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The Past, Present and Future on Gun Policy

Robert SpitzerFew topics prompt more intense debate these days than gun policy. For that reason the Public Policy Program was pleased to recently welcome Prof. Robert Spitzer, a national and international expert on the subject, to help make sense of the current policy landscape and tensions between gun rights advocates and people favoring stronger gun control. Spitzer is the author of numerous books on gun policy and recently has joined William & Mary’s Law School as an adjunct professor. On Thursday, September 21, he was joined by Prof. Paul Manna, Hyman Professor of Government and Public Policy Program Director, and Prof. Alan Kennedy, Assistant Teaching Professor of Public Policy, to discuss with faculty, students, and community members the past, present, and future of gun policy in the United States. 

The event started with a brief welcome and introduction from Manna, who stated, “Prof. Spitzer is really one of the world’s leading scholars in gun policy.” Manna additionally highlighted Spitzer’s new book, The Gun Dilemma: How History is Against Expanded Gun Rights, which was published just over a month ago. 

Following the introduction, Spitzer began a twenty minute lecture. It considered the Second Amendment’s origins and the unfolding history of various gun laws that were passed in the 17th century and 18th century. These included a 1655 Virginia state law that permitted the discharge of firearms while intoxicated, unless present at a wedding or funeral. Kennedy, Spitzer and Manna

Spitzer also discussed two landmark Supreme Court cases that have determined the fate of gun regulations throughout the 21st century: DC v. Heller, and New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen. Results in these cases, which have upheld an individual right to bear arms, have emerged in part, Spitzer explained, due to the composition of the Supreme Court and the fact that several Justices now embrace Constitutional Originalism - a theory that Spitzer regards as problematic and brings an outcome-based jurisprudence. 

“Constitutions do not endure the way that ours does,” said Spitzer, while transitioning to what the future of gun regulation may look like. He noted that “It is a document that must be adapted to the transformations of the country.” 

As an example, he highlighted the US v. Rahimi case that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear this term. The root concern is whether individuals who commit domestic violence are entitled to a right to bear arms. The fact that domestic violence was not considered a crime when the founders authored the Second Amendment, Spitzer explained, shows how it can be problematic to rely upon Constitutional Originalism to make judgments in contemporary cases.

spitzer-alan.jpegAt the end of the brief lecture, Spitzer and Kennedy engaged in a back and forth discussion before the audience took its turn to ask questions. Manna moderated those questions for Spitzer and Kennedy to answer. The queries ranged across several topics including what legal methods are still in bounds for gun control, given the current Supreme Court’s thinking on the subject, and also what methods may exist to deter mass shootings involving high-powered guns. After the question and answer period, conversations continued during a reception at Chancellors Hall. 

For those interested in learning more, copies of The Gun Dilemma, signed by Spitzer, are available at the W&M University Bookstore.