At Brown: The liberal case for guns

The school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut spurred hope for sensible gun regulation, yes, but also for a more nuanced discussion of America's gun culture.

Neither wish has been realized.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced this week that he's pulling an assault weapons ban out of a broader gun regulation package for fear that it might sink the whole enterprise; there is considerable doubt about whether Congress will even pass a universal background check measure broadly popular with the public.

The debate, meanwhile - beginning with National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre's combative press conference a week after Newtown - has been about as polarized as ever.

Indeed, some of the most intriguing entreaties for a third way came before Newtown. Jeffrey Goldberg's "The Case for More Guns (and More Gun Control)" ran in the Atlantic magazine in November. And former New York Times correspondent and editor Craig Whitney's book Living With Guns: A Liberal's Case for the Second Amendment was already on the shelves by that point.

Whitney is in town today for a panel discussion at Brown University, part of a larger "Guns in America" series run out of the school's Political Theory Project (see my October 2011 feature "Conservative donors eagerly fund Brown University's Political Theory Project").

The author, who grew up around guns but has never owned one himself, argues that the age-old debate over whether the Founders intended the Second Amendment to confer an individual right to bear arms or a collective right, grounded in the maintenance of state militis, is rather silly.

"If you could ask Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton or John Hancock after the adoption of the Bill of Rights whether they had an individual right to carry arms and use them for self-defense, or to hunt...they would have laughed at you," Whitney writes. "Of course they had that right, they would have said. The Second Amendment didn't give it to them; it simply recognized a right Americans had always had in common law and protected it."

But Whitney, who makes a sober plea for both sides of the gun debate to "find common ground," gives succor to gun control advocates too. The state, he writes, has always had a right to sensibly regulate guns in the interest of public safety Indeed, it's long done just that.

And while the NRA argues that any significant regulation is a step toward gun confiscation, Whitney argues, a 2008 Supreme Court case establishing the individual right to bear arms has erected a Constitutional wall against the practice. There should be the space, now, to engage in a reasoned debate over regulation. All that's needed, Whitney argues, is to break the political stalemate on the issue - to get out of the usual ruts.

The only trouble with this argument is that it assumes the NRA and gun control advocates are somehow of equal stature, somehow equally willing to compromise. The NRA has proven itself a hard-line organization time and time again. And the organization is far more powerfu than the opposition, as evidenced by its parade of victories in state legislatures and Congress in recent decades. There is a reason the 1994 assault weapons ban - a rare achievement for gun control advocates - was allowed to lapse during the Bush Administration. And this week's news about the ban - derailed again - only underscores the point.

We are left to wonder, then: if even modest gun control isn't feasible in the wake of Newtown, is a nuanced debate all that useful? 


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