FLORIDA, January 3, 2013 — Adam Winkler thinks that the Newtown massacre was a turning point in the fight over gun control.
For years, gun control simmered on a back burner. After the 1994 federal ban on assault weapons expired in 2004, Democrats generally steered clear of talk about gun controls during campaign season, and the National Rifle Association firmly established itself as one of the nation’s most feared and powerful lobbies.
Since the carnage in Newtown, however, the debate over gun control has blazed into new intensity. An string of highly-publicized incidents of gun violence in the months before Newtown helped set the mood for new advocacy for gun control.
In order to really understand the debate today, it helps to understand how we got here. In 2011, a book about the cultural ramifications of firearms issues titled Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, was published.
Its author, UCLA constitutional law professor Adam Winkler, recently spoke with me about the realities of this nation’s struggle over gun ownership.
Joseph F. Cotto: Our country’s debate over firearms ownership goes back far beyond the last few decades. From your research, why has the Second Amendment been the source of such enduring controversy?
Adam Winkler: The wording of the Second Amendment is notoriously ambiguous. The Second Amendment has all these commas in it that make it kind of difficult to figure out what the framers were thinking of.
Yet, since America’s earliest days, courts have said that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to have guns for personal protection. The Supreme Court has been inconsistent in its approach to the Second Amendment, but at no time did it author an authoritative interpretation that was contrary to the individual rights view, and, in 2008, the Supreme Court held in the Heller case clearly and unambiguously that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to have guns.
One of the reasons why there’s been such controversy is that the courts have always said there is room for effective gun control laws under the Second Amendment. So, the roots of conflict run deep in our Second Amendment jurisprudence.
Cotto: While gun control has always been a contentious issue, not so long ago political support for it was more widespread. In your opinion, why have the times changed?
Winkler: Gun control has not fared well over the last twenty years or so, in part because of the effect of the NRA. The NRA has a reputation of being one of the most powerful political players in Washington. The reason why is because historically the NRA has been able to deliver voters on election day. There’s a lot of single-issue pro-gun voters in America. If you can deliver votes on election day, you’re going to be a powerful force in a democracy. The gun control movement hasn’t been able to deliver voters.
As a result, the gun control movement has had difficulty keeping up with the pro-gun movement.
Cotto: The Supreme Court’s landmark District of Columbia v. Heller decision was a major victory for proponents of gun rights. What would you say is its most important ramification?
Winkler: The most important ramification of the Heller case is to take total civilian disarmament off the table. I think the gun debate has spiraled toward the extremes because of the threat and promise of total civilian disarmament.
The gun control community secretly hoped we could move to an English-style system where guns are extremely rare. Some in the gun rights community fear that any new gun control law puts us on a slippery slope towards total civilian disarmament. By taking disarmament off the table, and by subjecting all gun control laws to the oversight of the courts, (I) think Heller will help us in the long run move past the divisiveness that marks the current gun debate.
Cotto: Do you believe that the Sandy Hook shooting will substantially change our country’s dialogue over gun control?
Winkler: So far, it appears that the Newtown massacre is a turning point. Pro-gun Democratic senators come out in favor of gun control — Virginia Senator Mark Warner, who has an A rating from the NRA, said that Newtown was a game changer.
I think the political environment in Washington helps this along. President Obama no longer has to worry about reelection and appealing to swing state voters who love their gun, and the NRA fared very poorly in the November elections when many of its endorsed candidates lost. That’s causing some in Washington to reexamine the longstanding assumption that the NRA can’t be fought.
Cotto: During the years ahead, do you expect to see more people from both sides of the gun ownership debate find common ground with one another?
Winkler: In the long run, yes. I think that there’s not a great divide between a lot of gun control supporters and a lot of gun rights (supporters). When I went around the country talking about my book Gunfight, I met gun owners everywhere that said “We want to see universal background checks”.
There’s no reason why criminals or the mentally ill should be able to get their hands easily on guns. However, I think its imperative that gun control supporters do not push for laws that are likely to alienate large portions of the gun community. I think an assault weapons ban runs the risk of such alienation.
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