‘Living With Guns’ author to speak about finding middle ground

March 23, 2013

Craig Whitney spent much of his long career with The New York Times as a reporter in Europe, where he got the same question over and over.

“People would often ask me in a baffled way, ‘What is it about you Americans and guns?’ especially after things like Columbine happened,” he said. “I would give the best answer I could, but then I realized I didn’t really know myself.”

After retiring as an assistant managing editor in 2009, Whitney decided to find out. The result of his research was the book, Living With Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment (Public Affairs Books, $28.99). It was published last November, a month before the school massacre in Newtown, Conn.

cwhitney_headshotWhitney will be in Lexington this week to talk about his findings, some of which surprised him. His book offers a path to finding sensible middle ground in the gun-control debate, balancing Second Amendment rights with public safety.

Whitney’s lecture is at 7 p.m. March 28 in the University of Kentucky’s Taylor Education Building, 597 South Upper Street. It is sponsored by UK’s College of Communication and Information, the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

In an interview last week, Whitney said he began his research by looking at Colonial history to find out what the nation’s founders intended when they wrote the Constitution’s Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Many gun-control advocates argue that the Second Amendment is an anachronism, or that it was never meant to guarantee the right of individual gun ownership outside military service. But the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected that argument twice recently, in 5-4 rulings in 2008 and 2010 that struck down handgun bans in Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

“I found myself surprisingly agreeing with the conservative justices,” Whitney said. “That it is an individual right, not tied to militia service, and that the Second Amendment recognized a common-law right the colonists had had from the very beginning.”

Whitney said gun-control advocates must accept the Second Amendment, as well as the reality that gun ownership is a deeply ingrained aspect of American culture that isn’t going away. His book notes that more than 60 million Americans own more than 300 million firearms.

By the same token, gun-rights advocates should quit stoking fear that the federal government will somehow find a way to confiscate the weapons of law-abiding citizens. That would be clearly unconstitutional, Whitney said, and such paranoia stymies much-needed public safety measures like universal background checks.

The National Rifle Association has promoted gun-seizure fears since the 1970s. Whitney noted that it has been an effective fundraising strategy for the NRA and has dramatically increased gun sales.

Whitney doesn’t own guns, although he carried one while serving in the Navy in Vietnam. Legal gun ownership is difficult where he lives in New York City. But he is an NRA member.

img-living-with-guns“I joke in the book that I would never have believed half the things that the media report the NRA says if I hadn’t read them in the NRA’s monthly magazine,” he said.

Whitney is critical of the NRA, but he is just as critical of extreme gun-control advocates such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Violent crime has declined dramatically in America during the past two decades, but Whitney disputes NRA propaganda crediting that to more people carrying guns for self-defense.

“I also don’t buy Mayor Bloomberg’s argument that keeping people like me from buying guns or having them in New York City keeps crime down in New York City,” he said.

Whitney noted that more than half the nation’s 30,000 annual gun deaths are suicides — and half of those are done with rifles and shotguns. While so-called assault weapons have been used in high-profile massacres, most gun crimes are committed with handguns.

“Common sense is what we need to apply to the gun-control debate,” Whitney said.

“Not ideology, which on the one hand says that all regulations are unconstitutional and on the other hand says all guns should be illegal.”

Whitney’s book makes several sensible policy recommendations. History shows that guns have been regulated since the nation’s earliest days, and the Supreme Court has clearly stated that reasonable gun regulations are perfectly constitutional.

One of the most effective strategies, Whitney believes, would be state licensing of gun owners after they receive safety training and pass a proficiency test. Who should do the training and testing? Whitney suggests the NRA.

“Politically, they’ve gone off the deep end,” Whitney said of the NRA. “But I think they do excellent work in the firearms training and safety courses they have.”

Improving the public’s proficiency with firearms was the main reason the NRA was founded in 1871, Whitney noted in his book. And one of the two founders, William C. Church, was a former reporter for The New York Times.

Newtown shows we must search for sensible middle ground on guns

December 22, 2012

Guns don’t kill people; mentally disturbed people with easy access to guns kill people. The problem is simple and obvious. The solutions are anything but that.

After every senseless mass murder — Paducah, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, and so many others — a predictable pattern emerges:

Gun-control advocates call for more gun control. Mental health advocates call for more diagnosis and treatment. Religious people say these tragedies wouldn’t happen if (their) religion were taught in public schools.

Then, this happens:

The gun lobby stirs up fear that any restrictions are a first step toward government confiscation of all firearms. That fear, plus a lot of money, allows the National Rifle Association to cow politicians into complacency.

Insurance companies and taxpayers decide that effective mental health care is too pricey.

Religious people decide it is too much trouble to work with other denominations and faiths — and those who profess no faith — to oppose elements in society that glorify violence. Many of them pay to see Hollywood’s shoot ’em up blockbusters, or turn a blind eye as their children play violent video games or listen to gangsta rap.

Will this time be different? Maybe.

The gun lobby’s response to the killing spree in Newtown, Conn., was predictable: blame everything except guns. The NRA called Friday for armed guards in schools. The gun lobby has always argued that America would be safer if more people carried guns — as if anyone wants to live in a society where everyone is armed to the teeth and any dispute can end in gunfire.

But other responses were different. Several pro-gun members of Congress and other conservatives acknowledged that some common-sense gun-control is needed. President Barack Obama said he would propose legislation early next year to curb gun violence, which killed more than 11,000 Americans last year.

The politics may have shifted because of the circumstances of this atrocity — 20 first-graders, six brave educators and the shooter’s mother murdered in cold blood in an affluent New England village.

Timing may be a factor, too. Newtown happened 11 days before Christmas. Members of Congress won’t stand for re-election for almost two years. The president just began his second and final term.

Here’s the challenge, though: finding sensible middle ground on gun control. The NRA has been wrong to oppose any gun restrictions. But those who want to ban most or all guns are wrong, too.

A sweeping gun ban wouldn’t solve the problem, any more than Prohibition stopped drunkenness or the “war on drugs” has stopped drug abuse. It would only punish and could even endanger law-abiding citizens. Still, limiting access to the most lethal weapons is essential to any solution.

That is why law-abiding gun owners must step up now and help figure out the sensible middle ground. That includes thousands of gun owners in Kentucky, which a recent study indicates may be the nation’s most heavily armed state.

I come from a family with many guns, none of which have ever hurt anyone. I have enjoyed hunting and target shooting. I’m a good shot, and I’m proud of it. I understand why people want guns for sport, collecting and protection.

But I don’t understand why anyone but soldiers and police officers should have combat-style weapons with high-capacity magazines like those used repeatedly to inflict mass carnage on innocent people.

I also don’t understand why all people owning semi-automatic weapons should not be screened to see if they or members of their household pose an obvious risk to public safety.

I don’t understand why guns should not be subject to licensing requirements at least as stringent as motor vehicles. (Spare me the anti-government paranoia.)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to own guns. But the ruling was clear that gun rights are balanced against public safety rights, and lawmakers can impose restrictions.

“Like most rights,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, “the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.”

The time for stonewalling is over. Gun enthusiasts must stop hiding behind the Second Amendment, just as media moguls who pedal carnage as entertainment must stop hiding behind the First Amendment.

Responsible gun owners must engage in an honest public discussion about public safety and sensible gun control if they are to have any hope that the results will be sensible. Freedom isn’t free; it comes with responsibility.