Guns Out of Control

Atlantic writers debate the true intentions behind the Second Amendment and the safest approaches to firearm ownership.

More than two hundred years after James Madison drafted the Bill of Rights, Americans have yet to agree on the meaning of the awkwardly constructed Second Amendment: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. This week, the Supreme Court has struck down Washington, D.C.’s longtime ban on private handgun ownership. The District’s law, among the strictest in the nation, prohibits residents from keeping handguns in their homes and requires that licensed firearms be kept unloaded, disassembled, or equipped with a trigger lock. City leaders have argued that the policy is necessary to prevent gun violence, but last March an appellate panel (siding with six residents who wanted to keep handguns for protection) struck down the law on the grounds that the Second Amendment grants gun rights to individuals, not just collectively to a militia.

Over the past few decades, The Atlantic has provided context for the gun control debate, weighing in with articles examining the legal, historical, and cultural roots and implications of our attitudes toward gun ownership.

In February 1977, Dorothy Weil advocated for gun control by poking fun at the opposition’s argument. With tongue firmly in cheek, she referred to gun-control as “un-American,” and joked that the “Saturday Night Special” was a reflection of American democracy, in that its low price enabled the poor as well as the rich to possess firearms. Her satire culminated with descriptions of various proposed gun models, such as “The Sensitivity Special” or “Group Therapy”: “Its dumdum bullets open a person up to others. Favored by police trying to improve neighborhood communications.”

Sixteen years later, Erik Larson starkly illuminated the failure of this country’s firearms restrictions with “The Story of a Gun” (January 1993). The two-part article, which later grew into a book, centered around a school shooting in Virginia perpetrated by a 16-year-old named Nicholas Elliot. Larson traced the history of the Cobray pistol that Elliot had used, talking with salespeople at the gun shop where Elliot had had an adult relative buy the weapon for him, and then digging back even further to investigate the company that had produced the gun.

After trying out a Cobray pistol for himself at a police shooting range, Larson observed, “My wrist sagged under its weight. It looked evil, a Darth Vader among guns.” Such a gun should never have been available on the mass market, Larson contended, and the ease with which a teenager was able to manipulate the system to obtain one reflected the larger irresponsibility of the gun industry:

A none-of-my-business attitude permeates the firearms distribution chain from the production to the final sale, allowing gunmakers and gun marketers to promote the killing power of their weapons while disavowing any responsibility for their use.

Later that year, Congress passed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, known as the Brady bill, which required a background check, and in some cases, a five-day waiting period before a would-be handgun owner could take possession of a firearm. As gun control advocates celebrated their legislative victory, Daniel D. Polsby, in a March 1994 article, “The False Promise of Gun Control,” challenged the conventional wisdom that stricter gun laws would actually reduce gun violence. Rather than prevent violence, he reasoned, gun laws could have the opposite effect: criminals would turn to illicit markets while law-abiding citizens would have no other options for securing firearms. Polsby explained, “The class of people we wish to deprive of guns, then, is the very class with the most inelastic demand for them—criminals—whereas the people most likely to comply with gun control laws don’t value guns in the first place.”

That same year, in “Second Thoughts on the Second Amendment,” Atlantic contributing editor Wendy Kaminer examined the historical roots of opposition to gun control. The underlying tension in the gun control debate, she argued, is between republicanism, which “calls for the subordination of individual interests to the public good,” and liberalism, which “focuses on protecting individuals against popular conceptions of good.” Gun devotees who look to the Second Amendment to support their gun rights, she explained, often miss the legislation’s real intent: to allow citizens to arm themselves in order to ward off a tyrannical federal government. Today, Kaminer observed, we pick up guns not because we fear elected officials but because we fear our neighbors.

In “The Fall Into Guns,” a November 2000 review of Michael Bellesiles’s Arming America, Richard Slotkin also considered the role fear plays in the appeal for guns. In the book, Bellesiles had drawn upon public documents and probate records to challenge the lore of America’s deep-rooted reverence for firearm ownership. Bellesiles, then a professor at Emory, found that gun ownership was in fact rare before the Civil War, even among militiamen; it was not until the 1840s when mass production made guns cheaper and white Americans sought to expand slavery that gun ownership became widespread. From this, Slotkin extracted a larger point—that it is when class and racial tensions threaten existing social hierarchies that Americans agitate for arms.

Initially considered groundbreaking, Arming America later came under fire when scholars accused Bellesiles of faulty research methods, prompting Columbia University to rescind his Bancroft Prize. Any alleged research misconduct by Bellesiles has not, however, diminished Slotkin’s analysis of the cultural significance of America’s historical relationship with guns. As Slotkin concluded:

Whether or not the Americans of 1740-1840 kept or used firearms in large numbers, they established the codes that identified the right to own and use weapons as a hallmark of citizenship, and provided rules for identifying when, and against whom, it was morally permissible to use deadly force.

Indeed, as the ownership of deadly weapons became more commonplace, they were frequently used with impunity against socially subordinate groups:

In the Jim Crow era whites who murdered blacks for such offenses as refusing to step aside in the street and looking at a white woman were typically let off by white juries…

The physical abuse and even murder of women—which in the case of adulterous wives might be sanctioned under "unwritten law"—has historically been treated with similar tolerance in times and places in which a woman's "emancipated" acts were construed as an assault on her husband's male identity and social status. Changes in the law and the social roles of women and minorities since the New Deal have altered—but not eliminated—jury nullification of and judicial leniency toward racial or sexual violence. It remains part of our cultural tradition to regard certain kinds of grievance as legitimate grounds for violence.

As for what the future holds for the use of guns in this country, this week's Supreme Court ruling will likely prove to have a significant impact.