Gun Control Before Newtown, and After

Craig Whitney, author of 'Living With Guns', discusses the Second Amendment, the NRA, and Obama's gun proposals.

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In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, debates over gun control legislation have once again taken center stage in Washington. In Living With Guns: A Liberal's Case for the Second Amendment, former New York Times reporter Craig Whitney traces the history of the Second Amendment and the legislative efforts to regulate guns since the beginning of time. He recently spoke with U.S. News about America's gun culture, how the Second Amendment has been reinterpreted over time, and President Obama's proposals to stem gun violence. Excerpts:

Why was the Second Amendment included in the Bill of Rights?

It was part of a number of assurances that the people who had written the Constitution thought they had to give to ensure that enough states [would ratify] the Constitution. This was a guarantee that the states could keep their militias as a possible deterrent to an attempt to impose tyranny by some kind of evil or power-mad national leader using a standing army, which the founders thought was the most dangerous thing they could think of to liberty. It was a political move to make sure the states could keep their militias up.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

How has the idea of gun ownership changed?

The colonists needed guns to hunt and defend themselves against [Native American] attacks and eventually against the British, et cetera. So there was always a component of self-defense, but it became connected with a civic duty to serve in the militia, in the common defense. And what's changed in recent years is that the [National Rifle Association] and other radical gun rights organizations have propagated the idea that you need to have a gun for your own self-defense. Personal self-defense was never part of the debates about the Second Amendment back in the time it was adopted. Because of the turbulence of the 1960s, this notion that self-defense was the prime aim of the Second Amendment and a guarantee against the infringement of your freedom came about.

How influential has the NRA been in the policy debate?

Well, very, because they have been very effective in funding campaigns of candidates who vote on gun legislation the way the NRA wants them to and defeating candidates who don't. It's been one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington for years.

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Do you think they will be able to influence the most recent gun control proposals?

This will be a big test of the NRA's continued effectiveness. If Congress votes everything down and doesn't even approve a tightening of the loophole that exempts private sellers from going through the [National Instant Criminal Background Check System] database with the buyer's name, then I guess the NRA's strength has not been affected by Newtown. But if enough people speak up about what they want their legislators to do and don't let the NRA monopolize the discussion, then Congress might do things differently.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should Obama's Gun Control Proposals Be Enacted?]

If passed, what effect would President Obama's gun control proposals have?

All of the proposals I make in my book turn up in one form or another in the Obama proposals. They go beyond mine in suggesting a ban on assault rifles, but things like making it a crime to sell a gun or buy one for a person who is legally not entitled to own a firearm, like a criminal or drug addict, a mentally ill person, I do agree could reduce the numbers of gun deaths that we have every year.

Would the measures stop school shootings?

I don't think there's any gun control measure that can stop mass school shootings, including a ban on assault rifles. A ban on expanded magazines might have some effect and that I think might possibly get through Congress. I think you need other measures beyond gun control to deal with the phenomenon of mass shootings by deranged people. I'm glad to see that Obama included some proposals to improve the way mental health care is provided. And the [recently passed] New York state law gives mental health professionals the go-ahead to report patients they think are likely to commit violent acts to mental health [officials who will check a state gun registration database]. Law enforcement can then take their weapons away if they have any.