Gun control and mass shootings: A conversation with a Second Amendment expert


Since 9/11, for every American killed by terrorism in the United States and worldwide, more than 1,000 died from firearms inside the U.S., according to the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Including the attacks of 9/11, 3,380 died between 2001 and 2013, the most recent data available, while 406,496 died from gun violence.

If facts mean anything in a debate quickly being overtaken by hysteria, the facts show that we have a problem in this country with extremism, and we have a problem with the tools these extremists and other murderers use to kill—guns. Adam Winkler, the nation’s pre-eminent expert on the Second Amendment, is a professor of law at UCLA School of Law and author of “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America” (W. W. Norton). After the shooting in San Bernardino, Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman spoke with Winkler by phone. The following is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.

Rob Eshman: We spoke after the shooting in Aurora, Colo., and you predicted that mass shootings would not lead to more gun control. It turns out you were right.

Adam Winkler: Not yet. In thinking back over the last few years, I don’t know that I would use such a strong statement. Newtown [Conn., school shooting] really did change the gun debate in a variety of ways. We’re seeing much more forceful political mobilization on the gun control issue than we had seen in decades. In retrospect, I would say I don’t know that mass shootings will lead toward gun control, but they can invigorate the gun control movement, and that, in the long run, will lead to more gun control.

RE: After the San Bernardino shooting, President Barack Obama’s main proposal is to ban people on the terrorist no-fly list from purchasing handguns.  

AW: It sounds like a common-sense proposal, but it’s somewhat troublesome. Because, generally, we believe in America that you have to have due process of law before you’re stripped of your rights, and the no-fly list is sort of notorious for having the wrong people on it. When the president says, “Well, how can anyone oppose this?” he is not taking seriously his opponents.

RE: You mean their constitutional arguments or their power?

AW: The no-fly list denies a right to get onto a plane to travel. The court had said that there’s a constitutional right to travel. You can’t just tell someone you can’t exercise a fundamental right and we’re not going to tell you why, and we’re not going to give you an opportunity to challenge that in a court of law, and if we do get to a court of law, we’re basically going to say we don’t have to tell you anything. It’s a profoundly illiberal idea. I know it’s popular to think about it in terms of terrorism. Of course we don’t want terrorists to buy guns. The question is, what about the other 398,000 people on the list?

RE: So you’re saying that the main proposal in the president’s post-San Bernardino speech is a nonstarter?

AW: I’d say the main proposal in the Obama speech needs more work. I think you could devise the system where people who are suspected of terrorism can’t buy a firearm, but you need to think seriously about what kind of procedures or protections they’re going to have.

RE: So what are some doable, workable solutions for readers who are just sick and tired of gun violence?  What about Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal for mandatory background checks for ammunition purchase? 

AW: I think it makes sense to require background checks for people who are purchasing ammunition in the same way that it makes sense to require people who buy a gun to go through the background checks. Do I think it’s going to make a difference with regard to mass shootings? No. I mean, largely because most of the mass shooters that we know about obtain their guns legally; that means they’ve been able to legally obtain ammunition as well.

RE: What about requiring that guns be insured? Forcing people who have guns to get liability and personal damage insurance?

AW: You could do that, but, you know, there is always the question, does that create more hazard? Does that lead more gun owners to be less careful with their guns because they can get insurance now?

RE: But wouldn’t it lead insurance companies to make the gun industry build more safety mechanisms into guns, like they have with automobiles?

AW: It’s possible. That might be a way of getting around what is a stalemate over safety advancements in guns. Right now, gun makers are avoiding putting new features in that would make a gun safer because gun owners don’t want them.

RE: So, if I’m sickened every time I read the stories of the innocent people who have been killed in mass shootings, and I finally want to do something about it, what do I do?

AW: Become more politically active. I do think that the reason why the NRA’s been so strong in recent years is because they can mobilize voters on Election Day. There’s a lot of money on the gun rights side that goes into election campaigns; there’s a lot of intense passion on their side. Historically we haven’t seen that same passion on the gun control side.

RE: Which organizations are the most effective?

AW: There are three organizations that seem to be the leading gun control organizations right now. Everytown for Gun Safety, the Brady Campaign and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

RE: Every time I interview you, I inevitably get a letter from somebody saying, “If you take away our guns, we’re going to be as defenseless as the Jews were in Nazi Germany.”

AW: My response is, “Who is talking about taking away all the guns? Where is that proposal in universal background check? Where is that proposal in an insurance requirement like the one that you mentioned?”

RE: So you think gun confiscation is not the right way to go?

AW:  No, absolutely not.

RE: And do you still think that improving criminal background checks and making it more difficult for criminals and the mentally ill to get guns are the two best legislative solutions?

AW: They’re the best legislative solutions to try to bring down the daily death toll from violence. They’re not necessarily the best solutions to stop mass shootings problems, because, like I said, mass shooters tend to get their guns legally and because they generally don’t have a criminal record.

RE: So what do you think is the gun control answer to mass shootings?

AW: I don’t know if there is a gun control answer to mass shootings. People are lawfully getting their guns. We made the decision that we’re going to have guns in our society, with the Second Amendment. If you’re really determined to shoot a lot of people, you’re probably going to be able to get your hands on a gun. That’s why I’d say we work on the universal background check and other ways to reduce the daily death toll with guns. That’s where our reform efforts should be focused. That’s where we can make some headway, and that’s the real problem.

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