Saul Cornell: Time for the Second Amendment to Meet the First

Saul Cornell is the Paul and Diane Guenther Chair in American History at Fordham University.

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?...

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