Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Live Blogging the Struggle Continues: The Gun Debate

By Nathan
Good evening, this is Nathan Richie, director of exhibits and programs, blogging live from tonight's premier of the Freedom Museum's newest program series The Struggle Continues. Each installment of The Struggle Continues we focus on a particular aspect of a contemporary rights issue. Tonight's debut program will focus on the 2nd Amendment, gun control, and the implications of the landmark Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller (2008).

Tonight's event will be a moderated debate by former NPR radio host Gretchen Helfrich and feature Robert Levy of the CATO Institute and Dennis Henigan of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Check back here with live updates to this exciting debate about a bedrock American freedom.

5:45 PM
People are now beginning to arrive here at the beautiful Gleacher Center at the downtown University of Chicago Campus. We are expecting a full house tonight. Also here tonight is CAN TV. Information about the television broadcast is forthcoming.

I am anticipating that tonight's program will closely examine the results of the Supreme Court case Washington DC v. Heller, in which the court effectively struck down a Washington DC law that restricted the use of firearms. While the decision is narrowly applied to DC (a federal district whose laws are overseen by the US government), the ruling has widespread implications. Heller was the first time the court decided that the 2nd Amendment applies to individual rights, not a collective right (as the vague wording of the 2nd Amendment seems to suggest).

Now what remains to be seen is how this precedent will be applied nationally. The first place where this is likely to play out is right here in Chicago--a city with one of the most restrictive laws pertaining to gun ownership.

Will the Heller ruling soon make Chicago's gun laws unconstitutional? Therein lies tonight's debate.

The program has now begun and introductions have been made. Gretchen Helfrich is welcoming the crowd of approximately 150 people.

Robert Levy opens tonight debate. Levy is a constitutional scholar who, although has never owned a gun, was instrumental in bringing the Heller case to court. He vetted plaintiffs for the lawsuit and helped financed the suit.

Levy posits that the Heller case was specifically about personal handgun ownership--not assault rifles or semiautomatic weapons.

Henigan takes the podium and begins his statement saying that he is not here to interpret the 2nd Amendment, but rather why the Heller decision is bad jurisprudence. He believes that the Heller decision has in some ways actually enabled stronger gun control.

There are 30,000 gun victims of gun violence each year.

Section 3 of Heller Decision actually lays out which gun restictions are actually still valid: waiting periods, background checks, and prohibitions of concealed weapons, bans on assault weapons, possession of arms by felons, guns in schools, and more.

After my computer crashed twice during the presentations and rebuttals, we are back live.

Henigan contented that Heller actually helped gun-restriction advocates because the decision says that gun banning is not an option. That decision erodes a key argument by gun advocates who say that any restriction leads to a slippery slope toward wholesale gun banning.

Levy responds that the case is highly important because it targeted specific restrictions against gun ownership that were unreasonable. It also sets up a precident that will afford gun advocates in any state to file suit against unreasonable restrictions.

Henigan goes on to say that the Heller decision may help reverse some city gun restrictions, it does not say that some restrictions are unreasonable--it in fact says the opposite.

"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. "
--2nd Amendment to US Constitution.

Not too many words to help decide such a complex issue.

Levy stated that only three provisions of the DC law were contested in the Heller case and found unconstitutional. Just because only those three were litigated, it doesn't mean that all other law provisions are okay. The Supreme Court did not rubber stamp certain restrictions, but rather alluded that restrictions can be reviewed on a case by case basis. For instance, because DC has had such restrictive laws, no gun stores have been in the city. Now, as new stores open up, DC is imposing strong restrictions on sales. Many of those restrictions may be subject to judicial review.

Henigan said that what the Heller decision did was a type of Conservative judicial activism--actions bemoaned by many on the right for years.

Whats the continued relevance of the "well regulated militia?" asked Helfrich.

Levy: These discussions were mostly relevant during the founding era when disputes between Federalists and Antifederalists argued about who should be able to control munitions. It was a way of codifying the right to keep and bear arms. Self defense was assumed.

Henigan: Says that Levy's account of the Second Amendment is not based in fact. The framer's only addressed militias and it was up to the states to later pass laws protecting personal gun ownership.

Levy opines that the term "bear" means to personally own and handle arms. Henigan says that "bear" refers to carry weapons--such as the way a militia would.

7:00 Opening the floor to audience questions.

Grethen Helfrich points out that it widely said that court decisions are narrow and only affect specific things, but ultimately are broadly applied--implying that Heller will later be much more broadly enforced.

Levy: It is true that Scalia, in making his opinion, did say that some restrictions may be okay. But he still feels that the Heller decision will make "draconian" gun laws as supported by the Brady Center will fall.

Henigan: The Brady Center does not support outright gun bans. But, it also believes that individual communities should be and have the right to decide their own laws. "Guns are not vacuum cleaners," they should be subject to stronger restrictions.

"Will ammunition become a target of banning?"

Levy: If a ban on ammunition ends up restricting gun ownership, it will be overturned.

Henigan: Bob is right, but gun laws can be constructed that are not unconstitutional.

"Inconvenience is not infringement."--audience comment. Infringing means to abolish, and restrictions are not intended to abolish. Levy responds that any abridgement is by definition a restriction of freedom.

"If gun victims can now get guns easier, will there be more violence?"

There is obviously opposing views on this. Causal studies yield very conflicting information. Levy contends that robberies and related violence goes down, but Henigan remarks that homicide is higher.

"How relevant are the founders views on our present day society?" asked one audience member. I think this is one of the most important questions of the night. The world of 1775 is so vastly different that 2009. How and should gun rights be separated from the notion of a militia--a concept unknown to our society today.

Great moment of contention when an audience member suggests that the second amendment is as irrelevant to our modern society as the third amendment (which forbids the forced quartering of soldiers in private homes).

Levy raises another great point--because gay people are officially barred from the military (our modern militia), does that mean that gays are not allowed to own guns?

The program is concluding. Great discussion and a wide variety of opinions expressed tonight.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

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The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

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McCormick Foundation

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Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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