Aspen Ideas panelists debate intention, application of Second Amendment |

Aspen Ideas panelists debate intention, application of Second Amendment

Jill Beathard
The Aspen Times

Two attorneys involved in the cultural debate over gun control have very different interpretations of the historical intention of the Second Amendment, but their thoughts on which regulations might improve safety aren’t that different.

Alan Gura, a constitutional-law attorney who helped win an influential case in 2008 in which the Supreme Court upheld an individual’s right to posses a firearm, and Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, came at the issue from different angles in the Aspen Ideas Festival session “The Second Amendment: A Debate,” held Monday at the Hotel Jerome.

In light of a shooting at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, that took nine lives less than two weeks ago, moderator Joe Nocera, a New York Times columnist, started off the session by asking the panelists if tragedies such as that event are part of the cost of the Second Amendment.

Gura responded by saying that violence is part of the human condition, citing events such as a 2011 attack on civilians in Norway, where gun ownership is prohibited.

“My belief, and people may disagree with this, … (is that) by enabling people to defend themselves, we can actually prevent violence,” Gura said.

Homicide by guns occurs in the U.S. at five times the rate it does in other developed countries, though, Waldman said.

The 2008 case that Gura appeared in interpreted the Second Amendment as protecting an individual’s right to gun ownership, but prior to that, it was always understood as emphasizing that right for the purposes of a “well-regulated militia,” Waldman said. The change concerns him, as he said that now, any form of gun regulation, no matter how reasonable, is seen as trampling a personal liberty.

But to Gura, the American founding fathers were attempting to ensure that no future government, being threatened by the people’s power, would try to take it away by removing their ability to defend themselves.

Waldman said it would be possible to look at gun regulations differently for different parts of the country, such as rural areas versus crowded, urban cities. However, Gura described a story of a cab driver in Chicago who was able to stop a shooter who was firing into the crowd by lawfully using his gun. According to Gura, there have been many other incidents similar to that since Illinois’ ban on concealed carry was overturned in 2013.

Nocera asked the two men what kind of gun regulations they would advocate. Violent people should not be entitled to gun ownership, and background checks, if they could be processed efficiently, would be appropriate, Gura said.

Gura also supported “place restrictions”: “No sane person would argue you should be able to get through TSA (with a gun) or through a metal detector where the president of the United States is speaking,” Gura said.

However, a federal study found that those kinds of regulations would not significantly prevent violence, given that there are other societal factors involved, he said. Waldman disagreed.

“The Second Amendment is being waved as a flag to block common-sense laws … that would not make all the difference but would make some difference,” Waldman said.

Gura alleges that many gun-control activists are not just seeking regulation but rather see gun-control laws as stepping stones to eliminating the private ownership of firearms entirely.

Because of the 2008 case, it would be impossible for that to happen, Waldman said.

“There’s an emerging consensus that you can have an individual right but you can still have gun regulations,” he said.