There’s a reporter for the Washington Star named Emily Miller who tried last year to get a gun license in Washington, D.C., and then wrote a book about her experience which was splashed over every right-wing blog and media outlet imaginable. She became, no slight intended, the darling of the pro-gun movement. Around the same time a professor at SUNY-Cortland applied for a gun license in upstate New York following the passage of Andy’s SAFE Act, and he also wrote about his experience in a chapter of a new book, and nobody noticed the chapter or the book at all.
But I got news for you. In terms of advancing and/or illuminating the current argument about guns, the book written by Miller is a dud. It’s nothing more than an over-hyped, stupidly obvious attempt to promote the gun industry’s obsession with concealed-carry licensing, with the usual anti-Obama, anti-liberal asides thrown in as well. About what you would expect from the Washington Times. On the other hand, Robert Spitzer’s book, Guns Across America, is not only an important addition to the gun debate, but contains many small gems and nuggets of information that cannot be found elsewhere.
The basic thesis of the book is that the attempt to justify the current movement towards more relaxed gun laws, supposedly based on long-standing traditions of gun ownership recognized well prior to the 2nd Amendment, is actually an exercise in standing history on its head. According to Spitzer, who presents meticulously-researched documentation to back up his argument, if there’s anything exceptional about America and its guns, it can be found in the degree to which the ownership and use of firearms was the subject of numerous laws and regulations from the earliest times. Moreover, the notion that keeping a gun in the home for personal defense, had little, if any basis either in practice or laws, notwithstanding the effort by Antonin Scalia to legitimize this so-called ‘tradition’ in the majority opinion written for the landmark Heller decision in 2008.
How far back on the North American Continent did gun control go? In fact, the first gun-control ordinance appeared in 1619, when the very first General Assembly met at Jamestown, twelve years after the colony was established, deliberated for five days and produced a series of statutes including one that punished by death anyone who supplied the Indians with a gun. Virtually every colony passed some kind of ordinance regulating guns during the colonial period, including five colonies that severely restricted or outlawed carrying of weapons on the person. If keeping a gun at home for self defense, particularly a handgun is, according to Justice Scalia, an American ‘tradition,’ then the legal precedents that should serve to justify that tradition simply aren’t there.
Spitzer is at pains to create a balanced picture of the issues surrounding the gun debate, and in many instances describes how the gun-control community has often fostered as many mistaken notions about gun use for which the pro-gun movement is often blamed. But one place where he digs up some really choice nuggets is the discussion about the assault weapons ban. He notes there is nothing intrinsically unsafe about AR or AK-style weapons, even though they appear to be frequently used in mass shootings and attempts to kill police. On the other hand, he also references gun industry advertisements which clearly illustrate the degree to which it was the industry, not the anti-gun liberals, who first began promoting the nomenclature of ‘assault weapons’ in order to spur sales of guns.
Spitzer ultimately argues that, in fact, there are two traditions in America involving guns; a tradition of ownership and also a tradition of regulating guns. He doesn’t see any contradiction between these two traditions because even the New York SAFE law didn’t prevent him from owning a gun. In sum, Guns Across America is a really good book and you should read I when you get a chance.