'Gun fight' over the US constitution

  • 18 October 2011
  • From the section US & Canada
  • comments
File photo of real and imitation guns, 2005 Image copyright PA
Image caption The author of Gun Fight says the gun lobby used to accept some rules and regulations

I've just read a fascinating book about one of the big issues in America which divides the US and most puzzles us British: America's gun laws.

Gun Fight by Professor Adam Winkler (full disclosure: a freebie) is intriguing in these partisan times, both because it is a very balanced, objective book and because the author makes the case for a middle way.

He argues for a ground somewhere between an attempt to ban all handguns from cities and the contention that stopping former criminals from owning machine guns is an infringement of personal liberties.

He says that Americans will never give up their guns, and the anti-gun lobby have to swallow that.

But he also says the gun lobby, in the shape of the National Rifle Association (NRA), used to accept that there is a place for rules and regulations, and they should do so again.

The second amendment

The spine of the book is about the Supreme Court case seeking to overturn Washington DC's ban on handguns, District of Columbia v Heller, but it is interlaced with fascinating historical vignettes:

  • the contention that the murder rate was low in the frontier towns of the Wild West and kept low by tight gun control
  • that the shoot-out at the OK Corral was about the rights, or wrongs, of carrying weapons
  • that a big impetus behind gun control was the desire of white southerners to disarm blacks, and later, conservatives moving to stop Black Panthers.

But it is also about the US constitution, and whether the second amendment is about allowing Americans to own guns for self-defence or simply to form part of a militia.

It is an argument so old it is draped in cobwebs, but Professor Winkler examines the growth of "originalism", the belief that the Supreme Court should base its rulings on the intentions of those who wrote the constitution.

It is another thing most Brits have a hard time getting their heads around.

To me, it seems obvious that whenever the constitution talks about "the people" the authors were excluding black people and women, and that seems to do for the argument about original intention.

But both Professor Winkler and the Supreme Court disagree.

The Supreme Court decided that DC's gun control law violated the second amendment by five to four. After that a similar law in Chicago had to go.

But it also suggested that not all gun control was unconstitutional, particularly a ban on "dangerous and unusual weapons", such as machine guns.

Professor Winkler concludes: "Ever since the founding of America, the right to own a firearm has lived side by side with gun control. Americans don't need to choose between two absolutes".

This is a novel interpretation of a bipartisan approach, one that doesn't translate as "agree with me, or else".

Anyway, thought-provoking stuff.

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