In the aftermath of the horrific mass shooting in Newtown, many Americans are wondering when we can begin a calm and rational public discussion of gun policy. Once upon a time in America, even Republicans favored robust regulation of firearms. Richard Nixon supported gun control and the Brady system of checks was enacted during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. In contemporary America, Republicans have rejected this heritage and so have most Democrats. Republican candidates vie with each other to prove their “Second Amendment credentials,” and Democrats either remain mute or mouth their own insipid Second Amendment platitudes. This capitulation to gun rights extremism has pulled public discussion about guns far away from a sensible debate. The time has arrived for an informed discussion about guns in America. Such a discussion must be based on credible research, not ideological manifestos.
When faced with demands for new regulations, gun rights advocates have typically responded with two equally distorted claims: gun regulation does not work, and the Second Amendment precludes robust gun regulation. Let’s have a look at each claim.
There is a considerable body of reliable scholarship, as opposed to the junk science of gun rights advocates, that gun laws do work. No set of laws can eliminate gun violence, but the point is to reduce violence at the lowest possible cost to gun owners. Expanding background checks to include all gun sales and limiting the number of guns one can purchase at a time are good starts. (Hardly any states limit handgun purchases, and those that do limit them to one a month—only twelve handguns a year!) Safe storage laws also save lives. The notion that, in a town that prior to this tragedy had a single homicide in the last decade, assembling an arsenal in your home would make you safer, particularly in a home in which a deeply disturbed young man was living, is precisely the type of twisted gun rights logic that has gone unchallenged for too long.
The Second Amendment poses no barriers to reasonable regulation. Under any theory of the Second Amendment, including the wacky one adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller—the case that effectively erased the militia clause of the amendment and adopted the gun rights movement’s fantasy version of American history—almost any reasonable gun regulation would pass constitutional muster. Guns have been regulated since the first colonists landed on America’s shores. In the decades after the adoption of the Second Amendment, gun regulation got more strict, not less. The Second Amendment actually tilts toward regulation, not away from it; without something akin to gun registration, how could you muster a militia?
Heller, meanwhile, has come under fire from real judicial conservatives and liberals alike. It was an activist decision that has generated over 600 new cases for the courts to sort through. The case does not even conform to the most basic rule of conservative jurisprudence: minimalism and clear guidelines for lower courts. Still, despite the avalanche of gun law suits, in almost every instance gun regulations have survived legal challenge, so there are few legal impediments to enacting reasonable gun control.
Although one often hears complaints about the liberal anti-gun bias in the media, the fact is that much of the reporting on guns in the media is ill-informed. In a recent article in the liberal Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg recounted his experience shooting guns with libertarian gun rights activist David Kopel. While going shooting with Dave sounds like a blast (I have it on my bucket list), I am not really sure how Goldberg’s time at the range adds much to our public understanding of the complexities of the gun debate. Even more troubling is Goldberg’s use of the controversial work of Gary Kleck, a pro-gun social scientist whose exaggerated estimates about defensive gun uses have been largely discredited. The gun issue is incredibly complex, but inept reporting does nobody any good.
The legitimate uses of firearms, including for self-defense, are an important part of any discussion of gun policy, but that discussion has to start with the best social science research available. Fox News continues to show case John Lott, another discredited pro-gun “researcher.” What is more troubling is CNN’s Piers Morgan giving Lott a platform to spout his discredited “more guns, less crime” thesis. Watching Morgan’s outrage at Lott’s junk social science made for good TV, but we have had way too much drama in this debate already, and far too little reasoned discussion on this issue
One important first step toward improving our public debate on guns would be to restore funding for gun violence research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. As the New York Times has reported, the libertarian impulses that gun rights advocates invoke don’t seem to apply to the First Amendment or academic discussion of this issue: the NRA uses its money to squelch any research that contradicts their interest in unrestricted gun ownership. While we debate the future of gun policy, the time has surely arrived to stand up for freedom of information. We don’t need more guns; we do need more information.
Saul Cornell is the Paul and Diane Guenther Chair in American History at Fordham University.