Giving Up the Gun

On the morning of March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan waved to the crowd as he departs a speaking event at a Washington D.C. hotel. Grinning characteristically, he holds out his hands to greet cries of “President Reagan!” with his benediction. John Hinckley, then, attempts to impress his idol Jodie Foster by firing six bullets at Reagan at point-blank range, and the statuesque figure of the President disappeared instantly from the scene. Watching the press footage of the incident, one barely gets a glimpse of his barreling limousine. Hinckley, a twenty-five-year-old from Ardmore, Oklahoma, who had stalked Foster for over a year, is hidden from view beneath a huddle of Secret Service agents. The most prominent figure on the scene is a squat-looking man in a three-piece grey suit and brown leather shoes, who bellows commands at the crowd. Press Secretary James Brady, Washington, D.C. police officer Thomas Delaharty, and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy all lie limp on the sidewalk and need an ambulance. There’s no car to deposit Hinckley into, and the press keep trying to get a good look at the gunman’s face. In his right hand, the grey-suited man hoists aloft a large submachine gun.

Several polls sponsored by Time Magazine in the run-up to the 1984 election asked Americans to identify issues that would influence their vote in November. Not surprisingly, between 42 and 52 percent of registered voters said the question of gun control would influence their decision “a lot,” and between 82 and 86 percent said it would have some effect on their ballot.

But when asked the same question in 1996, only 4 percent of voters identified gun control as an important issue. In 2000, that number reached only 17 percent, despite the infamous shooting at Columbine High School the previous year. An MSNBC exit poll of the 2004 election didn’t even include gun control as an option. Neither did the “Talking to America” survey of the electorate prior to the 2008 election.

Why not? Incidents at Columbine and Virginia Tech, after all, were far grislier than John Hinkley’s failed assassination attempt, and lacked a smiling Presidential victim joking with surgeons in pre-op. In February 2010, Amy Bishop’s murder of three of her colleagues in the biology department of the University of Alabama in Huntsville bore sad witness to the continuing power of gun crimes to captivate national attention, as did Jiverly Voong’s April 2009, shooting spree at an immigrant center in Binghamton, New York, and US Army Major Nidal M. Hasan’s armed assault on Fort Hood in Texas last November.

Can it be that, in spite of these isolated tragedies, the issue of gun control has been largely resolved? Since 1984, the number of US households with guns has declined from 47.5 percent to 36 percent, perhaps because violent crimes, too, have slowly declined since their 1990 peak. And 2,262 New Yorkers were murdered in 1990, compared to 471 last year. Perhaps it’s not just the political weight of the gun control issue that’s in decline, but the actual social gravity.

“Fewer Americans see a … benefit in getting a gun for their personal protection,” remarks Robert Spitzer, chair of the political science department at SUNY-Cortland and author of The Politics of Gun Control. “Most gun purchases are made by people who already own guns,” Spitzer said, with the caveat that a paucity of good statistics makes definitive characterizations difficult.

Meanwhile, high-profile political candidates have moderated their views accordingly. While Democrats had put stronger gun control at the center of their platform for decades, President Bill Clinton in his 1992 campaign moderated that talk with references to the popularity of hunting in his home state of Arkansas. In the run-up to the 2008 election, Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Joe Biden spoke proudly of his guns and promised fellow owners of firearms that they had little to fear from then-Senator Barack Obama (D—Illinois). Even Senator John Kerry (D—Massachusetts) found it necessary to awkwardly trot out his hunting gear shortly before the 2004 contest, although he got someone else to carry the dead goose. Placatory messages from left-wing figures, meanwhile, have given the right little to campaign on. “Democrats have been stepping away from the issue, so it fades from public view,” said Spitzer.

Thus, over time, the political debate became resilient to even the most public tragedies. In late July 1998, Russell Eugene “Rusty” Weston, Jr. jumped into his father’s Chevy pickup and drove from Valmyer, Illinois, to Washington, D.C., in a single day. He didn’t stop until he reached the Capitol. Inside, he tried to skirt the metal detector, and when Capitol Police officer J. J. Chestnut confronted him, Weston produced a .38 revolver and shot Chestnut in the eye. As civilians dove for cover, Weston marched on to the offices of Rep. Tom DeLay (R—Texas), then the House Majority Whip, where staffers were celebrating a recent legislative victory. Inside, Special Agent John Gibson was waiting for him. Both fired. Gibson died, while Weston was incapacitated. Walking outside the Capitol after the shooting, Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R—California) was asked what effect the shooting might have on gun control laws. “After an incident like this, I’m sure there’s going to be some reflection,” he remarked, but by no means could Congress “take guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens.”

Two years ago, however, the moderate consensus was dealt a major blow. At the time, the District of Columbia Official Code prohibited residents of the city from keeping functional firearms at home. Dick Anthony Heller, a D.C. police officer who wanted to keep a gun in his residence, sued to overturn the law on the basis of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which states, “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.” The Supreme Court, voting 5-4, concurred with Heller, voiding the ban. While the court endorsed a broad range of acceptable limitations on the right to bear arms, such as the power of the government to ban guns from felons or the mentally ill, it ruled a that general prohibition violates the Constitution.

With D.C. v. Heller, the court broke a 70-year silence on the Second Amendment with a strong endorsement of the right to bear arms. The decision, in and of itself, had little effect: because DC. v. Heller struck down a law of the District of Columbia, it applied only to the federal government. But the Court has set the stage for a much greater change.

Contrary to public belief, the Bill of Rights initially did not apply to the states, limiting only federal powers. Starting in 1925, the Supreme Court began applying individual Constitutional amendments to strike down state and local laws. This selective “incorporation” of Constitutional freedoms, which relies on the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of “due process of law,” has required state governments to abide by many of the guarantees of the Bill of Rights. The Second Amendment, however, has never been incorporated against the states.

Now, a pair of cases, National Rifle Association v. Chicago and McDonald v. Chicago, seems poised to accomplish just that. A host of legal experts, including Spitzer, concur that the Court will incorporate the Second Amendment against the states after McDonald v. Chicago’s oral arguments in March. The National Rifle Association, which hesitated to back Heller’s case out of concern that the Court would rule against their interests, has since worked tirelessly to share in the spotlight of McDonald, signaling their newfound confidence. They, and allied organizations, have promised a host of legal challenges in McDonald’s wake.

The consequences are potentially wide-reaching. “The NRA and the [libertarian] Cato Institute have made clear through their actions that they oppose essentially all gun laws,” said Spitzer. To be sure, the District of Columbia’s handgun ban and similar state laws addressed by McDonald mark some of the nation’s toughest regulations. Nevertheless, many jurisdictions, including New York, could see changes in firearms policy. For example, a representative of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association said that his organization could use McDonald to challenge a law that gives the NYPD broad discretion in granting handgun licenses. D.C. v. Heller makes allowances for “reasonable” restrictions, but much will rest on lower courts’ application of that vague standard. For those who campaign for stricter limits on how and where guns may be acquired and used, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the new legal challenges will create troublesome delays, if not outright roadblocks.

D.C. v. Heller marks a victory for all advocates of looser gun laws, including many civil libertarians, recreational hunters, and other law-abiding citizens. “Most [gun-owners] own guns for hunting and sporting reasons,” commented Spitzer. For one more worrisome group of citizens, however, the change could not come at a better time. In the 1990s, militias and conspiracy theorists directed a grim campaign of violence with government institutions and officeholders as the primary targets. The “Patriot” movement, which had largely vanished during George W. Bush’s tenure in office, now seems to be making an aggressive return to the American landscape. According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, over 50 new militia training groups have formed in recent years. Their rhetoric centers around a deep distrust of President Obama and of African-Americans more broadly, but the 2008 election alone does not explain the new rise in paramilitary activity. Controversially, in 2009 the FBI launched a new investigation of the links between Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and the new militias. Meanwhile, swirling theories of immigrant conspiracies further radicalize the militia movement, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports. The rise of more mainstream right-wing populist movements have also had their impact. “Some of the people who are gravitating to the Tea Party movement belong to this radical fringe,” said Spitzer.

Certainly, the new militias are to some extent temporary and a product of changing conditions. Spikes in gun purchases after Sept. 11 and Obama’s election did not mark sustained trends, suggesting that paramilitary activity is driven more by short-term fears than long-term planning. More to the point, fears surrounding 2009’s economic depths likely drove some of the uptick in militia membership. A recent pronounced decline in illegal immigration should also serve to belie some of the anti-immigrant movement’s claims of a building crisis. But at a time when even non-violent conservative movements play explicitly on ideas of revolution and uprising, recent developments in America’s gun culture demand the public’s attention. As Ronald Reagan, James Brady, Thomas Delaharty, and Timothy McCarthy discovered, peace can be shattered in an instant.

With thanks to Professor Richard Pious of Barnard College and Professor Robert Spitzer of SUNY-Cortland for their assistance.