Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Adam Winkler: Gunfight

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I requested this book at the library and a couple of days later a man went into a screening of a new movie, took out some guns, and shot a bunch of people.  I picked up the book at the library and a few days later a man went into a Sikh Temple and shot a bunch of people. One could see coincidence in this (don't think that I haven't) or one could see the timeliness and the scary fact of over-abundance of guns in the hands of the wrong people. My first reaction to both of these shootings was my typical reaction: Guns Are Bad, do away with all guns. Adam Winkler's "Gunfight" starts with the premise that this reaction is both impractical- Americans have too many guns- and unconstitutional."Gunfight" is a historical look at the laws regulating gun rights and control in America, as well as some of the societal and cultural feelings on them. It's a pretty mainstream look- without any of the context of the uses of guns for societal control that Kristian Williams gives orJoan Burbick's detailed connections between race and guns.

Winkler structures his book around a 2008 Supreme Court case, District of Columbia v. Heller, where a group of libertarian lawyers sought to overturn a DC law banning handguns. The NRA and anti-gun-control groups tried to stop the lawsuit, fearing that a loss would be a win for gun control fans. The libertarians, confident of a win were sure that overturning this handgun ban would be the start of something big. Winkler has disdain for pretty much both sides: "one set on getting rid of the guns, the other determined to stop guns from being restricted in even modest ways." He demonstrates, aptly, that neither are what the Constitution had in mind, and neither are based in history. What he doesn't demonstrate, is why we shouldn't get rid of the guns. "Gun control diehards" as he calls people like me, "hope that the United States can eventually become more like the United Kingdom, where all hand guns are banned and long guns (shotguns and rifles) are uncommon." He gives short shrift to why this is "unrealistic" and also gives little discussion to why this dream might be something people aspire to. He doesn't discuss why gun control "diehards" are gun control diehards, neatly skirting around incidents like the shootings earlier this month and other mass shootings, and really almost caused me to close the book on page 29 when he attributed many gun deaths to "criminals shooting criminals shooting other criminals," as if that doesn't matter.

While Winkler continues to lean away from the gun-control side, he seems to give an accurate and informative history of the debate, from what I can tell. Everything is consistent with what I've read, including the sharp right-ward turn of the NRA about 50 years ago. His discussion of the history second amendment as well as of the history of the interpretation of the second amendment is informative, and includes some discussion of the implications of the "right to bear arms" throughout American history. Some of his discussions left me confused, however, and unable to more clearly articulate my position on gun control. I agree with Winkler that the discussion is overly polarized, but for "Gunfight" to be successful, I should have left it with a more clear understanding of the constitutional law and the history behind modern interpretations of the law, thus being able to articulate where I stand more precisely OR to having changed my position to be more reasonable.  Neither of these things happened: I can recommend this book for people interested in reading up on the literature, as it's clear while you're reading it and gives lots of information for people like me, who are looking for the facts in the midst of a highly emotional discussion. On the other hand, if you're looking to be educated on the deeper issues, "Gunfight" will leave you hanging.