Forgotten Lessons from America’s First Gun Violence Crisis
by Saul Cornell
Mayor Bloomberg’s recent summit on gun violence has revived an issue that many pundits and political soothsayers have written off as moribund. Few issues in American public life are more controversial than guns. Yet, even among hot button issues in American public life there is something perverse about the dynamics of the American gun debate. Polling data for decades has shown that most Americans favor stronger gun laws. Indeed, polling data consistently demonstrates that most gun owners support stronger gun laws. Despite overwhelming popular support for reasonable gun regulation, the political system has yielded victory after victory to proponents of a radical gun rights agenda. In recent years many states have enacted permissive laws allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons, “castle laws” that allow individuals to use deadly force to repel attacks anywhere at anytime, calls to restore “Second Amendment” rights to convicted felons, and immunity for the gun industry from civil law suits. The driving force behind this movement is a radical gun rights ideology propped up by a potent a set of myths about the history of gun control and the Second Amendment. Gun control groups have largely failed to counter this ideology.
Although both sides in the great American gun debate have claimed to have history on their side, each has presented a version of the past that is highly selective. One of the many embarrassing truths about the debate over the right to bear arms that neither side wishes to admit is that gun rights ideology is the illegitimate and spurned child of gun control. If we are to move forward in this debate each side needs to recognize that gun rights and gun control each have a long history. More importantly, we need to recognize that for much of our history the struggle between gun rights and gun control has evolved in lock step. Efforts at gun control, particularly policies aimed at broad scale prohibitions of firearms have generally led to an intensification of gun rights rhetoric and activism. Understanding the history of this tangled relationship, one of American history’s more bizarre examples of ideological co-dependency, may provide some insights into how we might move this debate forward and break this cycle.
As long as there have been guns in America there have been regulations governing their use and storage. Ironically, the Second Amendment, does not prohibit robust gun regulation, it compels it. Without government regulation there would have been no Minuteman to muster on the town greens at Lexington and Concord. If the Founders had imbibed the strong gun rights ideology that drives today’s gun debate we would all be drinking tea and singing “god save our gracious Queen.” A coherent gun rights ideology only emerged long after the Second Amendment when individual states began passing the first gun control laws to deal with the new problem posed by hand guns.
There is much to be learned from America’s first gun violence crisis and the first gun control movement. It is not surprising that during that struggle gun rights supporters tried to lay claim to the Second Amendment by reinterpreting it as an individual right of self defense. This argument continues to be effectively employed by opponents of gun regulation. Modern gun control proponents have generally been embarrassed by the Second Amendment, viewing it as an anachronism. Early proponents of gun regulation did not make the same mistake. Rather than dismiss the Second Amendment as a remnant of America ’s revolutionary past, they venerated this ideal, reminding their opponents that the Second Amendment was about an obligation citizens owed to their government and communities to contribute to public defense. They also staked out another right that has not been much talked about recently in this debate: a right to be free from the fear of gun violence.
What does all of this mean for the contemporary gun debate? First, proponents of gun control must not demonize gun owners, particularly given the fact that most gun owners support reasonable gun regulation. Second, rather than abandon the Second Amendment and dismiss it as a relic of another era, supporters of gun regulation need to reclaim this part of our constitutional heritage. Finally, rather than accept the way gun rights advocates have framed this debate: as a struggle between individual rights and a potentially despotic government, supporters of regulation need to point out that liberty without regulation is impossible and the right to be free from the threat of gun violence deserves at least as much respect as the right to bear arms.
Saul Cornell is Associate Professor of History at Ohio State University and Director of the Second Amendment Research Center at the John Glenn Institute. His book, A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America, is due out this summer.
This article reprinted courtesy of the History News Service.