Host, Mark Kleiman:
Adam Winkler’s Gunfight is a book of contradictions: a dispassionate book about a passionately debated topic, a sane book about competing insanities, a page-turner about legal doctrine and obscure bits of history, a piece of serious scholarship combined with journalistic flair. Someone coming into the debates about gun policy would have no problem following the argument; I, as a minor-league expert on pieces of the topic, learned something new to me on about every second page, on average.
The topic is the gun-rights-advocates vs. gun-controllers front in the culture wars. The narrative thread concerns the Heller case which finally led the Supreme Court to say that – yes indeed – the Second Amendment confers an individual, and not exclusively a collective, right “to keep and bear arms.” Ironically, the National Rifle Association, the heart of the gun lobby, did everything it could to derail the case and to take it away from the obscure young lawyer who first brought it.
The author, by no means a fan of the gun culture, argues that the gun-rights folks had by far the stronger historical and textual argument on the meaning of the Second Amendment. He convinces me, though I don’t know the topic well enough to have an expert opinion. Moreover, he claims – and here I emphatically agree, from a somewhat deeper knowledge base – that the gun control movement has been ill-served by both unrealistic goals such as eliminating private gun ownership and fixation on symbolic issues such as gun registration. (He doesn’t stress what to me is the other main sin of the gun controllers: their sheer technical ignorance.)
But Winkler also shows how the stubborn opposition of the gun-rights lobby to workable, commonsense gun control measures with massive majority support – for example, requiring background checks for gun purchases – fully justifies the “gun nut” label applied to that faction by its opponents. When a scofflaw gun dealer whose inventory supplied multiple murder weapons in illegal transactions – about which the paperwork was conveniently lost – is elected to the NRA board after his dealing license has been revoked, it’s clear that we’re not dealing with anything approaching a normal political organization.
Winkler also shows that gun control has roots in American culture and American legal history just as deep as the roots of gun rights, and that the NRA itself only became the reactionary lobbying giant it is today after a carefully organized palace coup in the late 1970s.
One word of caution to readers of the book: Don’t pick it up just before bedtime. You might not be able to put it down until dawn.