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Guest Commentary

Straight Talk Q&A: Craig Smith on Gun Control

From Issue: Volume XXI - Number 5

Art Levine’s recent guest on Straight Talk was Dr. Craig Smith, director of the Center for First Amendment Studies at California State University Long Beach.

Art: Tonight we’re going to talk about a topic that is front and center in the debate throughout the country on the question of gun control. Let’s start with the Second Amendment, which reads very simply, “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state. The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” And different folks have different views as to what the Second Amendment means. Why don’t you give us the two sides of it.

Craig: You can read it literally and just take it word-by-word. Take the phrase out that people have the right to bear arms; and therefore they have a right to own guns. However, if you contextualize what the founders meant when they passed that amendment, it takes on a whole different meaning. Massachusetts ratified the Constitution in 1789 on a contingent basis. They wanted amendments to the Constitution. The reason was a man named Shays had fomented a rebellion against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Did they have the power to form a militia to fight Shays back? The point was to empower the states to allow them to allow the citizens to have arms, so that they could be in a militia to fight a rebellion.

Art: The Bill of Rights, which includes the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, passed some years after the Constitution passed.

Craig: Yes, in 1791, two years later.

Art: The National Rifle Association is probably the most vigorous and articulate spokesman for the gun owners. What’s their view of these things?

Craig: The NRA has allowed registration of weapons, and so a state can require that you register your weapon. They’ve allowed for some other things such as the marking of bullets. They opposed bans on assault weapons and some sensible measures that we’ve put forward, like fingerprinting handguns.

Art: The tragedies in Newtown, Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado have shifted the public consensus and mood. You have the feeling that something is going to be passed.

Craig: I’ve been working on this since 1998. It’s really annoying when you think about the carnage and the number of people who have been killed. Gun control legislation can’t be 100% effective. Somebody can always bring a gun into the country or go across the state border and get one at a gun show. It can certainly reduce the number of deaths and we’ve been successful in doing that to some extent. In 1998, there were 12 children a day dying of gun wounds. They were shot or an accident occurred. The number’s now down to nine a day.

Art: You attribute that in part to various erratic gun control laws in some states?

Craig: Yes, in some states. I worked with a group called Cease Fire. We made a number of commercials that got people to lock guns away or put finger locks on them. Children with mental problems had parents who left the guns out in the open. They picked the guns up, went to school and killed people.

Art: One of the fascinating suggestions that you’ve made is fingerprinting of guns, to have a unique handprint similar to fingerprints on human beings.

Craig: It’s the bullet head that gets riflings from going through the barrel of the gun. You could shoot the minute you manufacture. You take the bullet head with the riflings on it, encrypt that and send it to the FBI to have on file. There are a number of companies that say it’s entirely possible to fingerprint up to 200 million guns.

Art: It is possible?

Craig: It is possible. The bullet usually stays in the body or at the crime scene. A number of states have micro-marked the casing of the bullet. However, many weapons keep the casing inside the gun so it isn’t left at the crime scene. If there are casings, you can pick them up and run off.

Art: We could have a national database where every gun and bullet that’s shot from that gun is on file. When they find a slug at a crime scene they will know quickly what gun that came from?

Craig: That’s right.

Art: With registration requirements, we can find out who the registered owner of that gun is that resulted in that bullet at the crime scene?

Craig: Correct.

Art: Who opposes that and why?

Craig: We got to the domestic counsel of President Clinton. He put it into his 1999 State of the Union Address. A year later in 2000, Diane Feinstein made it into legislation, introduced it and was blocked by the NRA and other pro-gun lobbies.

Art: What was their argument against fingerprinting of guns?

Craig: They raised issues that are artificial. People argued it would be easier for the government to trace the guns.

Art: They don’t oppose registration?

Craig: Some people said it would be too costly to put this program together. I found them disingenuous.

Art: If you believe that fingerprinting would be useful, you can write to your congress person.

Craig: Yes.

Art: It failed because of the NRA at the Federal level, but then there was an effort at the state level and you wrote an editorial in 2002 urging fingerprinting in California. What happened there?

Craig: Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg took my proposal and made it into legislation that called for a feasibility study. That got signed into law. The Attorney General, Bill Lockyer, then ran the study. And they found that it was feasible and doable. Everything came to a stop again.

Art: For the same reason?

Craig: Yes.

Art: It’s time to rethink fingerprinting.

Craig: Yes.

Art: The NRA certainly agrees that guns should not be used in a criminal manner. This would help solve criminal cases.

Craig: Right. More layers of identification we have of guns the better able we are to trace them in criminal act.

Art: This is separate and independent from the issue of assault weapons?

Craig: Right.

Art: But fingerprinting of guns makes perfect sense?

Craig: Yes.

Art: What has the Supreme Court opined on the Second Amendment?

Craig: They misinterpreted it by a 5:4 margin. It only takes one judge to change.

Art: Second Amendment?

Craig: Second Amendment allows everybody to have a gun. You can require registration but can’t keep people from having guns.

Art: So possession is constitutionally protected?

Craig: Correct.

Art: According to the Supreme Court?

Craig: According to five members of the Supreme Court.

Art: In 2010, in the Chicago case?

Craig: Correct. There were a number of conflicting decisions that came up to the Supreme Court. The Louisiana District, DC and 9th Circuit Court said you can restrict ownership. All of that went up to the Supreme Court.

Art: That’s a classic case of where Supreme Court takes the case [when there’s] conflict among the districts.

Craig: Correct. The 9th Circuit decision written by Judge Reinhardt was the most interesting because he took the approach of the normally conservative Justices. He said, “Let’s look at the original intent when the Second Amendment was passed, and interpret it in terms of the original intent. Since it said that the states had the right to issue the guns in order to form the militia, that’s all that was meant by the Second Amendment. Therefore you can restrict individuals.”

Art: The 9th Circuit used conservative, original intent to come up with their decision. And the Supreme Court didn’t buy it?

Craig: The five who normally rely on original intent went the other way and said we’re going to read the Amendment word-by-word. There was a lot of hypocrisy on the Supreme Court. If we’re going to win or if you can’t get something done in the legislature, or it passes what you want and then it gets overturned, you can go to the courts. The Supreme Court at some point will revisit this case. The Supreme Court will say I was wrong.

Art: There may be a new justice on the court?

Craig: There may be a new justice on the Supreme Court.

Art: With President Obama, he or she would be of the more liberal persuasion?

Craig: Right. It only takes one justice changing [sides].

Straight Talk airs in Long Beach and 40 surrounding cities on Saturday and Sunday at 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. on LBTV Channel 3 and FiOS 21, and at 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Charter Channel 101. The show is Viewable on Demand at and also on YouTube, Facebook and iTunes.