Britton’s Argument Collapses Under Scrutiny


To the Editors:

Jacob Britton’s argument about the Founding Fathers and AR-15s is bold and contrarian, and I admire him for having the courage of his convictions. However, his argument does not stand up logically or empirically. At a time when American politics is infected from the top down by disdain for truth and reason, such deficiencies cannot go unanswered.

Britton writes: “The Supreme Court interprets original Constitutional amendments in the historical context of the Founders.” This statement conflates the two dominant modes of judicial interpretation: originalism and contextualism. According to the first, what matters is the intent the Founders. According to the second, interpretation is determined by and should change with historical context. Interpreting the Constitution today according to the “context” of the Founders is not contextualism. It is originalism by another name. Moreover, these judicial philosophies are in fundamental tension with one another. This tension is reflected on the Court itself. Some justices are originalists, while others are contextualists, and split decisions often turn in part on this tension.

Some of Britton’s empirical claims are also false or misleading. When he suggests that the Founding Fathers would have approved of the sale of AR-15s, he notes that “there were guns even more dangerous around in [their] times … such as the Belton Flintlock, which could fire nearly twenty bullets in five seconds.” However, the only evidence even for its existence is correspondence between its maker, Joseph Belton, and Congress. There is no evidence that it was ever supplied, much less used. Even if it had been, magazines on AR-15s can be changed in seconds. There is no evidence that this would have been possible with the Belton Flintlock.

Britton also repeats a favorite claim of the NRA that the solution to school massacres like the ones in Columbine, Parkland, and others is to increase the presence of armed guards in public schools. His specificity here is curious — if public schools, why not private ones? But more to the point, there is absolutely no good evidence to support this “good guy with a gun” argument. None. Its only “virtue” is that that it keeps the NRA and gun manufacturers in business.

Finally, Britton claims that the U.S. has lower homicide rates than countries with stricter gun laws. This is false. According to Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, in 2016, the US had a much higher rate of violent gun deaths (3.85/100,000 people) than Japan (0.4/100,000 people), a country with notoriously strict gun laws. Rates in the U.S. are regularly also much higher than in Australia, which has stricter laws as well.

I agree completely with Britton that laws are not enough to solve the problem of gun violence — or any other problem. That also requires the cultivation of a kind of civic virtue that is the essence of our republicanism. But that virtue cannot rest on false claims and unsound arguments. In a 1967 New Yorker article entitled “Truth and Politics,” the political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote that “No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other.” This may be truer today than ever. It is incumbent upon us as citizens to defend truth against the forces arrayed against it. This is a battle we cannot afford to lose.