In the wake of Adam Lanza's massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, let's try a grade-school exercise. True or false? For most of US history, Americans had broad gun rights. That's false. Until recently, individual gun rights were severely restricted – with NRA support.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Remember that elementary-school exercise, “Opinion or True/False”? The point was to differentiate claims that were debatable from those that weren’t.
1. Americans should have unlimited freedom to purchase and own firearms.
2. For most of our history, Americans had unlimited freedom to purchase and own firearms.
Statement No. 1 is a matter of opinion, of course, on which Americans differ sharply. Although 44 states have passed a law since 1980 giving citizens the right to carry concealed weapons outside of their homes, a 2004 Gallup poll, for example, showed that 44 percent of Americans believed that only law enforcement officials should have such a right. Another 26 percent said that “only those who have a clear need for a weapon” (such as people who transport large amounts of cash) should be able to carry one, and another 27 percent said “any private citizen” should be allowed to do so.
But Statement No. 2 is clearly a “fact question,” as we used to say, not an opinion one. Either Americans possessed broad gun rights for most of our history, or they didn’t. True or false?
It’s false. Indeed, the truth is precisely the opposite: Until the very recent past, individual gun rights were severely restricted. Believe it or not, the entire concept of “gun rights” – that is, of citizens’ unbridled freedom to buy and own firearms – is largely a creation of our own times.
Yes, the Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the “right to bear arms.” But if that means individual citizens – as opposed to state militias – can carry firearms anywhere they want, someone forgot to tell our 19th-century forebears. As law professor Adam Winkler has found, 10 states passed laws in the 1800s barring the possession of concealed weapons.