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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.

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Only in the 1970s would the NRA and conservatives start to argue that the Second Amendment guaranteed individual gun possession. Piggybacking cleverly on the minority and women’s rights revolutions, the NRA claimed that gun owners, too, were endowed with “rights” that were protected by the Constitution.

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The group also created a giant lobbying and publicity apparatus to spread this new doctrine. Reflecting on the NRA's politicking, Chief Justice Warren Burger said that the Second Amendment “has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud – I repeat the word ‘fraud’ – on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

But Burger had retired by the time he made that statement, and the NRA was on the rise. Today, millions of Americans take it for granted that the Constitution protects individual gun rights. So do their legislatures and courts, which have discovered a meaning in the Second Amendment that earlier generations never imagined.

That’s doesn’t mean they’re wrong, necessarily, or that prior interpretations were right. Our past is replete with legal doctrines that have shifted with the times, in ways that we justly celebrate. For nearly two centuries, most notoriously, courts upheld the enslavement, segregation, and disenfranchisement of African-Americans.

But no honest person could possibly maintain that blacks possessed equal rights throughout these years. And that’s exactly the kind of thing we hear routinely about gun rights from the NRA and others who want you to believe that these “freedoms” were deeply inscribed in American life before the big, bad liberal state took them away.

Americans can debate whether they should be able to own guns, and under what conditions. They can even argue that the country would be better off with more guns, rather than fewer.

But one cannot say that our foreparents intended to give everyone the right to own a gun and carry it wherever they wished. That’s a fraud, to borrow Justice Burger’s phrase. I repeat the word: fraud. Saying it over and over again won’t make it true.

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).

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