Constitutional law scholar Adam Winkler on Feb. 9 became the first UCLA professor to host a Reddit “Ask me anything.” Prompted by the spate of mass shootings in the U.S., Winkler, UCLA School of Law’s Connell Professor of Law, took to Reddit to provide context on historical and modern interpretations of U.S. gun laws.
For 90 minutes, the gun rights expert addressed tens of thousands of Reddit users to answer questions related to the Second Amendment, as well as other topical legal matters brought before the U.S. Supreme Court. The professor’s conversation had been viewed more than 150,000 times at the time of this publication.
Winkler, who is often cited by U.S. courts, wrote about the Second Amendment in his book, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. His follow-up book, We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights, was a National Book Award finalist.
Here are six questions from readers, along with Winkler’s answers, from the AMA.
How would you respond to those who say that knife attacks in the United Kingdom are more common than gun attacks in the U.S.? Do you agree with that?
The U.S. isn’t more violent than most other societies. We just have more deadly tools to effectuate that violence. Imagine how much lower our weapons mortality rate would be if every criminal or suicide attempt were with a knife instead of a gun. Guns are just more deadly. That’s not to say we should ban them — with 400 million, that would be a foolish effort — but we can at least recognize the harm that is caused.
What do you think the political realities are in cities like Los Angeles, where guns are strictly regulated but we still see so much gun crime?
We have to remember that California has the strictest gun laws in the U.S. — but some of the loosest, most permissive gun laws in the industrialized world. California’s gun laws are often a pain for gun owners, but they do work. Our firearms mortality rate is among the lowest in the nation, far below that of Texas and Mississippi and other more gun-friendly states. California will still have lots of gun violence because we still have a lot of guns. Just like we don’t expect laws to eliminate all drunk driving, murder or sexual assault, we can’t expect California’s gun laws to eliminate gun violence.
Why does the individual right to bear arms entail a right to bear each and every separate kind of small arms, rather than simply a right to bear some sort of arm? Would it infringe the right if the government were to ban all long guns while strengthening access to handguns?
Good question. As a general matter, the Constitution is read to protect a right to do something in all its lawful ways. So free speech means the right to use any medium, not just, say, a right to use Reddit — and then we can ban you from using Twitter, the typewriter, or whatever. … You [also] have a right to a fully functional firearm, not a defective or incomplete one. So you can’t ban ammunition as a backdoor way to reduce gun violence.
I’ve seen people debate the importance of the comma after “a well-regulated militia” in the text of the Second Amendment. Do constitutional scholars actually consider it to significantly change the meaning or interpretation of the passage than if it weren’t there?
Not really. The amendment itself is worded quite awkwardly, with all these commas in strange places. I was taught that you should be able to take out the material between two commas and the sentence still make sense. That clearly doesn’t work in the Second Amendment. It’s as if James Madison, who wrote the amendment, had just discovered the comma and wanted to put it in there as many times as possible!
Is it true that it’s illegal to perform research into areas related to gun violence?
Not true. Congress did pass a measure that prohibits some government agencies from using federal dollars for research to support gun control. But there are lots of scholars still doing research, and since an Obama-era reform, more federal money is going to places where it is still allowed. So the prohibition isn’t on gun research per se but on certain federal dollars being used by certain government bodies to do or fund the research.
There is currently a glut of cases challenging seemingly everything [regarding gun control]. What facets of gun laws are most likely to change because of these suits?
This is a great question, and it’s going to be interesting to see how this shakes out. Courts in recent months have struck down a number of laws that no one really thought would be struck down, including bans on domestic abusers under a restraining order from possessing firearms. The Supreme Court is going to have to step back in and offer clarification. My guess is that bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are in for a tough time, as are “good moral character” requirements for carry licenses. But I’d be surprised in the end if domestic abuser gun bans will be stuck down. But the surprises keep coming, so...