"I couldn't really come up with an answer so I vowed that when I retired I would research the issue," Whitney says.
That research led to Whitney's latest book Living with Guns: A Liberal's Case for the 2nd Amendment, which was released one month before the shooting in Newtown, a tragedy that moved guns and violence to the forefront of national debate.
"The appalling mass murder there makes clear that the decades long stalemate we have had on guns has to end," Whitney told the audience assembled at the Cato Institute to hear the author and 2 attorneys who had argued the last important gun case before the Supreme Court discuss the issue.
Whitney said his book is framed around 2 basic ideas. First, it is clear that the 2nd Amendment mandates that individuals have the right as Americans to possess guns. But that individual right implies a social responsibility to answer the question - how do we keep guns away from violent criminals?
Despite opinions to the contrary, Whitney says he doesn't believe the 2nd Amendment forbids reasonable regulations. The problem becomes what regulations are deemed reasonable and who makes that decision.
"It's ridiculous to claim that any regulation is just the 1st step to seizing all guns," Whitney said. "The NRA (National Rifle Association) is still scaring people to death with the claim you must have a weapon to protect yourself."
"This is not a simplistic problem and I don't think there are any simplistic solutions. We need to reach across the ideological divide and come up with solutions that will work," he added.
Whitney listed several steps he proposed in his book. They include:
- filling in holes in background checks for guns. (It is estimated that as much as 40% of all legal gun exchanges in America are done without such checks).
- closing the gun show loophole which allows buyers to purchase guns too easily
- having states adopt better systems for licensing and registering firearms
- examine whether such proposals as banning the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons and clips that can hold huge numbers of bullets would be effective in reducing violence and then act accordingly
- increase penalties for straw purchases where people buy guns for people other than themselves
- increase state penalties for crimes committed using guns
- and better determine exactly who should and who shouldn't have the right to posses a gun
"I have a reasonable hope that we will come up with some thoughtful way to reduce gun violence. If not now, after Newtown, then when?," he concluded.
Whitney was joined on the panel by attorneys Alan Gura and Alan Morrison, who were opposing counsels in the landmark 2008 Supreme Court Case District of Columbia vs. Heller. The court held that the
2nd Amendment protects an individual's right to posses a firearm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home. The Heller case was the first Supreme Court case in United States history to decide whether the Second Amendment protects an individuals right to keep and bear arms for self-defense.
Gura, who argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of Heller, indicated that gun ownership has come to symbolize freedom. "The question is - how do we balance freedom with responsibility?, he noted. Gura said that minimizing restrictions shows "we trust ourselves with freedom and we trust ourselves to be responsible."
Morrison, who was counsel for D.C. in the Heller case, said he believes more restrictions are needed, but the focus should be on laws that would prove to be most effective in reducing gun violence. As an example, he cited the current proposal in Congress to re-institute the ban on semi-automatic weapons. "There are already 3 million (such weapons) outstanding. Are we going to confiscate them?," Morrison said. A better approach, Morrison suggested, would be a tightening of background checks on prospective gun buyers, a move that polls show is supported by more than 90% of Americans. "Things like that could make a big difference," he said.
Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
When he speaks, Whitney, who served in the military in Vietnam, makes it clear he is no rabid anti-gun zealot. "I'm convinced we wouldn't have a United States of America without the facility that Americans had with firearms," he says. Obviously, Whitney points out, the 2nd Amendment had a political purpose. "There was a fear that government would be too powerful, too tyrannical, too despotic and would try to suppress American liberties. The militia would be the deterrent," he says. But even in colonial times guns and gun access was restricted. Gun owners had to give their names to local leaders. In fact, restrictions of some type have always been a part of America's gun history. In Dodge City of the Wild West, you were expected to check your guns upon entering town. In the 1930s, appalled by the increasing violence associated with gangsters, Americans agreed with the National Firearms Act, which made sawed-off shotguns and machine guns off limits. In 1968, an America shocked by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy less than 5 years after Robert's brother John had also been gunned down in Dallas, Americans supported restrictions to prevent the escalating violence. "Now the question is - is Newtown, 2012, a moment like 1968?" Whitney asked.