Last January, after Jared Lee Loughner shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, seriously wounding her and killing or injuring 19 others, Clarence Dupnik, sheriff of Pima County where it happened, told a TV interviewer that the law allowing Loughner to carry a concealed handgun anywhere (which he had purchased legally despite a history of mental illness) was “the height of insanity” and added, “I don’t know what else they [gun proponents] can do. Maybe they could pass a law that would require that every child have an Uzi in their crib.”
On the other hand, Charles Heller, co-founder of the Arizona Citizens Defense League, said that citizens carrying guns were what had saved Gabrielle Giffords: “The reason the perpetrator was caught was because of rapid action of the citizen militia. And it’s crucial, it’s vital, if a guy like that was to get loose and reload, it’s crucial to have armed people ready to defeat him.”
That kind of polarized reaction occurs every time there’s a big incident involving guns in the United States. Why? How did it get this way? How did we come to stand alone among advanced nations in both our love of guns and our disagreement about them? We really are unique in that way. Americans own nearly 300 million guns, and our rates of gun-related homicide are at least five times as great as in other advanced nations.
The story of our love-hate affair with guns turns out to be as old as the European settlement of America. When the first Europeans arrived they found a dangerous wilderness where they had to hunt to eat and always had to be ready to defend themselves in a land without laws. By 1650 they had gotten so in the habit of defending themselves that a Connecticut law required that “every male person … shall have in continuall readines[s], a good musk[e]t or other gunn, fitt for service,” and all the colonies had similar laws to make possible their localized assemblages of fighting forces, known as militias.
By the time of the Revolutionary War, guns represented not only protection against man and nature as well as a source of food but also freedom against English oppressors. King George had the British Army; Americans had their personal guns and militias. In the words of historian Clayton E. Cramer, “Americans used guns initially as tools for individual self-protection and hunting, but by the time of the American Revolution, firearms became symbols of citizenship, intimately tied to defending political rights. Gun ownership was not universal in early America—but in every period, in every region … gun ownership in our nation’s early history was the norm—not the exception.”
When 1,800 British troops marched toward Concord, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775, 3,700 militiamen turned out with their guns to oppose them, and the armed rebels struck terror in the hearts of the British. Later in the Revolution, the Pennsylvania rifle, invented by a Swiss immigrant for hunting, gave Americans a big advantage over the British and their Brown Bess muskets. George Washington even had his troops wear hunting shirts because the British thought any American who hunted was “a complete Marksman.”
Americans appreciated their guns as crucial to their liberty. That’s why the second of the first ten amendments— the Bill of Rights—decrees that “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” On the other hand a national army was seen as a potential source of tyranny. That’s why the Third Amendment, almost forgotten today, says, “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”
After the Revolution, in the early republic, “hunting and fishing probably were the chief American sports,” in the words of historian Richard Hofstadter. “For millions of American boys, learning to shoot and, above all, graduating from toy guns and receiving the first real rifle of their own were milestones of life, veritable rites of passage that certified their arrival at manhood.” As the nation itself reached adulthood, it did so by rapidly becoming more urban and industrialized. The rise of industrialization was very much about guns, too, as weapons makers in New England showed the way from individual craftsmanship to the use of interchangeable parts and assembly-line production.
Many of the boys who grew up with guns in the early nineteenth century went on to become the conquerors of the Wild West, where the role of guns became part of legend. When movies came along, the Western hero, always ready to draw and shoot, became a central part of American popular culture, and he was followed by the private eye, the gritty cop, and the gangster hero. Films from The Great Train Robbery to High Noon to Bonnie and Clyde to Reservoir Dogs have never stopped immortalizing the American love affair with the gun.
If the central place of guns in American life goes back to the beginning, gun control has a much shorter history. Outside of the Second Amendment, there was no major federal gun legislation until 1934 when Congress passed the National Firearms Act. President Franklin Roosevelt championed that law as a way to fight organized crime, and it did so by putting prohibitive taxes on machine guns, silencers, and other tools of hoodlums. A Federal Firearms Act in 1938 added licensing for anyone wanting to sell firearms and record-keeping of who bought guns.
Nothing much more happened in the way of gun laws until 1968 when, in the wake of the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., a Gun Control Act took effect expanding the requirements for licenses and record-keeping and adding to the list of those, such as convicted felons and drug users, who couldn’t legally buy guns. Since then, there has been a slew of laws, some of them—such as the 1986 Firearms Owner’s Protection Act—easing restrictions, and others—such as the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act—tightening them. It has been estimated that today there are altogether more than 20,000 federal, state, and local laws regulating guns. It’s a bewildering patchwork.
Not until the passage of the 1968 law and the growth of urban crime to record levels in the 1970s and ’80s did guns and gun control become a big political issue. The National Rifle Association (NRA) was barely political at all for most of its existence. Founded in 1871 by a group of Civil War veterans who wanted to improve marksmanship among Americans, it only started a legislative affairs division in 1934 when the National Firearms Act was before Congress. The NRA made its first presidential endorsement in 1980, supporting Ronald Reagan against Jimmy Carter. But today, with more than 4 million members, it is often cited as the most powerful lobbying organization in the nation. It spent $10 million on the 2008 presidential election, and, in 2011, Wayne LaPierre, its chief executive, said of President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Attorney General Eric Holder, “Why should I or the NRA go sit down with a group of people that have spent a lifetime trying to destroy the Second Amendment in the United States?”
That Second Amendment may itself be a main cause of the extreme polarization that LaPierre’s statement reflects. If guns are a central part of our history, of our tradition of standing up against oppressors, and of our sense of freedom to defend ourselves and to enjoy our lands, then the Second Amendment is the defining document certifying their place in our lives. But it is a very disappointing document, too, in that nobody can agree on what it means. If anything, it creates more problems than it solves.
Constitutional scholar Sanford Levinson wrote that “no one has ever described the Constitution as a marvel of clarity, and the Second Amendment is perhaps one of the worst drafted of all its provisions. What is special about the Amendment is the inclusion of an opening clause—a preamble if you will—that seems to set out its purpose. No similar clause is part of any other Amendment.” That opening preamble, of course, is “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” which is followed by “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” What does that mean, about a militia? Does it tell us that the amendment only means to protect ownership of guns for collective military use, or, to the contrary, does the second part of the amendment confirm that we can own guns, period?
No one ever gave a definitive answer until 2008 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, but even then the court mainly proved that it, too, was bitterly divided over the matter. The District of Columbia had passed a law banning ownership of handguns and requiring that people who owned rifles and shotguns keep them unloaded and locked or disassembled. A group of gun owners had appealed the law up through lower courts to the highest bar in the land.
The Supreme Court split five to four. In the majority opinion, Antonin Scalia, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito, wrote that the amendment’s words plainly “guarantee the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation.” He added that the preamble “does not suggest that preserving the militia was the only reason Americans valued the ancient right; most undoubtedly thought it even more important for self-defense and hunting.”
Justice John Paul Stevens, in the main dissenting opinion, wrote that the decision was based on “a strained and unpersuasive reading” that “bestowed a dramatic upheaval of the law.” He also complained, “The Court would have us believe that over 200 years ago, the Framers made a choice to limit the tools available to elected officials wishing to regulate civilian uses of weapons … I could not possibly conclude that the Framers made such a choice.”
So there remains as profound disagreement as ever over just what the Second Amendment means and how broad the fundamental American right to own guns really is. That disagreement will probably never go away. However, though the 2008 decision came out firmly in favor of gun ownership rights, it has not noticeably changed the landscape of gun control laws. Since it was issued there have been more than 80 suits filed to overturn gun laws; few if any of them have succeeded.
Pro- and anti-gun forces continue to quarrel, flaunting competing and conflicting statistics about whether the prevalence of guns in American society makes us more or less safe. But in a land where guns are a central part of our heritage, where we prize individualism and self-reliance, but also where the violence done by guns vastly exceeds that of any other advanced nation, the sides in the eternal gun debate will likely never fully agree. Still, they surely can get along better.
Sanford Levinson wrote his landmark study of the Second Amendment partly to convince his fellow liberals that they should stop jumping to the conclusion that the amendment narrows the right to gun ownership. He concluded by writing, “Perhaps ‘we’ might be led to stop referring casually to ‘gun nuts’ just as, maybe, members of the NRA could be brought to understand the real fear that the currently almost uncontrolled system of gun ownership sparks in the minds of many whom they casually dismiss as ‘bleeding-heart liberals.’ Is not, after all, the possibility of serious, engaged discussion about political issues at the heart of what is most attractive in both liberal and republican versions of politics?”