Why Some People Around the World Struggle to Understand America's Love Affair with Guns

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH-Boston. New York lawmakers look set to pass the toughest gun control law in America, and tomorrow President Obama plans to unveil his own proposals to prevent gun violence. But even in the wake of the horrific Newtown school shootings, plenty of Americans remain adamantly opposed to new gun legislation. It's often hard for outsiders to understand. Craig Whitney is the author of 'Living With Guns: A Liberal's Case for the Second Amendment.'  Whitney served in Vietnam and later spent 44 years as a journalist with The New York Times, retiring as assistant managing editor in 2009. I asked him how, as a foreign correspondent, he would explain the American relationship with guns to people overseas.

Craig Whitney: Well, I tried, but I realized that I didn't really know myself, which is one reason why after I retired I decided I'd do the research and see if I could come to an understanding myself of why we have this history of guns and why regulation is such a troublesome issue for so many Americans.

Werman: What were some of the more interesting reactions you encountered when you lived overseas to guns in the US?

Whitney: Well, a recent one, we were, my wife and I were in England in September, and an old friend of mine who was a fellow Vietnam War correspondent asked me, you know, why do you have this fixation with guns in America, and I explained that the Second Amendment recognized a right we had since the earliest colonial days. We won the revolutionary War against you because we knew how to use firearms. And he said, well, today you don't have to worry about us, do you. The world is a very different place than what it was in 1791. Well, admittedly yes, but our Constitution, the whole Constitution was written back then, and the courts do their best to interpret its meaning for us today, but the way to change it is to amend it and that's a very complicated process, and I don't think it's going to happen to the Second Amendment any time soon.

Werman: Right. I mean the whole idea of going back to the American Revolution and explaining that this relationship with guns goes back to this armed citizenry needing protection against tyranny, do people kind of like scratch their heads and go, are you serious?

Whitney: Well, yes, and a lot of Americans don't understand that right correctly either, I think. I mean, the people who say well, we need guns to defend ourselves against federal tyranny. Well, that's not, what the founders had in mind was keeping the states' ability to maintain their militias against the possibility of a tyrannical federal government when the new Constitution went into effect. That's what the right of the people to defend themselves against tyranny means. It does not, emphatically, not mean that the founders had in mind the people who hole up in dens with an arsenal of modern weapons and figure they're going to stand off the 101st Airborne Division when Armageddon comes. That's not what the founders had in mind.

Werman: Now you're not an expert, per se, on gun control legislation around the world, but what's your impression of how these tighter regulations in New York and the tighter ones expected tomorrow at the federal level compare to other places you've lived?

Whitney: The gun regulations in New York City I would say are comparable, in a broad sense, to gun regulations as I experienced them in Germany, France, or England, certainly. And what those regulations do is keep guns out of the hands of as many people as possible. What they don't have is as many guns floating around in the civilian population as there are people, and that is our situation. And that accounts, I think, for our much higher than theirs homicide rates and violent crime rates, but it's not the only factor. We're a different society. We're not Britain, we're not France, we're not modern Germany. We have a history of guns, and even their strict gun laws haven't prevented massacres almost as horrible, or even worse, than Newtown. Gun laws alone, without other kinds of measures accompanying them, can never eliminate the possibility of a terrible incidence like Newtown.

Werman: Craig Whitney, author of 'Living With Guns: A Liberal's Case for the Second Amendment.'  Very good to speak with you. Thanks for your thoughts.

Whitney: Okay, thank you.