Progressive Gun Control: Tushnet v. Cornell


On Thursday, November 2, the American Constitution Society hosted a debate between Professor Mark Tushnet and historian Saul Cornell over the challenges and possibilities for progressive gun control policy.

Tushnet joined the Harvard Law School faculty this year as William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law after spending twenty-five years teaching at the Georgetown University Law Center. Cornell, an Associate Professor of History at Ohio State University and Director of the Second Amendment Research Center at the John Glenn Institute, recently published a book on the history of gun control entitled A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America.

Cornell began by describing the high cost – in both dollars and lives – of gun violence in America, noting that approximately 30,000 Americans die each year as a result of gun violence and that direct medical costs alone constitute several billion dollars of spending per year. At the same time, he acknowledged that a platform based on eradicating guns entirely would be an unrealistic way to address the problem. According to Cornell, 35% to 40% of households in this country own at least one gun and gun ownership is too historically embedded in our society to make a confiscation plan realistically viable.

At the same time, Cornell expressed his belief that progressives have been ignoring the gun control issue for too long and that they need to find a way to develop and express a position on the issue that demonstrates a middle ground.

“There is a way of making gun control an issue that is not poison to the left,” Cornell stated. “You can be for gun regulation without actually wanting to take everyone’s guns away.”

Tushnet, on the other hand, showed less optimism about the possibility of making progress on the gun control issue and expressed concern that “making a big deal about it” would be a fruitless use of time and energy.

“Given the prevalence of guns in society, and the cultural resonance that gun ownership has in substantial segments of society, there is no politically achievable gun policy that is going to have any significant effect one way or the other on gun violence, which means it’s just wasted effort.”

Both scholars agreed that the actual impact of any realistically achievable gun control policy would not have the sweeping effect on reducing gun violence that most would be hoping for. However, while Tushnet saw this as one reason to not waste effort on the issue, Cornell maintained that reframing expectations about the impact of gun control policy could be part of developing a credible, progressive argument in favor of regulations.

In addressing the question of whether it is possible for progressives to develop credibility on the gun control issue and how the culture wars might be influencing the debate, Tushnet advanced the theory that forms the thesis of his upcoming book on the topic.

“The gun control issue is as difficult as it is because it has become a location for the culture war battles,” Tushnet said. “We need a politician who can detach issues from the larger culture war issues, like [Bill] Clinton did with welfare reform…but gun control might not be the most important [issue] to detach right now.”

While Tushnet remained unconvinced about whether putting together a viable, credible progressive stance on gun control was worth the time and effort, Cornell held fast to his view that the left should not stay silent on the issue.

“We can’t say nothing, and we can’t say, ‘Yeah, we love the 2nd Amendment,'” said Cornell. “But we have to come up with something to say about it…we need to defend the vision of a well-regulated society, with checks and balances, and show people that government is not inherently evil.”

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