Event report: Gunfight The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America

19 October 2011

This event was hosted by Faiz Shakir, Vice President and Editor of ThinkProgress, at the Center for American Progress on 19 October 2011.

Professor Winkler, author of The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, opened the discussion in response to a question about Heller v. the District of Columbia. The case, which determined that the District could not place a ban on the ownership of firearms for traditionally lawful purposes, raised important questions for the future of gun control. Some people seemed to believe that it would lead to reckless proliferation of gun ownership. However, the ruling actually struck a good balance between protecting the Second Amendment and keeping the community safe.

Following later discussion about the gap in attitudes between the National Rifle Association (NRA)and its membership, Winkler said that it is typical for a member association that its leadership is more uncompromising than its members. A huge majority of NRA members would like gun sales to be restricted for individuals who are on the terrorist watch list, for example. However, there is currently a lack of vital court oversight for determining which persons are deemed suitable for the watch-list of terrorists, and this conflicts with the fact that the Second Amendment grants citizens the right to bear arms.

He continued, saying that the balance is important because gun ownership is an issue which has become heavily polarized in the US, and a corollary of this is that people are swayed very strongly by what is in the media. Rather than trying ban guns or ban regulation of guns, there are changes that can be made to solve tangible problems such as the fact that currently only 40% of guns sales involve background checks. Winkler opined that the Democratic Party has misunderstood the reason for why gun owners are so attached to the right to bear arms. It isn’t, as often thought, because of the culture of recreational gun sports but rather because people want to feel safer in their homes by owning a gun.

Bob Carpenter, Vice President of American Viewpoint, has found that polling numbers show strong support in the American public for the Second Amendment. Immediately after the Heller v. the District of Columbia, decision was made, the Washington Post found that 77% of respondents agreed with the decision in favor of gun ownership. The American public believes that the application of the right should be sensible. 88% believe that ownership should be prohibited for individuals who are on a terrorism watch list.

On the point about the media impact of gun violence tragedies such as the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 and the Tucson shooting in 2010, Carpenter reported poll numbers showing that they did have measurable impacts on public attitudes. In the days following the Tucson attacks, 41% of people said that gun laws should be stricter while just 8% said they should stay the same.

Everett Gillison, Deputy Mayor at City of Philadelphia, responded to a question about a new bill, the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act, that has been proposed in Congress to apply the gun ownership law of the most deregulated state for gun law to the rest of the country. He said that his biggest objection to the proposal is that it would cause chaos in jurisdictions such as his own in inner city Philadelphia where people are not used to seeing civilians carry weapons. In order to regulate gun laws in the most effective way for people’s safety we need to leave the regulation to local government.

Another problem he identifies with gun crime in the US is that there is simply so much of it that Americans have become immune to it. A large proportion of murders in Philadelphia among the African American community are carried out by hand guns. We have to talk about these problems in a more comprehensive way. Where there is fear that gun rights will be taken from people, we need to meet these fears where they are and work together to create a determined, holistic response.

The event webcast can be viewed here.

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