We decided to skip an August book discussion, so our next discussion will be on Sunday, September 29th, when we will discuss _The Second Amendment: A Biography_ by Michael Waldman. We chose this book to take a closer look at the issues involved in Amnesty International’s new campaign to stop gun violence.
At a time of increasing gun violence in America, Waldman’s widely acclaimed book provoked a wide range of discussion. The book looks at history to provide some surprising, illuminating answers to questions surrounding the most controversial, volatile, and misunderstood provision of the Bill of Rights.
The Amendment was written originally to calm public fear that the new national government would crush the state militias made up of all (white) adult men—who were required to own a gun to serve. Waldman recounts the raucous public debate that has surrounded the amendment from its inception to the present. As the country spread to the Western frontier, violence spread too. But through it all, gun control was abundant. In the twentieth century, with Prohibition and gangsterism, the first federal gun control laws were passed and the Supreme Court ruled four separate times against a constitutional right to own a gun.
The present debate picked up in the 1970s—part of a backlash to the liberal 1960s and a resurgence of libertarianism. A newly radicalized NRA entered the campaign to oppose gun control and elevate the status of an obscure constitutional provision. In 2008, in a case that reached the Supreme Court after a focused drive by conservative lawyers, the Court ruled for the first time that the Constitution protects an individual right to gun ownership. Famous for his theory of “originalism,” Justice Antonin Scalia twisted it in this instance to base his argument on contemporary conditions.
Legal scholar Waldman examines the political forces behind this change in the interpretation of the Amendment, including the growing influence of the National Rifle Association and how gun rights play into the culture wars. Waldman offers historical perspective on the fierce debate to decide how much militia the nation should support and then goes on to trace the violent history of gun use in the U.S. and the increasingly contentious debate about crime and safety, all against the backdrop of debates about “originalism” as applied to the Constitution. This is a lively and engaging exploration of the radically different perspectives of the Founding Fathers, worried about the nation’s ability to protect itself yet fearful of a powerful military, and contemporary politicians fretting over culture wars and the role of government and the rights of individuals.
In The Second Amendment: A Biography, Michael Waldman shows that our view of the amendment is set, at each stage, not by a pristine constitutional text, but by the push and pull, the rough and tumble of political advocacy and public agitation.