The Oberlin Review

Britton’s Argument Collapses Under Scrutiny

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Editorial

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.

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2 Comments

2 Responses to “Britton’s Argument Collapses Under Scrutiny”

  1. Terry B. on March 10th, 2018 7:34 PM

    Thank you Ms. Schiff. I hoped to see a response to Mr. Britton’s article; you have fulfilled that hope in a well-reasoned and thoughtful manner. I fully agree.

  2. Alumnus on March 22nd, 2018 2:01 PM

    I had just posted this comment on another Review article, but it seems appropriate here as well: “An alumnus, I fully support the right to own AR15s without lisences/registries/waiting periods/’assault weapon feature restrictions’. I’m thinking of joining the NRA to help oppose efferts to remove this right”.

    Also an inaccuracy in this response article: Britton had said “The fact that the United States has significantly lower homicide rates than other countries with stricter gun laws should be enough for anyone to remember that safety is in the hands of those who are the most responsible.” This article rebuts this by pointing out that the US has higher homicide rates than Japan and Australia, countries with stricter gun laws. However, Britton had never claimed that the US has less homicide than every country with stricter gun laws. Take for example Brazil (30-day waiting period, a lisence is required to own a firearm, requiring minimum age of 25, a background check, safety training, 3-year renewal, open carry banned) or the Dominican Republic (a liscence is required to own a firearm, which includes demonstrating reason for possession, a background check, safety training, and yearly renewal).

    I couldn’t find the “Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation” and one fairly extensive study on homicide rates I found was the UN Office on Drugs and Crime Global Study on Homicide from 2013. In the study, the most recent year, the homicide rates per 100,000 from these 5 countries were: Japan – 0.3, Canada – 1.6, USA – 4.7, Dominican Republic – 22.1, Brazil – 25.2. (these data are avaible in the tables near the end of the full report on pages 122 -130). So in short, this rebuttal’s claim, “Finally, Britton claims that the U.S. has lower homicide rates than countries with stricter gun laws. This is false.” is false itself, unless the author misinterpreted Britton’s claim.

    Info on Dominican Republic firearms regulations: http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/dominican-republic
    Info on Brazil firearms regulations: http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/brazil
    UN homicide report, main site: https://www.unodc.org/gsh/
    UN homicide report, full report pdf: https://www.unodc.org/documents/gsh/pdfs/2014_GLOBAL_HOMICIDE_BOOK_web.pdf

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