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Gun Control, RIP

After a year of mass shootings, does a liberal case for firearms ownership matter?

2012 was a horrific year for mass shootings. Americans were shocked by an April spree at a religious school in Oakland that killed seven; the brutal theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, in July that killed 12; the Sikh Temple massacre in Wisconsin in August that claimed six lives; and the September Minneapolis sign-plant slaughter of five; among others. It became almost hard to call these episodes shocking as summer turned to fall—just another expected part of the news landscape, like political scandals or Middle East bombings.

Seems like that should make now a propitious time to issue a book subtitled A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment. Author Craig R. Whitney, a former reporter and editor for the New York Times, has written a volume that tells the cultural and legal history of Americans’ attitudes toward guns, as well as of their right to own and use them.

The book also pushes a set of policy prescriptions that Whitney paints as the rational, intelligent middle between untenable pro-gun attitudes (no new laws restricting our ability to buy, carry, and store weapons) and untenable anti-gun attitudes (no private ownership of firearms). Whitney argues there’s an intractable political divide about guns that only his measured wisdom can bridge.

But the reaction to this year’s string of prominent gun crimes undercuts Whitney’s project. That reaction was—beyond personal and some civic grief—nothing, except a bump in private gun buying. No effective new call for stronger gun regulations arose. As gun-control activists complained, guns and gun policy didn’t come up at all in the domestic-policy presidential debate in October between President Obama and Mitt Romney.

It may be true that there is still, as Whitney writes, “hysteria that passes for discussion of the Second Amendment by gun rights supporters and advocates of gun control.” But that hysteria is localized within a narrow community of obsessives. It’s not dominating American politics or tearing us asunder as a people. It’s not an issue that really demands big rethinking right now.

That doesn’t make what’s valuable in Whitney’s book less so, if you happen to be interested. He provides tight but informative overviews of how and why we have a Second Amendment. He explains how courts and American politics have dealt with it (largely by ignoring the amendment for much of our history). He relates the history of gun-control laws from colonial times to now and navigates the reader through the slow shifts in the legal and academic understanding of what the Second Amendment means that led to the 2008 and 2010 Supreme Court cases Heller v. D.C. and McDonald v. Chicago. Those decisions established, respectively, that the Second Amendment does protect an individual right to possess weapons—at least commonly used ones, in one’s own home—and that the right must be respected by states and localities as well as by the federal government.

Guns are a huge presence on the American landscape, no doubt. With an estimated 300 million firearms privately owned in America, we practically have a weapon for every citizen. In 2010, the last year for which the FBI has data, 67 percent of murders in America were committed with guns, for a total of 8,775 gun murders. (Though reliable hard data are impossible to come by, best estimates indicate that guns in private hands are also used tens of thousands of times a year to prevent crimes.)

But while guns themselves are still a big deal to Americans, the political struggle over them no longer is. At the beginning of the 1990s, Gallup found 78 percent of Americans asking for stricter gun laws. By 2009, that number was 44 percent, a historic low. The Democratic Party has grown leery of the issue, as many Democrats have come to believe that both the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress and Al Gore’s 2000 presidential loss could be blamed on backlash against the party’s gun-control victories of the early 1990s: the Brady Bill, which imposed national background checks before you can buy a gun, and the “assault weapon” ban on certain types of semiautomatic guns and magazines.

Americans have seen the number of guns in private hands continue to rise—and the number of states that pretty much allow any law-abiding citizen to carry concealed weapons reach over 40. We have simultaneously witnessed a 41 percent decline in overall violent crime rates over the past two decades. The homicide rate has fallen by nearly half over that period.

The assault-weapon ban expired in 2004, and though candidate Obama talked up reviving it, President Obama has let it lie. (Not even the ban’s defenders can claim it made the country any safer.) Obama’s sanguine acceptance of gun rights earned him an “F” grade from the Brady Center after his first year in office. His administration’s lack of interest in gun laws did not change even after this year’s wave of high-profile firearms crimes. Americans have come to understand that such acts are still quite rare. More to the point, no imaginable public-policy solution will keep the occasional deranged criminal from doing evil with weapons.

Whitney stresses the importance of keeping guns out of what all reasonable people agree are the “wrong hands,” even as he presents the embarrassing history of colonial and early America, in which seemingly reasonable people believed blacks, Indians, Roman Catholics, and non-property-owners should be kept from weapons. Whitney harps on the notion that the Second Amendment right is supposed to come with civic responsibilities. Though he knows that used to mean being prepared to fight government tyranny, he avoids saying that might ever be necessary today, and Whitney fails to convince a skeptical reader that the civic responsibility in question should mean much more than making sure no one is unjustly harmed by the weapons you own.

Whitney is obsessed with being more stringent in using the information accessible to our existing Brady Law background check system to ensure no one labeled as psychiatrically disturbed or a drug abuser can own a gun. He ignores the reality that the vast majority of people in those categories never use a gun in a criminal way and deserve to own guns for purposes of protection or recreation the same way other Americans do. While we may agree a mass shooter is ipso facto psychiatrically disturbed, it is frequently the case that they have never been authoritatively labeled that way such that a background check would matter. Gun crimes remain mostly outside that part of life which laws or kings can cause or cure.

The historical information in Living With Guns is interesting and mostly apt; the policy prescriptions are mostly beside the point. And the sense of mission that propels the book is misdirected. For all its merits, including readability, this book is a contribution to a policy debate about guns and gun-control that, for now, is over.

Brian Doherty is a senior editor at Reason and author of Gun Control on Trial and Ron Paul’s Revolution: The Man and The Movement He Inspired.