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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The shootings in Tucson reopened debate on one of the most contentious issues in American politics: gun control. My guest, Robert Spitzer, is the author of the book "The Politics of Gun Control," which is now in its fourth edition. A fifth is on the way. It's published by the Congressional Quarterly Press.

The book includes a history of the NRA, an examination of historical and current interpretations of the Second Amendment and a history of gun control law. Spitzer is the distinguished service professor of political science at the State University of New York College at Cortland.

In an attempt to find bipartisan support for tightening restrictions on selling guns to people who are mentally ill, the Obama administration scheduled a closed-door meeting with staffers from the House Judiciary Committee.

Robert Spitzer says that, in the wake of the Tucson shootings, improving recordkeeping to block sales to the mentally ill stands a chance of moving forward, but he thinks we're unlikely to see any other gun laws tighten. Tucson, he says, is unlikely to be a real game-changer.

Mr. ROBERT SPITZER (Author, "The Politics of Gun Control"): Similar events in the past have changed the calculus of how the government has responded to gun violence, but the political atmospherics of the first decade of the 20th century very much run against the idea that there will be any significant change in federal, or probably state gun laws, as a result of the Tucson shooting, even though there are some clear public policy changes that could be made that have or will be introduced into Congress soon and that most people seem to agree with.

GROSS: I think it's fair to say that America kind of went into shock after the Tucson shootings. But what has the NRA's response been?

Mr. SPITZER: Well, the NRA's response to the Tucson shootings has been to say as little as possible and to keep its head down. They are the organization that is most closely identified with gun rights, with the advancement of gun rights, with resisting efforts to enact stronger gun laws.

And by the same token, they've done very, very well politically, so they're in a position right now where there isn't any need for them to be very vocal, publicly, or to draw attention to themselves.

And their approach even more I think than in past, similar shooting incidents, has been simply to say as little as possible, to simply issue a statement of condolence to the families of those who were injured or killed, and to wait for the political storm to pass over and then to pick up politics as usual.

GROSS: And I think to say, too, that the problem in Tucson was the fault of the mental health care industry, as opposed to guns.

Mr. SPITZER: Well, there is also an effort to turn focus away to areas other than guns to explain whatever it is that happens, focusing, for example, on violent video games, on images of violence in the media, on the mental health community, on laws relating to how people are judged mentally incompetent.

Part of the strategy is, indeed, to turn attention to those kinds of questions, especially, of course, the mental health question because it pertained directly to Jared Loughner, the accused Tucson shooter. And that's a further way to turn attention away from gun control laws and gun habits.

GROSS: But while we're on the subject of mental health, what are some of the problems now, in preventing somebody who has a serious mental health problem, which it's likely the shooter Jared Loughner has, to prevent them from getting guns?

Mr. SPITZER: Well, there are two basic sets of problems, I think. One is that mental health information is gathered on a state-by-state basis, and state practices vary widely.

So in the state of Arizona, Jared Loughner did not need to get a permit at all to get a handgun, and the only real requirement he had to fulfill was the federal requirement of a background check, through the federal provision enacted as the Brady Law back in 1993.

His name was not already on a list in the federal databank, so his name was not rejected for the handgun purchase he made last November - even though it was clear that he had mental problems. Nobody in his family or the college where he had been attending had actually taken formal steps, nor the local police, to actually, you know, get a judge to say this man is mentally incompetent and should undergo treatment. And that's a complicated subject matter in and of itself.

But I would also make the comparison between a state like Arizona and a state like New York state. In New York state, when citizens apply for a pistol permit, in order to then purchase a gun, a handgun, legally, the state of New York asks for quite a bit more information.

They ask for four character references, and the permit applicant needs to, among other things, go before a local judge and say this is why I would like to have a handgun before they can get the okay to do it.

And in that more lengthy and detailed process, including the process of interviewing or consulting with character references, had Mr. Loughner lived in New York state, it's abundantly clear that he would not have been able to get a permit.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Spitzer. He's the author of the book "The Politics of Gun Control," and he's a distinguished service professor of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland.

Let's look at the Second Amendment, which is so highly contested, you know, the interpretation of the 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.

What did a well-regulated militia mean at the time the amendment was written?

Mr. SPITZER: Well, the meaning of well-regulated militia was pretty well-understood. The sort of military backbone of the nation in the late 1700s, during the American Revolution and after the American Revolution, was seen to be the militia.

There was a standing professional army after the Revolution, but it was very small. The federal government had few resources to fund a large army, and the territory of America was very vast at the time, and the nation faced many military threats from Native Americans, from the French, from the British, from others.

And so the militia was seen as the key military bulwark that could be organized to confront military emergencies anywhere around the country, but it was very much functioned, and had to function, through state and federal control.

You wanted uniformity in that process. You wanted the government to provide what resources it could, to provide military order, to provide regulations, and so that was what the whole basis of the militia process was.

I would simply add, though, that militarily speaking, militias were, generally speaking, ineffective. We got through the Revolutionary War, as much despite the militias, as because of the militias, as George Washington, commander-in-chief, said on many occasions. And militarily, eventually, we abandoned that old militia system.

GROSS: But the well-regulated militia meant that the militia was serving under state or federal control.

Mr. SPITZER: The phrase well-regulated militia was widely understood to mean control by the government, whether federal government or state.

GROSS: Now, the Second Amendment has become so controversial. Does it mean you can carry guns only if you're in a well-regulated militia, or does it give individuals the right to bear arms, militia or not? And was it always that controversial?

Mr. SPITZER: The Second Amendment in early times was not controversial in the way it is today. It really had become politicized in the 20th century, and we saw the emergence of this debate about whether the Second Amendment protects only militia service or whether it also, or instead, protects a personal right to have guns. And that's become a debate, in legal circles and political circles, very politicized.

As a matter of history, we didn't really see anything like the individual point of view emerge until the 19th century. That doesn't mean that Americans didn't own guns or didn't think that gun ownership was a good thing. Of course they did.

But the chief purpose that is cited for the individual ownership of guns is personal self-protection, from predators, from, you know, criminals, or in colonial times, from marauding Indians or, you know, whatever threats might arise.

But you didn't need the Second Amendment to ensure that civilians would have the right to defend themselves or to use a gun to defend themselves, because the principle of personal self-defense is one that goes back hundreds of years. It's in the common law. It's in the British legal tradition, and that was well-established long before we had the Second Amendment.

GROSS: So at point during the 20th century, does the interpretation of the Second Amendment start to become very controversial?

Mr. SPITZER: The emphasis on the Second Amendment as protecting gun rights really escalates in the 1970s, in the aftermath of Congress' enactment of the Gun Control Act of 1968.

Members of the - representatives from the NRA testified before Congress when Congress held hearings on what became the Gun Control Act of 1968, but the chief emphasis was not on the Second Amendment. It had more to do with how best to control crime and the other sort of behavioral problems associated with guns that were - on which the public focused great attention because of the assassinations of Robert Kennedy, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

But in the 1970s, you see the Second Amendment rhetoric escalate dramatically as an argument against stronger gun laws and to identify gun ownership with American values and historical values.

And so you find this increasingly heavy emphasis on Second Amendment rights and constitutional rhetoric as part of the argument against enacting stronger gun laws.

GROSS: Now, does that coincide with the increasing power of the NRA? I mean, the NRA starts in the 1800s as a group to help people improve their marksmanship. It wasn't a political lobbying group.

Mr. SPITZER: Yeah, that's exactly right. The NRA was formed in 1871 by two Civil War veterans who observed, during the Civil War, that the typical American male didn't know one end of a gun from the other. And that also contradicts the historical mythology about every, you know, every American man being able to use a gun effectively and owning one, because that was not the case.

So the main focus was on marksmanship skills. Later on, hunting and sporting uses became more of the focus of the NRA. And it really only became a heavily politicized group in the 1970s.

In fact, there's really a pivotal moment in 1977, when the NRA held its annual convention in Cincinnati where a faction of the NRA, a more politically conscious and more ideologically extreme element of the NRA, captures control of the organization.

Partly, they're dismayed because the old guard that had controlled the NRA talked about moving the NRA's headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Colorado. And to the political faction, this would have been a terrible blunder.

And they win control of the NRA, and you see two things. You see it spending a lot more of its resources on political activities after this time, and you see much hotter and more extremist political rhetoric coming from the NRA, really climaxing in the early 1990s.

And they've toned down the rhetoric in recent years, but, of course, they're still extremely heavily invested in the political process.

GROSS: How much of the use of the Second Amendment in the gun debate comes from the NRA? In other words, was it the NRA that started relying on the Second Amendment as justification to carry guns and to oppose gun control legislation?

Mr. SPITZER: Well, the NRA certainly led the charge, the political rhetorical charge, to identify what they do with the Second Amendment and gun ownership as a key and core American value. But this also was something that found great resonance in the gun community, and it was very much an approach that already had - that already had much sympathy among gun owners, gun users and also among the sort of rising, more alienated, more arch-conservative, more anti-government elements within society who view government with profound suspicion, who believe that they need to own guns to thwart American governmental tyranny in some manner, and that a day might come where American citizens will need to somehow rise up against their government, and with force of violence and use of guns, restore American democracy from what they view as some kind of coming governmental tyranny.

GROSS: Has the NRA said that you may need arms to protect yourself against government tyranny? Have their said that in their own literature?

Mr. SPITZER: The NRA has said, often, and made various kinds of statements that - stated in fairly general terms for reasons that are not too hard to discern - but saying that, yes, that citizens need to own government - citizens need to own guns so that citizen gun ownership can serve as kind of this bulwark against the onset of governmental tyranny.

And that rhetoric is something of - is dangerous because there is an American tradition of violence against government based on - by citizens based on the belief that the government is tyrannical, is going to become tyrannical. And it's a very delicate line that they walk, partly because if you examine what that means, using force against the government, does that mean capturing and assassinating members of the Supreme Court, of the president, of members of Congress? I mean, that's what the use of violence and guns means.

GROSS: So this kind of rhetoric made its way into the election in 2010, when Sharron Angle, who was running against Harry Reid for his Senate seat in Nevada, said that we might have to use Second Amendment remedies. Were you surprised to hear that kind of rhetoric in a political campaign?

Mr. SPITZER: I was not surprised, but I also found it shocking. That is, we have heard others running for office, and occasionally office-holders, use this kind of incendiary language referencing the Second Amendment and kind of tying it, somehow, to actually using guns against - in the political process.

But to hear it from the nominee of a major political party running for the United States Senate, which is a very prominent race, I did find it, frankly, somewhat shocking, even though we've heard that kind of rhetoric in the past - precisely because its meaning is clear. Its meaning means if don't get my way, I'm reserving to myself, the right to pick up a gun and see that I get my way in the political realm.

And that brings together the intersection of politics and armed violence, and that is deeply troubling.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Spitzer. He's the author of the book "The Politics of Gun Control." And he's a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Spitzer. He's the author of the book "The Politics of Gun Control." And he's a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland.

So you've written about how, until recently, until 2008, the Supreme Court basically interpreted the Second Amendment as meaning, as applying to militias. And it didn't rule out carrying guns, but it didn't also -but also it didn't rule out gun control regulation. But it said that the Second Amendment basically applied - was speaking directly to well-regulated militias.

But that changed in 2008, in the case Washington, D.C., versus Heller. And what was the ruling there? What was the interpretation of the Second Amendment there?

Mr. SPITZER: The District of Columbia versus Heller case from 2008 was a very important case. It marked a very significant change in interpretation of the Second Amendment.

And in the majority decision, authored by Antonin Scalia, he said, or the majority concluded, that the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, now protected an individual right of citizens to own handguns for personal self-defense in the home.

That represented a departure from how the Second Amendment had been interpreted by the Supreme Court in the past and by many lower federal court decisions, all of which had supported a militia-based interpretation, meaning that Second Amendment pertained to gun ownership by citizens but only in connection with their service in a government-organized and regulated militia.

So under the individualist view, there is now this personal right to guns, although the court majority went to great pains to say that most existing gun laws would be fine, that it would not lead to the wholesale striking down of gun laws around the country.

So, for example, laws that said criminals can't have guns, mentally imbalanced people cannot have guns, perfectly fine, laws barring the carrying of guns into government buildings, into schools, perfectly fine, laws pertaining to sale of weapons and perhaps pertaining to the sale of exotic, very destructive weapons, those probably could remain in place, too.

So it changed the legal definition, but the court also did not want to be in a position of opening the floodgates to striking down, willy-nilly, gun laws around the country, and that caution is also reflected in the decision.

GROSS: I think a lot of people found it surprising that justices who describe themselves as wanting to adhere as closely as possible to the original intent of the Constitution, the original intent of the founding fathers, had such a broad interpretation of the Second Amendment, which talks about a well-regulated militia.

Mr. SPITZER: Well, there is a furious debate about what the original intent regarding the Second Amendment is. The consensus of historians and constitutional scholars is that the Second Amendment was a militia-based right.

Indeed, all of the direct evidence about what the Second Amendment meant, especially from the fist Congress of 1789, which is when the Second Amendment was drafted, edited, et cetera, focused exclusively on military questions.

There was nothing, nothing in the debates or in that sort of environment, that talked about anything resembling an individual interpretation. And indeed, historians have been harshly critical of the Heller majority opinion because it is extensively historical, and much of the text, most of the text of the majority opinion, focuses on this kind of history. But it's not considered to be an accurate reading of history. And even though it claims and originalist provenance, it's originalism as a matter of history is really not very good. And indeed, that was much of the critique of the dissenting opinion in the Heller case. Saying look, you got the history wrong. It was designed to be a militia-based right and that you can't pretend otherwise. And indeed, I think the lesson is that even though the Supreme Court can change the law, it cannot change history.

GROSS: My guest, Robert Spitzer, will be back in the second half of the show. He's the author of "The Politics of Gun Control." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross. Lets get back to our interview with Robert Spitzer, author of The Politics of Gun Control, which is published by the Congressional Quarterly Press. He also wrote The Right to Bear Arms and The Presidency and the Constitution. Hes the distinguished service professor of political science at the State University of New York College at Cortland.

So we've been talking about the NRA. Now I know youre a member of the NRA and youre a member of the gun control group the Brady Center. I assume you're a member of both so that you can get their literature and see what they're saying to their base, not just what they're saying in public speeches, yes?

Prof. SPITZER: Yes, that is right. It's interesting from my point of view to be a member of both organizations, to get their literature, and also I explain it to my students in the classroom and they find that interesting.

GROSS: So what are some of the things you've learned about the NRA's approach to raising money or mobilizing the base from getting its literature?

Prof. SPITZER: Well, the NRA, like many organizations, relies a great deal on very alarmist extremist rhetoric to constantly enforce and reinforce the impression that they are constantly besieged, that they are constantly under attack and that they are on the verge of losing the great victories that they have won in the past. And that kind of alarmist rhetoric is very important because that how you mobilize your base.

During the 2000s, when the NRA's influence in Washington and in the White House was unparalleled, their literature, their letters to members, their publications, continued to talk about the dire threats posed to their organization, posed to their ideals by various politicians in Washington. And increasingly, they've demonized the United Nations as an organization that was poised to somehow eliminate the Second Amendment or Second Amendment rights, or gun rights, from American citizens. And the NRA politically has also become more involved in the United Nations to try and influence gun policy there and in other nations.

GROSS: So whats the rhetoric like? Can you quote some things that you remember?

Prof. SPITZER: The NRA rhetoric, at times, has caused a national stir. Probably the most well-known instance was in the early 1990s and late 1980s when the NRA went out of its way to demonize the federal agency that regulates guns, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, referring to its agents as jackbooted thugs and comparing them to Hitler. And shortly after that period of time was when the attack on the federal office building in Oklahoma City occurred in several ATF agents were killed in that attack. And that kind of brought halt, screeching halt to some of the rhetoric that they had aimed specifically at the government because it was so stridently anti-government, that there was a feeling that perhaps it had contributed to the atmosphere - political atmosphere - amongst some extremists that gee, really, it's okay to attack government officials. And former president George Bush the 1st, and former President Ronald Reagan, both of whom were life NRA members, publicly criticized the NRA for that really excessive and heated rhetoric. And they backed away from that to some degree thereafter.

GROSS: Well, President George H.W. Bush resigned from the NRA after that.

Prof. SPITZER: He did.

GROSS: Resigned is the wrong word. He stopped being a member.

Prof. SPITZER: Yeah.

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Prof. SPITZER: He canceled his life membership in the NRA because indeed, a couple of the agents eight government agents who died in the Oklahoma City bombing, were people that he knew and he was indeed outraged by the NRA's relentless attacks on the ATF.

GROSS: So you get the literature from the Brady Center, a gun control group. What's its rhetoric like to you, its membership?

Prof. SPITZER: Well, the Brady Center certainly uses rhetoric that can be pretty alarmist at times as well, talking about gun shootings, for example, about how loose gun laws have led to many of the problems that we see, relating it to gun violence. And, it too tries to rally its members by getting them to the barricades to fight for whatever the cause of the moment happens to be. It doesn't quite meet the NRA's level of rhetoric but the Brady and other program control groups face a similar political dynamic, which is to fight indifference and to get members to join to get people to participate, and heated rhetoric is the typical way that you do that.

And, of course, that is key to events in the news as well. So when there is a shooting they certainly would send out literature saying, you know, here's something terrible thats happened and lets renew our effort to strengthen gun laws. So, just as the actions of the NRA are keyed to the political cycle and the events of the moment, so too in a mirror image are the actions of the Brady group.

GROSS: Have you gotten mailings from either the Brady Group or the NRA since the Tucson shooting?

Prof. SPITZER: There had been special mailings since the Tucson shooting from the Brady coalition. I've not seen anything from the NRA.

GROSS: Which direction has the law been drifting in, toward more gun control or more gun access?

Prof. SPITZER: The law at the national level has been drifting away from stricter gun laws, I'd say, since the early 1990s. The high water point for gun control supporters was certainly the Brady Law in 1993 and the assault weapons ban in 1994. Since that time, federal law has both Congress enacted law and court decisions have moved in the other direction of fewer restrictions. That process has been more dramatic at the state level, where we've seen the rapid spread of for example liberalized concealed carry laws.

In 1988, there were about 18 states that had state laws that made it pretty easy for civilians to carry concealed hand guns around in society. By now, by 2011, that number is up to 39 or 40 states having liberalized laws, depending on how you count it, and the NRA has worked very diligently and other gun rights groups, at the state level, to win political victories there. And they've really been quite successful.

Another element of that has been the spread of the so-called open carry movement, where it's been a more grassroots activity, one that the NRA has not been so happy about, where gun rights groups have been taking advantage of state laws that allow people to carry guns openly, that is openly displayed so that you can see that the person has a gun, that's met with some skepticism among citizens and some concern but that movement has also taken off as well.

GROSS: Why has the NRA chosen not to back that movement?

Prof. SPITZER: They're concerned about public reaction. And the prevailing public reaction of seeing civilians carrying guns openly strapped to their hips, generally speaking, is one of dismay. And the NRA is concerned about these image questions, about how these actions will be seen, because it may be viewed as the action of gun nuts. And part of the NRA's political effort has been to not be depicted as the champion for, you know - for nutty people with guns but for people who are sober, responsible and careful about guns, and gun use. And that image issue, I think, runs afoul of the idea of American civilians in the 21st century walking around a city or a town with a gun visibly strapped to their body in some fashion.

GROSS: You know, with the NRA, what do you think is the bottom line of what it wants? Is it about profits from gun sales? Is it about a genuine belief in the right to bear arms? Is it a combination of the two? Is it something else? Like what's the bottom line for the NRA?

Prof. SPITZER: The NRA faces kind of a demographic problem which is this: that its core base of support is gun owners. Not all gun owners, to be sure, the NRA is an organization of about four million members and there are over 80 million gun owners in the country. So most gun owners are not members of the NRA and I would say most do not particularly agree with the particular stands of the NRA.

But gun ownership and gun use has been gradually declining since about the 1960s and for a variety of reasons. And if you project that line out, the ever diminishing pool of people who own and use guns does not spell a good future for the NRA, politically, because that's their core base. So much of their dynamic, I think, has been to try and encourage gun carrying, gun use, and gun ownership.

And there is an ideological component as well, but I think, ultimately, like any organization, it continues to pursue its goals, wants itself to be large, to be politically influential and to maintain that for which it was created and then modified.

GROSS: You write in your book, that the NRA is going international now. What are they doing in other countries and what is their interest in other countries?

Prof. SPITZER: The NRA increasingly has an international focus. In the late 1980s, they became the equivalent of a registered lobbyist at the United Nations to try and head off increasing efforts at the UN to take action to restrict the international small arms trade, for example. And the NRA has increasingly invested resources in other nations to help growing gun rights movements in those nations. In nations like Canada. A few years ago it played an important role in Brazil. There was an effort - there was going to be a national referendum - there was a national referendum in Brazil to impose fairly strict gun regulations. An effort that was supported, in public opinion polls, by most Brazilians.

But the NRA spent a great deal of time and effort to help organize gun rights opposition to that referendum and succeeded in defeating the referendum using many of the tactics and kinds of arguments that are made in the United States. Brazil does not have a second amendment in its constitution, but other political arguments about self-defense and other things resonated with Brazilians and the measure was defeated. And indeed, the NRA has been involved in the politics of nations like Australia, Canada, Britain and elsewhere.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

Prof. SPITZER: Terry, a real pleasure to be with you.

GROSS: Robert Spitzer is the author of The Politics of Gun Control. He's the distinguished service professor of political science at the State University of New York College at Cortland. Our interview was recorded yesterday.

Coming up, we remember country singer Charlie Louvin who performed with his brother Ivan as the Louvin Brothers. Charlie Louvin died yesterday at the age of 83.

This is FRESH AIR.

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