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Vol. LXIII, No. 15
 
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
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Woodrow Wilson School Panel Considers Thorny Issue of “Guns in America”

Ellen Gilbert

“There isn’t a tougher domestic issue in the U.S. today, and it will only become more so,” said moderator Stanley Katz as he introduced last week’s Woodrow Wilson School panel on “Guns in America.”

Held in conjunction with photographer Kyle Cassidy’s Bernstein gallery exhibition of the same name, the panel included Princeton’s Mellon Visiting Professor in Comparative Literature and the University Center for Human Values Peter Brooks; James Jacobs, the Chief Justice Warren E. Burger Professor of Constitutional Law and the Courts, and Director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at the New York University School of Law; and Fordham University law professor Nicholas Johnson. Mr. Katz is a lecturer with the rank of professor in public and international affairs at Princeton.

Mr. Johnson, who professed an abiding interest in 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”), spoke first, describing a West Virginia childhood where he “didn’t know anyone who did not own guns.” Emphasizing the importance of the “context” from which a person viewed the gun issue, he noted that 44 state constitutions have right-to-arms clauses, with 40 of them condoning the possession of concealed weapons if a person is deemed competent to own firearms.

Gun control’s “core question,” according to Mr. Johnson, has to do with the costs and benefits of firearms, rather than the “visceral reaction, the revulsion against guns and gun owners” that many people experience in the face of shootings like those in Binghamton and Pittsburgh. The value of guns, argued Mr. Johnson, is as “guarantors of safety.” When people use guns in self-defense, he said, it’s “not good, but at least the person who should have survived did.”

Mr. Jacobs, who holds a Ph.D. in Sociology in addition to his law degree, described the complexity of the gun control question, and called for more effective enforcement of laws regarding the apprehension, prosecution, and sentencing of illegal gun owners. He likened the black market for purchasing guns to drug dealing, and said that it “made a mockery” of the “waiting period” policy. Referring to the current hue and cry over gun crimes, Mr. Jacobs pointed out that America is actually “going in the opposite direction,” with more guns and more liberal policies in effect during the last 20 years. The 1994 Assault Rifle Ban, he noted, succumbed to its ten-year sunset provision when the Democrats who originally supported it “abandoned it” in 2004. There “weren’t 20 votes in the U.S. Senate” to reaffirm the ban, Mr. Jacobs said, pointedly referring to “your Congress.” The response to the Virginia Tech shootings is similarly ironic, he added, with a movement to pass laws allowing students to carry guns.

An interdisciplinary scholar whose work subsumes literary, legal, and psychiatric themes, Mr. Brooks brought his interest in translation processes to bear in a parsing of the second amendment, and a critique of Justice Antonin Scalia’s interpretations of it in the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision that Americans have a right to own guns for self-defense and hunting. Like Mr. Katz, who had called the second amendment “enigmatic and grammatically imperfect” in his opening remarks, Mr. Brooks noted the “enigmas” inherent in the amendment, and pointed out that educated colonists would have known and used Latin grammar in their understanding of its phraseology. He concluded that Mr. Scalia’s arguments were made “out of nothing,” and symbolized “pure authoritarianism,” rather than “authority.”

The photo exhibition, which represents two years during which Mr. Cassidy crisscrossed the country, logging over 15,000 miles and asking his subjects — seemingly ordinary Americans — “Why do you own a gun?” will be on view in the Bernstein Gallery of Robertson Hall through May 1.

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