Guns, gun control myths examined in 'New Yorker' article

April 19, 2012

The evolution of the Second Amendment is expertly detailed in a spellbinding New Yorker story, “Battleground America," in the current issue.

Here are some takeaways:

1.“After the passage of the Second Amendment, “People who owned and used long arms to hunt continued to own and use them; the Second Amendment was not commonly understood as having any relevance to the shooting of animals.”

2.“Gun owners may be more supportive of gun-safety regulations than is the leadership of the N.R.A. According to a 2009 Luntz poll, for instance, requiring mandatory background checks on all purchasers at gun shows is favored not only by eighty-five per cent of gun owners who are not members of the N.R.A. but also by sixty-nine per cent of gun owners who are.”

3.“In the two centuries following the adoption of the Bill of Rights, in 1791, no amendment received less attention in the courts than the Second, except the Third. As Adam Winkler, a constitutional-law scholar at U.C.L.A., demonstrates in a remarkably nuanced new book, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed: Indiana (1820), Tennessee and Virginia (1838), Alabama (1839), and Ohio (1859). Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas explained in 1893, the ‘mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man’.”

4.“Although these laws were occasionally challenged, they were rarely struck down in state courts; the state’s interest in regulating the manufacture, ownership, and storage of firearms was plain enough. Even the West was hardly wild. ‘Frontier towns handled guns the way a Boston restaurant today handles overcoats in winter,’ Winkler writes. ‘New arrivals were required to turn in their guns to authorities in exchange for something like a metal token’.”

5.“The National Rifle Association was founded in 1871 by two men, a lawyer and a former reporter from the New York Times. For most of its history, the N.R.A. was chiefly a sporting and hunting association. To the extent that the N.R.A. had a political arm, it opposed some gun-control measures and supported many others, lobbying for new state laws in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, which introduced waiting periods for handgun buyers and required permits for anyone wishing to carry a concealed weapon. It also supported the 1934 National Firearms Act—the first major federal gun-control legislation—and the 1938 Federal Firearms Act, which together created a licensing system for dealers and prohibitively taxed the private ownership of automatic weapons (‘machine guns’).”

6.“In 1957, when the N.R.A. moved into new headquarters, its motto, at the building’s entrance, read, ‘Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation.’ It didn’t say anything about freedom, or self-defense, or rights.”

7.“Gun-rights arguments have their origins not in eighteenth-century Anti-Federalism but in twentieth-century liberalism. They are the product of what the Harvard law professor Mark Tushnet has called the ‘rights revolution,’ the pursuit of rights, especially civil rights, through the courts. In the nineteen-sixties, gun ownership as a constitutional right was less the agenda of the N.R.A. than of black nationalists. In a 1964 speech, Malcolm X said, ‘Article number two of the constitutional amendments provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun’.”

8.“In 1968, as Winkler relates, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., gave the issue new urgency. A revised Gun Control Act banned mail-order sales, restricted the purchase of guns by certain high-risk people (e.g., those with criminal records), and prohibited the importation of military-surplus firearms. That law, along with a great deal of subsequent law-and-order legislation, was intended to fight crime, control riots, and solve what was called, in the age of the Moynihan report, the ‘Negro problem.’ The regulations that are part of these laws—firearms restrictions, mandatory-sentencing guidelines, abolition of parole, and the “war on drugs”—are now generally understood to be responsible for the dramatic rise in the U.S. incarceration rate.”

9.“In the nineteen-seventies, the N.R.A. began advancing the argument that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to carry a gun, rather than the people’s right to form armed militias to provide for the common defense. Fights over rights are effective at getting out the vote. Describing gun-safety legislation as an attack on a constitutional right gave conservatives a power at the polls that, at the time, the movement lacked. Opposing gun control was also consistent with a larger anti-regulation, libertarian, and anti-government conservative agenda.”

10. In 1975, the N.R.A. created a lobbying arm, but immediately became embroiled in internal politics: “In 1977, the N.R.A.’s annual meeting, usually held in Washington, was moved to Cincinnati, in protest of the city’s recent gun-control laws. Conservatives within the organization ... staged what has come to be called the Cincinnati Revolt. The bylaws were rewritten and the old guard was pushed out. Instead of moving to Colorado, the N.R.A. stayed in D.C., where a new motto was displayed: ‘The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed’.”

11.“Orrin Hatch became the chair of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, and commissioned a history of the Second Amendment, which resulted in a 1982 report, ‘The Right to Keep and Bear Arms.’ The authors of the report claimed to have discovered ‘clear—and long-lost—proof that the Second Amendment to our Constitution was intended as an individual right of the American citizen to keep and carry arms in a peaceful manner, for protection of himself, his family, and his freedoms’.”

12.“According to the constitutional-law scholar Carl Bogus, at least sixteen of the twenty-seven law-review articles published between 1970 and 1989 that were favorable to the N.R.A.’s interpretation of the Second Amendment were ‘written by lawyers who had been directly employed by or represented the N.R.A. or other gun-rights organizations.’ In an interview, former Chief Justice Warren Burger said that the new interpretation of the Second Amendment was ‘one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special-interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime’.”

13.“Between 1968 and 2012, the idea that owning and carrying a gun is both a fundamental American freedom and an act of citizenship gained wide acceptance and, along with it, the principle that this right is absolute and cannot be compromised; gun-control legislation was diluted, defeated, overturned, or allowed to expire; the right to carry a concealed handgun became nearly ubiquitous; Stand Your Ground legislation passed in half the states; and, in 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court ruled, in a 5–4 decision, that the District’s 1975 Firearms Control Regulations Act was unconstitutional. Justice Scalia wrote, ‘The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia.’ Two years later, in another 5–4 ruling, McDonald v. Chicago, the Court extended Heller to the states.”

14.“There are nearly three hundred million privately owned firearms in the United States: a hundred and six million handguns, a hundred and five million rifles, and eighty-three million shotguns. That works out to about one gun for every American.”

15.“According to the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Policy Opinion Center at the University of Chicago, the prevalence of gun ownership has declined steadily in the past few decades. In 1973, there were guns in roughly one in two households in the United States; in 2010, one in three. In 1980, nearly one in three Americans owned a gun; in 2010, that figure had dropped to one in five.”