Guns Guns Guns: An Overview of Jill Lepore's BATTLEGROUND AMERICA Article
Have you read Jill Lepore's article, “Battleground America: One Nation, Under the Gun,” in the latest New Yorker? You should. It's necessary reading. It details one way our country has gone insane since the 1970s. We keep bowing to the wrong people: Grover Norquist, Rush Llimbaugh, the NRA. They're ruining our country. We're letting them.
Lepore visits a firing range, the American Firearms School, near Providence, R.I. She visits the biggest gun show in New England, in West Springfield, Mass. She delves into the history: how state after state in the 19th century adopted laws against concealed weapons. She quotes the Governor of Texas in 1893: The “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder,“ he said. ”To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.” Yes: Texas.
She reminds us that the NRA was once a gun club. It was about firearms safety. Then there was a coup in the late 1970s in Cincinnati and it became what it became: a loud, angry, lobbying organization that fueled paranoia among its members. She reminds us how the Second Amendment was once interpretted by the U.S. Supreme Court: How, in 1939, in U.S. v. Miller, FDR’s solicitor general, Robert H. Jackson, “argued that the Second Amendment is 'restricted to the keeping and bearing of arms by the people collectively for their common defense and security.' Furthermore, Jackson said, the language of the amendment makes clear that the right 'is not one which may be utilized for private purposes but only one which exists where the arms are borne in the militia or some other military organization provided for by law and intended for the protection of the state.' The Court agreed, unanimously.” Those were the days.
Some facts worth noting:
The United States is the country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. (The second highest is Yemen, where the rate is nevertheless only half that of the U.S.) No civilian population is more powerfully armed. Most Americans do not, however, own guns, because three-quarters of people with guns own two or more. 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. ...
Gun ownership is higher among whites than among blacks, higher in the country than in the city, and higher among older people than among younger people. One reason that gun ownership is declining, nationwide, might be that high-school shooting clubs and rifle ranges at summer camps are no longer common.
Because the NRA is too busy lobbying.
A positive: NRA members appear to be less nuts than its leadership:
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.
Its history is also more tempered than we've been led to believe:
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”). ... 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.
Then in the 1960s our leaders were killed. JFK. MLK. RFK. Gun control became a common conversation. Here's a nice irony:
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.” Establishing a constitutional right to carry a gun for the purpose of self-defense was part of the mission of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which was founded in 1966.
The NRA picked up on the Black Power rhetoric:
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. In 1975, the N.R.A. created a lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, headed by Harlon Bronson Carter, an award-winning marksman and a former chief of the U.S. Border Control. But then the N.R.A.’s leadership decided to back out of politics and move the organization’s headquarters to Colorado Springs, where a new recreational-shooting facility was to be built. Eighty members of the N.R.A.’s staff, including Carter, were ousted. 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, led by Carter, 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.”
Ronald Reagan was the first NRA president and he was shot two months after he took the Oath of Office. The irony was lost on everyone. The act of John Hinckley seemed to make the NRA stronger:
In 1986, the N.R.A.’s interpretation of the Second Amendment achieved new legal authority with the passage of the Firearms Owners Protection Act, which repealed parts of the 1968 Gun Control Act by invoking “the rights of citizens . . . to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment.” This interpretation was supported by a growing body of scholarship, much of it funded by the N.R.A. 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.”
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.
All of these victories mean nothing. The NRA remains a paranoid organization. They're paranoid about Pres. Obama. “If this President gets a second term, he will appoint one to three Supreme Court justices,” says David Keene, 66, the N.R.A.’s current president. “If he does, he could reverse Heller and McDonald, which is unlikely, but, more likely, they will restrict those decisions.” Keene is worried about losing any ground. He's standing his ground. Actually he's moving forward. He's advancing on us. Yes, Lepore also writes about Trayvon Martin, and Chardon High School outside Cleveland. She doesn't write about Ted Nugent seeming to threaten the life of the president of the United States, for which he refuses to apologize. He's standing his ground, too. No, he's advancing on us. Mouth flapping. Waving something.
Keene and Nugent are paranoid about the wrong things. They see enemies where there are none. Their true enemy is themselves. The dwindling number of Americans who own and use guns is their fault. The NRA used to be a gun club, about gun safety, but they decided to spend all their time lobbying instead. So now we have what we have: laxer gun laws than at any time since the early 19th century, and fewer and fewer people utilizing them. Crazy people get to carry concealed weapons.
Lepore is right. We're a nation under the gun. Our society is sick. It doesn't know how sick:
One in three Americans knows someone who has been shot. As long as a candid discussion of guns is impossible, unfettered debate about the causes of violence is unimaginable. Gun-control advocates say the answer to gun violence is fewer guns. Gun-rights advocates say that the answer is more guns: things would have gone better, they suggest, if the faculty at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Chardon High School had been armed. That is the logic of the concealed-carry movement; that is how armed citizens have come to be patrolling the streets. That is not how civilians live. When carrying a concealed weapon for self-defense is understood not as a failure of civil society, to be mourned, but as an act of citizenship, to be vaunted, there is little civilian life left.
A gun show in Houston, which are, like classified ads for gun sales, unregulated.
Comment posted on Thu. Apr 19, 2012 at 12:53 AM
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard