“Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” by Adam Winkler

“A succinct and fascinating introduction to the legal and historical issues at the heart of the gun debate.”

–Eric Arnesen, professor of history at George Washington University and fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars”

Gunfight CoverGunfight-We the People

“Federal gun control of the twentieth century has made machine guns unusual and uncommon, while the absence of serious restrictions on the availability of handguns has given people the opportunity to choose them for self-defense. The scope of the Second Amendment’s protections was not, in other words, defined by the original meaning of the Constitution. The protections were shaped instead by the marketplace choices of twentieth-century consumers, made within the confines of contemporary government regulation.”
― Adam Winkler, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America


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The Case:

Author Winkler explores the Second Amendment through the lens of history and the landmark gun-control case, District of Columbia v. Heller, 544 U.S. 270 (2008)).

D.C. v. Heller opinion link.

See also this animated explantion of the Heller opinion:

Discussion Questions:

1. In the book’s preface, Winkler states his goal is to demonstrate that two ideas—the right to bear arms and gun control—are not mutually exclusion propositions. In fact, historically, America has always had both. Did Winker accomplish his goal?

2. In 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court recognized the Second Amendment protected an individual right to bear arms thereby abandoning the militia theory. Winkler structures his book around this case and its individual players interrupting the story at carefully measured intervals to provide historical and legal digressions on gun rights and control. Was this an effective way to push the narrative?

3. Americans enacted gun control laws in the colonial era, at the founding, in the antebellum South, in the Wild West, during the Prohibition Era, and after World War II. Even towns on the western frontier enacted ordinances that required visitors to hand over their guns to public officials for storage for the duration of their visits. The towns sought to create conditions of law and order to attract investment, not Hollywood-style spectacles involving shoot-outs. Gun control efforts have a dark side including being the ostensible basis for the formation of the Klu Klux Klan. Did the historical evolution of gun control laws surprise you? Change your feelings about them?

4. An interesting aspect of Winkler’s book is that he uses history to take on “extremists” on both sides—the gun rights advocate who believes even modest gun control violate American traditions and gun control adherents (“Gun Grabbers”) who fail to appreciate that objective data suggests that gun control measures do not reduce crime. Did Winkler convince you that zealots on either side of the debate are misguided? Did he change your position on gun control?

5. One of the strongest arguments against gun control laws is that realization that the genie is out of the bottle. As of 2015, it is estimated that there are 300 million firearms in the United States. Firearms, if properly taken care of, will remain operational for literally decades. Winkler submits that it would be impossible, especially in the face of an adamantly opposed segment of the population, to confiscate existing firearms. In essence, firearms are here to stay. Do you agree that this reality poses an substantial obstacle to effective gun control legislation? What, if anything, can be done to reduce the existing stockpile of firearms? Should anything be done?

Gunfight-Gun and Drug Control

6. Walker suggests the now deceased Justice Scalia, the author of the majority opinion in D.C. v. Heller, wrote an opinion that was politically practical, but jurisprudentially questionable. For instance, the opinion claims that “long-standing” prohibitions on gun ownership, such as felon in possession laws, would not be impacted. Yet the federal felon in possession law is not that “longstanding” first appearing in the Federal Firearms Act of 1938. Justice Scalia, a long time critic of judicial rule-making and originalist, appears to have done just that—created a practical, but not originalist-based, interpretation of the Second Amendment. Is the D.C. v. Heller opinion a prime example of “judicial activism,” an activity which conservatives clam to adhor? Is judicial activism really just a label put on any opinion with which a constituency disagrees?

Gunfight-Supreme Court Decision Breakdown

7. Finally, did you think the book was a balanced, unbiased look at the history and politics of firearms in America?


The Author:

Gunfight-Adam Winkler

Adam Winkler is a professor of constitutional law at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been featured on CNN and in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the New Republic. A columnist for the Daily Beast, he lives in Los Angeles.

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