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Opinion

Sandy Hook massacre: The NRA's gun 'rights' are a fabrication of modern times

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.

By Jonathan Zimmerman / December 18, 2012

Protesters march to the National Rifle Association headquarters on Capitol Hill, Dec. 17. In the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre in Newtown, Conn., President Obama's aides say curbing gun violence will be a top priority for him in his second term. Op-ed contributor Jonathan Zimmerman says '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.'

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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Remember that elementary-school exercise, “Opinion or True/False”? The point was to differentiate claims that were debatable from those that weren’t.

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So in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., let’s try a little example. How would you classify these statements?

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.

One of them was Texas, the lodestar of the gun-rights movement today. But as the Lone Star governor said in 1893, “the mission of the concealed weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law abiding man.”

Founded in 1871 as a hunting organization, the National Rifle Association supported waiting periods for handgun buyers and a wide array of other state restrictions. It also backed the first major federal gun regulation, the 1934 National Firearms Act, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision five years later.

As US Solicitor General Robert Jackson told the Court, the Second Amendment did not protect the right of individuals to possess guns for “private purposes.” Instead, it was “restricted to the keeping and bearing of arms by the people collectively for their common defense and security,” wrote Jackson, who would join the Court himself in 1941.

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