncover mental illness — done inconsistently through the states, with no federal oversight — in a pall of too-little-too-late sorrow.
So now the question looms again: Are we a gun culture or a gun-control culture? Yes.
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.