Americans have a tough time talking about guns, or at least talking about them in a way that feels productive.
This Thursday at the University of Utah, two constitutional scholars will attempt to do just that by debating a case that could come before the Supreme Court this year concerning the regulation of guns. S.J. Quinney College of Law professor RonNell Andersen Jones will moderate the 36th annual Jefferson B. Fordham debate happening this Thursday at 6 p.m.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: Why is it so hard for people to talk about the Second Amendment?
RonNell Andersen Jones: I think the Second Amendment is one of a handful of issues that have become increasingly divisive in this country, and for which we have given ourselves societal permission to be deeply divisive and to construct the folks on the other side of the debate as an enemy. So we're not really talking to each other. We're talking past each other, and we're allowing the conversation and the terms of the conversation to be dictated by organizations at the polar extremes. And so all of the folks who are throwing money and time and energy into this conversation have an incentive in us teaming up with a side in talking points rather than having more nuanced, complicated conversations about the Constitution and about our society and about the consequences of our policies.
CB: Could you talk a little bit about the specific case currently making its way through the courts that inspired the debate topic you’re exploring of keeping arms to the home?
RAJ: About a decade ago the United States Supreme Court back-to-back decided a couple of cases that focused on the Second Amendment and the meaning of the Second Amendment. And they decided something very small, in some respects, in the sense that it only answered the question of whether a community could regulate the possession of handguns within your home for self-defense. And the answer is the community cannot, but there are loads of other kinds of firearm regulation and mechanisms of gun control that the Supreme Court hasn't addressed.
This term, a case appeared before the court that asks them to answer that question more broadly. It deals with a regulation that the City of New York instituted that prohibits people from transferring their guns from their home in New York City to someplace else outside of the city, even if that's their second home or a firing range. This case, should it stay at the Supreme Court, is an opportunity for them to answer these bigger questions. What is the whole scope of the Second Amendment? Does it protect something more than my right to have a handgun in my nightdrawer to protect myself and my family at home? Are there wider limits on the kinds of things that our cities and states and municipalities can do in terms of gun control.
CB: Is this case a potential avenue for any sort of civil discourse or common ground about Second Amendment rights?
RAJ: I think every case that goes before the Supreme Court has a greater chance of being divisive than it has to be unifying. These are the moments when organizations on both sides of the debate use it as a platform for fundraising and for galvanizing their people. And we see a lot of that happening already, but I also think it is a really important moment for scholarly debates like the sort that we're trying to have at the law school where people come together and ask broader questions. What did the founders intend the Second Amendment to do? When the Court sends signals to us that it’s about to answer additional questions, it's a really good time for us to try to have more nuanced conversations about what the Second Amendment was designed to do and what it does do in our modern society.
CB: Nuanced conversations are something that you have been trying to have. You taught a class at the law school this past spring focused on gun control gun rights, and one of the specific goals was having a rational conversation. How did that work out?
RAJ: It was remarkable. It was one of the highlights of my entire academic career. We brought together a group of people who had really widely varying backgrounds and very strongly divergent views about guns and gun control and the appropriate scope of the Second Amendment. At the outset our only task was to learn to disagree agreeably, and to learn to think with more nuance. To be willing to sort of poke holes at our own prior position and to be willing to see the ways in which our own prior positions might have been formulated by things outside of our control rather than careful investigative thinking.
CB: It's one thing to be in a classroom where you signed up to be there, and another thing to have these debates in the community. Do you think you can replicate that sort of outcome of nuanced and thoughtful conversation in something like the upcoming Fordham debate?
RAJ: Wow I sure hope that we can. I'm convinced from conversations that I have with people in the community all the time about gun control and gun rights and the Second Amendment that people are craving this sort of avenue. [They’re craving] the opportunity to become more informed, to think about what the options are, to think about what the constitutional constraints are and to have civilized dialogue. We just need to make ourselves do it. We need to move ourselves to a place where we're actively seeking opportunities to learn.