Patrick Blanchfield in n+1:
AMERICA ALREADY HAS GUN CONTROL—all kinds of gun control. Start with the guns themselves: sawed-off shotguns are legal for general public ownership in Indiana; take one into Ohio and you’re looking at a felony charge. A pistol magazine that holds eleven rounds is a matter of indifference to Rhode Island; carry it into Connecticut and you’ve committed a crime. Even the definition of what makes a gun “loaded” differs from state to state. Or consider the laws governing concealed carry, which dozens of states have dramatically liberalized since the 1990s. In many states you don’t need to take a written test, sit through a safety video, or even prove you know how to fire a gun, let alone reliably hit a target, to be licensed to carry a concealed weapon. In other localities, you must do all of the above—and still you might be denied, because the criteria are black-box, subject to the discretion of the issuing authorities. In still other states you need no license at all: if you can buy a gun, you can carry it concealed. Complicating things further is a baroque network of reciprocity laws whereby some states recognize permits issued by others and issue permits to nonresidents. This landscape changes so rapidly that gun carriers who travel across state borders often rely on smartphone apps to alert them to local regulations.
Against this complex backdrop, the temptation to focus obsessively on particular interest groups and pieces of legislation—namely, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Second Amendment—is understandable. Despite the endless talk about both, the history and role of each may be somewhat different than you think. For nearly a century, the NRA focused on hunting and the cultivation of marksmanship in patriotic rapprochement with the US military and supported firearms registration laws and gun bans. The NRA’s emphasis on guns as tools for self-defense only really arose during the turbulent political and demographic upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s—as did its vehement rhetorical focus on the Second Amendment. As for the Amendment itself, things are also more complicated: whatever the status of the individual right to bear arms in the nation’s Constitution, an overwhelming number of state constitutions guarantee it in no uncertain terms. If the Second Amendment were to disappear tomorrow, the on-the-ground legal reality in forty-four states would remain the same.
The fiery debates over guns that regularly suck the air out of American public discourse rarely acknowledge these realities. This is in part because reckoning with an endlessly complicated mess of technical particularities, local oddities, and regional differences makes for poor national political theater.