Reactions to recent news of gun violence in America were achingly familiar.
Australian baseball player Christopher Lane, out for a jog in an Oklahoma neighborhood, was fatally shot by three "bored" teenagers who decided to kill someone for fun, according to police.
The tragedy quickly provoked familiar arguments.
On MSNBC, the "Morning Joe" crew spent the better part of an hour demanding that Congress and President Barack Obama enact sweeping new gun control measures. Over on FOX, conservative pundit Michelle Malkin argued just the opposite. Second Amendment-haters, Malkin said, are "talking about gun control and gun confiscation laws, national registries and background checks that would do absolutely nothing to control evil thugs who will do whatever they need to do to kill and wreak havoc on people. These boys were intent on killing."
This kind of unresolvable back-and-forth had echoed from the aftermath of the December 2012 Newtown, Conn. elementary school rampage, the July 2012 Aurora, Colo., movie theater massacre, and the 1999 Columbine High School shooting spree. And, sadly, from scores more gun violence episodes over the decades, some of which received massive national attentions, others less so.
But the gun debate doesn't have to go this way, argues Adam Winkler, author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. Winkler, a UCLA law professor, contends there is a middle ground between the absolutist positions on both sides.
Gunfight examines America's four-centuries-long political battle over gun control and the right to bear arms. Winkler reveals how guns, more than any other issue, are at the heart of America's cultural divide.
Using the landmark case District of Columbia v. Heller - which invalidated a law banning handguns in the nation's capital - as a springboard, Winkler weaves together the dramatic stories of gun-rights advocates and gun-control lobbyists.
In an interview with Politix Winkler suggested compromise is possible. "One thing that is most important to recognize is the permanence of guns in America. Confiscating privately-owned firearms is a political non-starter, and we do have the 2nd Amendment to protect ourselves. Until we give up that dream of disarmament it's going to be difficult to have a rational debate."
Gunfight traces the legal trajectory of Heller, decided by the Supreme Court in June 2008. The high court held for the first time that the Second Amendment protects individual ownership of firearms. Washington, D.C.'s prohibition on private ownership of handguns was struck down as unconstitutional.
Tracing how the Heller case was conceived, litigated, and finally decided, Winkler weaves in valuable historical context. That includes reasons for the adoption of the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, early gun control measures, and the National Rifle Association's later interpretation.
The NRA's political maneuverings are among the most revelatory stories in Gunfight. Long viewed as extremist organization by critics, Winkler finds the NRA in its current incarnation to be quite politically pragmatic. In fact, behind the scenes, the NRA actually opposed Heller litigation instigated by libertarian-leaning attorneys, who were seeking a definitive ruling over the meaning of the Second Amendment.
Perhaps the NRA was concerned about an adverse legal ruling, Winkler writes. Or maybe the group secretly wanted some gun control laws to remain on the book so it could retain a lucrative political punching bag in gun control advocates.
That's not to suggest the NRA has gone soft. "In the debate over guns after Newtown, the NRA was not interested in compromise measures," Winkler said. "It is politically calculating, but it is not eager to compromise."
Pro-gun forces also benefited from disarray among their legal opponents. In defending the Washington, D.C. handgun ban, the district's attorney general's office had to argue in front of an appeals panel not likely to be favorably disposed to its viewpoint. The appeals court was filled with justices appointed by Republican presidents, who could be expected to take a dim view of gun control measures. Not surprisingly, the rulings didn't go the way gun ban proponents wanted, and D.C. officials appealed to the Supreme Court.
Then in-fighting in the D.C. attorney general's office led to the ouster of its lead counsel, Alan Morrison, a renowned public interest lawyer. And the attorney who argued the Heller case before the Supreme Court, Walter Dellinger, is by all accounts, one of the nation's premier litigators. A former acting solicitor general, and head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel early in the Clinton administration, Dellinger seemed an ideal pick to defend the gun ban before the Supreme Court. But Dellinger may have been stretched thin by two other cases he was arguing before the Supreme Court within a month of the Heller proceedings.
"It's always hard to know how much influence the lawyering has," Winkler said. "There's no doubt that Washington, D.C. suffered from too much turnover in its legal team. But it's not clear that less turnover would have led to a different outcome."
In addition to adverse legal rulings like Heller, gun control forces have also been hurt by faux academic arguments that claimed to make their case, but actually undermined it.
First in mind is Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture by Michael A. Bellesiles, an Emory University professor at the time of the book's 2000 release. Arming America was an expansion of a 1996 Journal of American History article by Bellesiles, which argues that guns were uncommon during peacetime in early United States. A culture of gun ownership arose only much later, the essay contends.
Along those lines, the central theme of Arming America is that United States' gun culture arose after the Civil War and that contrary to myth, it did not have its roots in America's colonial and frontier eras. The book holds that guns were uncommon during peacetime in the United States during the colonial, early national, and antebellum periods, when guns were little used and the average American's proficiency in use of firearms was poor. Bellesiles maintains that more widespread use and ownership of guns dates to the Civil War following advances in manufacturing and a consequent reduction in price and improvement in accuracy.
But the scholarship behind Arming America seemed suspect to fellow academics. They scoured the book's footnotes and raised detailed objections to the author's research methodologies. As criticism grew and charges of scholarly misconduct were made, Emory University conducted an internal inquiry into Bellesiles's integrity, appointing an independent investigative committee composed of three leading academic historians from outside the campus. Bellesiles failed to provide investigators with his research notes, claiming the papers were destroyed in a flood.
Bellesiles ended up resigning his post at Emory. And Arming America, which initially won the prestigious Bancroft Prize, later became the first book in that honor's history to have its award rescinded by the Columbia University Board of Trustees.
"Michael Bellesiles undermined the credibility of a lot of gun control advocates," Winkler said. "He wrote a book claiming guns in the Revolutionary era were very rare. In some ways Michael Bellesiles represents the triumph of symbolism over substance in the gun control debate: 'If we could just ban these awful weapons, we think we can reduce gun violence.'"
Gun control forces would be wise to avoid such arguments in the aftermath of mass shootings, Winkler said. Consider the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in Newtown. Right after the horrific events, the Obama administration could have plausibly pushed through expanded background checks on gun purchasers. If it stuck to that one, narrow, issue.
"The Obama administration acted quickly, but may have needed to act even quicker," Winkler said. "The Obama administration took about a month to come up with its proposals. You didn't need to wait a month to propose expanded background checks. Maybe he could have pushed it quicker; maybe it would have made a difference."
Winkler added: "More troubling is that the administration focused on the wrong issues. I think he made a huge political mistake by proposing to ban assault weapons. These are the most popular weapons in the gun community today. Also, assault weapons are rarely used in criminal activity. This was a proposal that was likely to stimulate the fiercest opposition."
And it's just sort of argument that inhibits real compromise on matters on a public policy issue that is literally a matter of life and death, Winkler said.
"Part of the reason I wrote this book is to show we can have gun control and Second Amendment rights on the other side."