Gun Nuts and Gun Grabbers
Guns Nuts, Gun Grabbers, and the Great American Gun Debate
In Gun Fight, Adam Winkler introduces the two opposing parties of the Great American Gun Debate, the “gun grabbers” and the “gun nuts.” Both sides agree that there is a gun problem: the United States has the highest rate of firearm suicide and homicide among industrialized countries. An estimated 34,000 Americans die from gunshot wounds per year (Kaplan & Geling). The two sides have philosophically contradictory solutions to the problem, a divide that is only widened by emotionally charged stories of gun violence like in Aurora, Colorado and Newton, Connecticut. Gun grabbers think the gun problem should be solved by taking away all guns, thus making gun regulation an important step in ensuring Americans’ safety. Gun nuts believe the opposite, arguing that gun ownership is a preventative factor for gun violence. If everyone had a firearm, people would be able to defend themselves, and criminals would be less likely to commit gun crime out of fear of being shot in the process (Winkler 76). Both extremes use constitutional arguments to back up their ideologies, causing the debate to be polarized: you are either pro-gun or anti-gun. The District of Columbia v. Heller case helps to bring reason back into the debate as Scalia’s opinion makes it clear it is possible, and legal, to have both gun rights and gun control measures. In doing so, he clears the way for a middle ground in the debate, one based on reason, sociological data and effective policy implementation.
The gun grabbers are staunch gun control supporters who “hope that the United States can eventually become more like the United Kingdom, where all handguns are banned and long guns (shotguns and rifles) are uncommon” (Winkler 19). It takes only a little common sense to realize that it would be next to impossible to eliminate the estimated 280 million guns in private hands. Guns are durable goods. Prohibition and the war on drugs have shown that efforts to ban “small, easily hidden items that people feel strongly attached to” are ineffective (Winkler 20). Yet gun grabbers support gun control laws regardless of their effect (or lack thereof). For instance, they supported the D.C. handgun ban that had little effect on the presence of handguns in the area, as people could simply travel to neighboring states to get them. And they are in favor of the assault rifle ban that Winkler compares to a law designed to reduce dog bites by outlawing the sale of Doberman pinschers with clipped ears (Winkler 39). Gun grabbers, like gun nuts, will place their ideology over fact. Winkler sites Michael Bellesiles, an author whose book on the prevalence of guns in the Wild West was riddled with scientific inaccuracies, as an example of such an ideologue (Winkler 23).
Similarly, gun grabbers view the Second Amendment through this partisan lens. From a textual modality, they understand the beginning of the amendment – “a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state” – as a clause that restricts the latter part, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Thus the Second Amendment does not guarantee an individual right, as the right to keep and bear arms is reserved only for militiamen. “Well regulated” is interpreted as meaning more than just “effective” or “functioning;” it is an additional textual detail that indicates that the government should be permitted to regulate guns. If the militia clause is emphasized, then this amendment, like the Third Amendment, is just not relevant anymore because the possibility of state insurrection against the federal government is slim to none (Papachristos & Meares). Doctrinal evidence, mostly the United States v. Miller case that allowed the government to restrict citizens from owning fully automatic weapons, indicates that the government has regulatory powers over firearms (Levinson 652). Furthermore, from a historical perspective, the debate in 1776 was not about the right to protect a revolution, but about federalism and how to divide the powers of the state and federal government in relation to the militia (Levinson 102). However, supporters of the militia theory tend to be liberals, who usually argue against a strict following of the original intent of the founding fathers, implying that gun grabbers are simply using the originalist arguments because it fits with their ideology (Levinson 102).
“Gun nuts,” or gun rights absolutists, wish to solve America’s gun problem with more guns. When proposed with the issue of mass shootings in public locations, gun nuts argue that armed civilians could have defended themselves and shot the perpetrator at the start of the attack. Violent criminals would be less likely to attack if they knew their victims were carrying guns. The National Rifle Association, which started as a kind of marksmanship club after the Civil War, now acts as a strong political lobby for gun rights and the gun nuts side of the debate (Winkler 64). After it developed a new membership in the 1960s that obsessed over using guns for protection in response to increasing crime rates, the NRA has consistently attempted to block gun control legislation, even more moderate attempts like in the Brady Bill, arguing that any gun control law will create an avalanche of more gun control laws (Winkler 69).
Gun nuts also use the Second Amendment to justify their stance. Historically, they argue that the amendment was meant as an individual right, citing other minority drafts of a firearm amendment that are longer and less vague than the version that was accepted into the Constitution. The Pennsylvania Minority, for example, describes the right of the people to bear arms in defense of themselves and for the purpose of killing game (Levinson 101). From a textual modality, they see the beginning of the amendment as a preamble and thus irrelevant to the meaning of, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Gun nuts give these last few words a special importance: “shall not be infringed” is absolute and used as rationale for opposing gun control laws. (Papachristos & Meares). A structural analysis shows that other Constitutional uses of “the people,” in the first and fourth amendment, also refer to an individual right. Moreover, the Second Amendment is sandwiched in the first eight, all of which address personal rights.
The conflict between gun nuts and gun grabbers stems from an ideological rift, and a failure to properly communicate. Gun grabbers justify gun control measures as a way to fight violent crime, but in rural areas where hunting culture is most prevalent and urban crime is not a pressing problem, gun control laws seem like “just another way for elites to harass and oppress” (Winkler 257). Gun grabbers make no effort to realize or respect the gun culture of rural areas while gun nuts fail to understand the urban crime problem.
In some ways, the District of Columbia v. Heller decision manages to nullify both extremes. First, it forces gun grabbers to accept the permanence of guns. Gun grabbers can no longer cling to the possibility of eradicating guns in America, for Scalia defines a clear constitutional right to a gun for protection. In the same vein, it minimizes the power of the gun lobby’s “slippery slope” argument, which makes it “harder for the NRA to use fear tactics to motivate gun owners to give their time, money, and votes in opposing sensible gun laws” (Winkler 295). Lastly, it offers hope that gun rights and gun regulation can coexist. The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law” restricting the freedom of speech, and yet there are limits on what can legally be said -- you do not have a Constitutional right to scream “fire” in a crowded movie theater (Papachristos & Meares). The Fourth Amendment protects citizens against unreasonable search and seizure, but privacy rights are not limitless. Similarly, there can legally be restrictions on a citizen’s right to keep and carry guns despite the presence of the phrase, “shall not be infringed,” in the Second Amendment.
Thus there is a compromise available: a constitutional right to posses and use a gun for self-defense that can be restricted by reasonable gun laws. Using a gun for protection is not necessarily an evil thing. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense is historically the most relevant application of the Second Amendment as a right to defend oneself – in a society where you do not feel protected by the police or the government, arming yourself might be the only way to ensure your safety (Papachristos & Meares). And as Diamond and Cottrol briefly discuss at the end of their piece, this issue still stands: there are urban communities that feel that their safety is not adequately being protected by the government, and thus they feel the need to own a firearm. But there is an obvious prudential concern that legitimizes the restriction of guns. Increased gun presence is correlated with an increased number of gun deaths, especially gun suicides (Kaplan & Geling).
The middle ground exists in accepting a different question for the gun debate. Instead of arguing whether guns are good or evil, we should be trying to research and understand gun use, possession, and markets. This rational approach is not one that comes easily to either side: emotional polarizations manifesting themselves through ideology-based politics have been the story of the debate so far. Neither side seems likely to abandon their ideological post and join the middle. However, there is hope of a general shift towards the middle, insofar as Heller, to some extent, settles the legal battle over gun rights. There needs to be more data in order for a reason and fact-based middle to exist. One battle would be to address the Tiahrt Amendments that restrict what law enforcement and local jurisdictions can do with their data, as they are a serious hindrance to the gun debate. Another option would be to fight for more federal funding for gun research (Papachristos & Meares). A third avenue would be to monitor federal arms dealers more strictly (according to Sorenson & Vittes, 52.5% of the interviewed dealers vocalized willingness to sell a gun in a straw purchase situation) and look at the effect of instituting restrictions on private gun transactions as well. The gun problem can be addressed as what is statistically appears to be – “a suicide problem and a gang problem.” (Winkler 28). While this would be an attitude adjustment for both of the extreme parties, it is not impossible, and Heller offers the legal foundation for steps forward.
Cottrol, Robert & Diamond, Raymond. (1991). “The Second Amendment: Toward an Afro-Americanist Reconsideration.” Georgetown Law Journal v80: 309-361
Kaplan, M.S. And Olga Geling. (1998). “Firearm Suicides and Homicides in the United States: Regional Variations and Patterns of Gun Ownership,” Social Science and Medicine v46 n.9: 1227-1233.
Levinson, S. The Historians’ Counterattack: Some Reflections on the Histography of the Second Amendment. In Harcourt, Bernard E (editor). Guns, Crime, and Punishment in America. New York: New York University Press.
Levinson, S. (1989). “The Embarrassing Second Amendment,” The Yale Law Journal v.99 n.3: 637-659.
Papachristos, A. & Meares, T. (2013, September 9). Guns in the United States. Lecture conducted from Yale University, New Haven, CT.
Papachristos, A. & Meares, T. (2013, September 11). Guns in the United States. Lecture conducted from Yale University, New Haven, CT.
Sorenson, S.B. And K.A. Vittes. (2003). “Buying a handgun for someone else: firearm dealer willingness to sell.” Injury Prevention 9: 147-150.
Winkler, A. (2011). Gun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. New York: Norton.