Dominic Erdozain wants to reframe the gun control debate. The right has “convinced itself that privately held guns are the foundation of democracy,” he writes, and everyone else has been “bullied into acquiescence.”Advocates and opponents, the historian argues, have been “trapped in an illusion: the belief that today’s ‘freedoms’ are the norms of American history and the mandates of the Constitution.”
But in his new book, One Nation Under Guns, Erdozain frees us from this illusion—cutting through the “cartoon” of the country’s gun culture and putting the Second Amendment in its historical context. “The norms of today are not the norms of American history or the values of the founders,” Erdozain writes. “They are the product of a gun culture that has, for now, won its battle with the Constitution and imposed its vision on a sleeping nation.”
In a recent conversation with Vanity Fair, edited for clarity and length, Erdozain expressed hope that America could soon wake up and rally behind more “robust” gun reforms—supposing, of course, that it stops being so “accommodating” to gun culture. “Things are tractable,” he told me.
Vanity Fair: In the book, you describe the Second Amendment as a “child of the 18th century, bullied by posterity.” How does the current, popular interpretation differ from the original intent?
Dominic Erdozain: I think the modern assumption is that it applies to individuals, and that because other provisions in the Bill of Rights refer to individual rights, that must also apply to this right to keep and bear arms. But that wasn’t in the conversation—at least, it wasn’t central to the conversation. There were a few outlying kinds of ambiguous comments or requests that were made at the time of the constitutional debate. But there was a great fear of centralized military establishment, and the strength of the appeal of a well-regulated militia was that it was the antidote to that. It doesn’t mean that it was there to fight the standing army. It was there to be an alternative, to preclude the necessity of a standing army. I think it’s really hard to understand how important the militia was in their political reasoning. We’ve moved just so far away from that way of thinking.
You trace much of the current interpretation of the Second Amendment, and our contemporary gun culture, to the Reagan era. What changed then?
I think it’s a tricky one, because you’ve got these long-term roots. You’ve got slavery on the one hand and this whole parallel jurisprudence of brutality, and then on the other, you’ve got nationalism and the militarizing of American culture. That was held in check for most of the 20th century. And I think what happens with Reagan is that nationalism gets kind of transmuted into partisanship in a way. I think that with Reagan, it just became this culture-war issue.
Some might be surprised at how much of a departure our current view of guns is from the view of much of the 20th century. In the day-to-day things, it can feel like this is how it has always been. But as your book makes clear, our relationship with guns and the outsize role they play in our lives is actually an incredibly recent phenomenon. Why do you think it’s important to bear in mind?
Clearly, America has always had a gun problem. These forces have been latent and present in many ways, but were unleashed in that era. But I think just showing people the recency [of the current interpretation of the Second Amendment] has the power of showing that things are tractable—things are not set in stone. There are so many issues that have moved radically in the course of a generation, and I think the potential is there for guns.
The release of your book is coinciding with some big news—the resignation of Wayne LaPierre. Where do you think the NRA stands now? Champions of gun reform whom I speak with say that this is a sign that the NRA is a shell of its former self.
It is probably a shell of his former self. I think there is a kind of reckoning that will happen. But there are many conflicting thoughts here. One is that the NRA has become a shell. But there are dynamic forces in the gun movements that are possibly more powerful, in the sense that the NRA has been playing catchup on things like permitless carry and that they’ve been sort of often forced into the position of adding their post facto blessing to movements that they weren’t initiating. I think the ideas of the NRA have been internalized so profoundly within the Republican Party that the resignation of an executive vice president, or the crumbling of the leadership, isn’t going to dismantle that per se. I would welcome a shake-up and a national discussion about who these people are and what they have been selling us. But I’m wary of a sort of—you might laugh when I say I’m wary of any attempt to demonize the NRA, [but] I think there’s a slight element of scapegoating the NRA and thinking we can solve that problem if we just put down this evil lobby. Or when people say it’s all about the money and the gun manufacturers. It’s not just about the money. Take the money away, and you’ve still got a huge problem. I know that’s a really indecisive answer. But I think these misunderstandings about the Second Amendment, and about American traditions, have now percolated so far through the culture that it’s gonna take a lot more than a collapsing NRA to bring people around. But I think it’s got to be seen as a positive sign.