The school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut spurred hope not just for sensible gun regulation, but for a more nuanced discussion of America's gun culture.
Neither wish has been realized.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced last week that he's pulling an assault weapons ban out of a broader gun regulation package — concerned it might sink the whole enterprise
And the debate — beginning with National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre's combative press conference a week after Newtown — remains about as polarized as ever.
Indeed, some of the most intriguing entreaties for a third way came just before Newtown — including former New York Times correspondent and editor Craig Whitney's book Living With Guns: A Liberal's Case for the Second Amendment.
Whitney, who was at Brown University last week to speak on a panel about gun culture, takes on both sides in the unending fight. He chides the NRA for its resistance to any and all gun control, noting that the government has long exercised a right to place reasonable restrictions on firearms.
And he brushes aside the liberal contention that the Second Amendment confers a collective right to bear arms, tied to the maintenance of state militias. The gun rights advocates' reading — that the Constitution bestows an individual right — is surely the proper one, he writes.
The Phoenix caught up with Whitney for a Q&A after the Brown panel discussion. The interview is edited and condensed.
WHAT WOULD THOMAS JEFFERSON OR JOHN HANCOCK SAY ABOUT WHETHER THE SECOND AMENDMENT WAS INTENDED TO CONFER AN INDIVIDUAL OR COLLECTIVE RIGHT TO BEAR ARMS? Oh, they'd say an individual right, because that's the way it was understood by everybody at the time. They's had it as colonists and knew it very well.
GUN RIGHTS ADVOCATES SUGGEST THAT IF WE PASS ANY GUN REGULATION IT COULD LEAD TO GUN CONFISCATION DOWN THE LINE. YOU SUGGEST IN YOUR BOOK THAT THE IDEA IS FOLLY. WHY? Well, even the new gun control act in New York State, which bans so-called assault rifles, would not confiscate any of them that are out there already. It would make it difficult or impossible to buy a new one. Confiscation is a shibboleth that the gun rights extremists at the NRA use to scare their members into thinking they have to oppose any kind of measure that might make gun control a little stronger.
DOES THE SUPREME COURT RULING IN 2008 RECOGNIZING AN INDIVIDUAL RIGHT TO BEAR ARMS PROVIDE A FIREWALL AGAINST CONFISCATION ANYWAY? Well, yes. It ruled that you can't ban weapons that are commonly used in self-defense in the home.
YOU URGE THE TWO SIDES TO REACH COMMON GROUND AND DEBATE REASONABLE RESTRICTIONS ON GUNS. BUT DOESN'T THAT PRESUME THE TWO SIDES ARE EQUALLY POWERFUL AND EQUALLY FLEXIBLE, WHEN THE NRA HAS SHOWN ITSELF MORE POWERFUL AND NOT NEARLY AS FLEXIBLE AS ITS OPPONENTS? I think that if members of the NRA — large majorities support things like universal background checks, or say they do in polls — would overcome their shyness and speak up and let Wayne LaPierre know when he's not speaking for them, then you might see a more equal balance of forces.
DO YOU HAVE ANY FAITH IN THE PROSPECTS OF A REASONABLE DEBATE OVER GUN CONTROL? IF IT CAN'T HAPPEN AFTER NEWTOWN, CAN IT EVER HAPPEN? I think it's been a more reasoned debate than it had been before — not as much as some people hoped. But we do things one step at a time.