The first scene of Adam Winkler’s book Gun Fight begins on March 6, 2008, in front of the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. Two young men are preparing to camp from Sunday evening until Tuesday morning in order to be sure they would be admitted to hear arguments before the Court on a case entitled District of Columbia v. Heller.
The story ends 271 pages later, on June 26, 2008, the last day of the Court’s 2007-2008, session with the handing down of its decision concerning a law in the District of Columbia that since its passage in 1976 “banned handguns and required shotguns and rifles to be kept in an inoperable state, either disassembled or secured with a trigger lock” (p. 17).
What gave this case its national interest was a factor only incidentally related to the well-being of people in the nation’s capital. Rather, this case had become the vehicle by which the Court would be asked to “rule on a question that, incredibly, the Court had never before squarely addressed. Did the Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantee individuals the right to own guns” (p. 4)?
Both the title Gun Fight and the way that the author plays out his story line give this historical account of “the battle over the right to bear arms in America” the feeling of a mystery novel. Even readers who already know what the Court decided are likely to find themselves drawn into the story, waiting in suspense for its denouement.
If there’s a hero, it’s Alan Gura, whom Winkler describes as “a Georgetown Law School graduate in his midthirties…He wasn’t a constitutional law expert…nor was he a partner at a big-name law firm” (p. 6). He practiced law “out of a small, one-person office…not far from his home.”
Organizations that favored freedom of gun ownership didn’t want the case to go to the Court and did everything they could to keep it from happening. When they saw that the case was going to go forward, they tried to put big-name, experienced lawyers in charge of the case, but Gura’s persistence and skill kept the case alive.
Organizations that favored control over the availability and use of guns brought their own resources, including highly competent legal counsel, in order to shape the arguments on which the justices would decide. All of this Winkler relates in dramatic fashion.
As this main story, District of Columbia v. Heller, unfolds, Winkler develops a series of subplots, each of which contributes to the meta-narrative, which is the history of the Second Amendment and its interpretation through the legislative and judicial processes of the federal government and the states. The chapter headings alert readers to these historical episodes.
Guns of Our Fathers: This chapter describes the process beginning in the 1960s to develop new understandings of the Second Amendment. Under the banner of “originalism,” conservative lawyers, including young University of Chicago law professor Antonin Scalia, urged that the courts should use the original intent of the framers of the Constitution to determine their decisions. The chapter then explores that intent.
Civil War: Winkler uses much of this chapter to flesh out his statement “that many of the most extreme gun control efforts in American history were intended to oppress blacks” (p. 131).
The Wild West: Winkler writes an important revisionist history of violence in the Old West.
Gangsters, Guns, and G-men: The title itself suggests the narrative
By Any Means Necessary: Here Winkler reports how guns entered into the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, giving some of the leaders, especially Huey Newton and Bobby Seale and the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, the ability to transform the way that African Americans were treated. This black militancy led the State of California, under the leadership of Governor Ronald Reagan, to enact new laws to end the legality of openly carrying loaded weapons.
After reporting the Court’s decision, Winkler devotes approximately twenty pages to discussing the import of the decision. Despite the interpretation that the Second Amendment supported the use of guns for self defense, leading conservative leaders denounced the decision, for reasons that Winkler describes at some length.
Winkler writes that “paradoxically, by establishing a firmer foundation for gun rights, the Supreme Court could make it easier to identify and enact effective gun control laws…As the history of the right to bear arms and gun control shows, there is a middle ground in which gun rights and laws providing for public safety from gun violence can coexist…Americans don’t need to choose between two absolutes—between unfettered gun rights on the one hand and unfettered gun control on the other” (pp. 295, 296).
If there is one book on matters related to the Second Amendment that we all should read, that is if we want our ideas to be based on the nation’s actual legal and political history, Gun Fight by Adam Winkler is that one book.