Guns rooted in U.S. psyche

From the book jacket
From the book jacket

Examining the history of the Second Amendment and attitudes toward gun control.

Posted: January 14, 2013

Living with Guns

A Liberal's Case for the Second Amendment

By Craig R. Whitney

Public Affairs. 304 pp. $28.99

Were there to be a reasoned debate about gun control in the United States, Craig R. Whitney might make an ideal moderator.

A former reporter, editor, and foreign correspondent for the New York Times, he grew up in hunting country in central Massachusetts, rather than in a large urban area infested with handguns and knee-jerk liberals. He has produced a well-researched and nuanced work about the history of the Second Amendment and attitudes toward gun control from Plymouth Rock to the current Supreme Court.

"Americans on both sides of the debate about guns can and must find common ground," he writes. "The bottom line is that our national affinity for firearms isn't going away, no matter what antigun advocates would like to think."

Of course, Whitney was writing before last month's massacre of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. But anyone optimistic that the tragedy will bring about meaningful legislation on firearms regulation will find little solace in this book.

Yes, Whitney writes, the country has more than 300 million guns in circulation, far more than any allegedly civilized country that keeps statistics. There are 60 million gun owners and, yes, there is more gun violence here. But we're different from other countries in that gun ownership is virtually embedded in our national DNA, dating back to the time the first Indian raised a tomahawk at a Pilgrim in anger. It's also embedded in the American idiom: "Loaded for bear;" "take a shot at it;" "pull the trigger." So deal with it.

Among the bits of information about our gun history:

New England states once barred Catholics from owning guns, and freed blacks were generally forbidden to own guns in the 19th century.

Gun ownership was mandatory in some states in the early 19th century.

In the 1930s, long guns outnumbered handguns seven to one.

By the time of the Civil War, state and local gun-control laws were common, but violence associated with Prohibition brought the first such federal laws.

Essentially, Whitney writes, the Supreme Court got it right in 2008 and 2010 in ruling that the Second Amendment's right to bear arms included gun ownership by an individual and not just a member of a militia.

And he notes that the majority opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia emphasized that state and local governments do have the right to establish certain restrictions on gun ownership and trafficking, including "laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms."

Whitney believes that the "militia" part of the Second Amendment carried with it a civic duty attached to the right to bear arms. This seems a questionable premise, but he is certainly right to note that any reference to such a duty is absent from today's gun-control debates.

Among the author's recommendations:

Fill in the holes in the national instant-background-check database by requiring states to report, among others, seriously mentally disturbed individuals.

Crack down on firearms dealers who knowingly sell to straw purchasers.

Require gun owners to report loss or theft of weapons to local authorities within 48 hours.

"Fingerprint" bullets and cartridge casings to make it easier to trace guns used in crimes.

He adds that "firearms regulations cannot, need not be the same in the fields and forests of rural America as they are in the violence-ridden inner cities awash in illegal guns."

Tell that to legislators in Harrisburg, or any other state capital where fear of the National Rifle Association lobby hangs as heavy as the smoke at a crowded pistol range. Whitney has set up a debate in which only one side has any interest in coming to the table.

There may be, in his words, hysteria on both sides, but only one side has assembled a lobbying juggernaut that makes any change in the status quo virtually impossible. The author does mention this toward the end of the book, but perhaps more energy might have been spent elaborating on a statement he quotes from a 2007 article in the Washington Post by former NRA employee Richard Feldman:

"Safeguarding the rights of gun owners has become secondary to keeping the fund-raising machinery well greased and the group's senior staff handsomely compensated."

The NRA was started in 1871 by two Civil War veterans concerned with a lack of marksmanship in the United States, and the NRA does indeed provide considerable information and training on the safe handling and use of firearms.

It also traffics in rumors, such as the likelihood of mass gun confiscation by the Obama administration, and has moved beyond resisting any tightening of gun-control laws to blanket protection of the firearms industry and aggressive legislation, such as the "stand your ground" laws now on the books in 21 states.

Fingerprinting bullets, the author notes, has been resisted by the NRA as potentially adding to their cost, but, then again, so do seat belts add to the cost of cars.

"Acknowledging that Americans do have an individual right, recognized in the Constitution, to keep and bear arms," he says, "does not mean that those who own a gun can be a law unto themselves."

Paul Jablow, a former Inquirer reporter and editor, freelances from Bryn Mawr.

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