Winkler on the “Gun Culture” and Liberty

April 14th, 2011

Adam Winkler has an interesting op-ed in the Times that frames the debate over firearms on college campuses in a very even-handed fashion.

Adam opens up his article by referencing the pending legislation in Arizona to permit students to possess firearms on college campuses, framing the debate between the two sides.

Gun advocates insist that will make campuses safer by discouraging mass killers and giving students the ability to fight back. Gun control proponents warn the law will lead to more lethal violence. Both sides are probably wrong. Gun violence at colleges and universities — there are fewer than 20 homicides on campus per year — will probably not be affected much, one way or another. What is really at stake is America’s gun culture.

I agree with Adam’s point. As I have written elsewhere, campus shootings, as tragic as they are, stand as blacks swans; outliers that probably could not be predicted, and knee-jerk reactions to pass hasty laws will not prevent future attacks. The laws passed will do little to curb violence, or to promote safety. They are merely reflections of what Adam calls “gun culture,” or I would probably call conceptions of liberty versus, and the relationship between the individual and the state.

Adam characterizes what he calls the “redoubling” of efforts by “gun right proponents” to make firearm usage more culturally acceptable.

They aren’t reacting to a wave of violence on campus. The true motivation is to remove the stigma attached to guns. Many in the gun rights movement believe there should be no gun-free zones and seek to make the public possession of firearms a matter of course. The protesters who last yearcarried guns into Starbucks shops and Tea Party rallies had the same goal. They weren’t expecting to defend themselves; they were aiming to build broader public acceptance of guns.

In this sense, the “gun culture” merges in with popular conceptions of liberty. To proponents of the Second Amendment, the two are largely indistinguishable.

I address a similar point in the Constitutionality of Social Cost:

We have become so accustomed to living in a world where the Second Amendment is not a constitutional right that even after Heller, we still do not view it as such. The Heller Court was willing to maintain various longstanding prohibitions, even though those precedents were set before the Second Amendment was recognized as an individual right. Until the Fourth Amendment was incorporated, states certainly “differed about the need for” protections of criminal procedure rights. Likewise, until the First Amendment was incorporated, states “differed about the need” for protecting free speech and free exercise. These historical vestiges of the pre-incorporation status serve as nothing more than a reminder of how our Constitution existed before the robust enforcement of federal rights that we have come to enjoy—at least most of the rights.

Following Mapp v. Ohio and Miranda v. Arizona, longstanding police interrogation techniques that violated the Constitution were not upheld—nor should the prohibitions the Heller Court identified. As a result of this anachronistic regime where rules premised on a flawed understanding of the Constitution control, even under Heller and McDonald, the Second Amendment is quite lonely. Now, the Second Amendment should enter that pantheon of rights, and the history of varied unconstitutional regulations will be relegated to just that—history.

Changing the gun culture, or as I see it, promoting liberty, by normalizing the use of firearms is a strong tactic to undo two centuries of constitutional neglect of one of our most fundamental  rights. Popular constitutionalism at its finest.

Adam also notes an important fact. A change in the firearm laws probably will not have much of an effect on violence–namely, people who want to break gun laws will break them.

As a professor, I’d feel safer if guns were not permitted on campus. I worry more about being the target of a student upset about failing grades than about a mass killer roaming the hallways.

But there is little evidence to support my gut feeling. Utah, for example, has not seen an increase in campus gun violence since it changed its law in 2006. And a disturbed student can simply sneak a gun on campus in his backpack, as the Virginia Tech killer did in 2007. Indeed, lost in the debate is the fact that guns, being easy to conceal, are almost certainly on campus already.

Last year I was on a panel discussion with Winkler on McDonald v. Chicago (video here), and found him to be an articulate voice for a contrary view on the Second Amendment. I am very much looking forward to Adam’s new book, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.