The course focuses on the historical trajectory of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in constitutional law, in response to firearm technology, and with respect to changing cultures of race, gender, property rights, and self-defense. Understanding the origins of American gun policy, and unpacking the history of elaborating and restricting Second Amendment rights, will allow students to critically engage multiple undercurrents of one of the longest-standing, and widest-ranging, public policy debates in U.S. history. Students in the course will build their capacity for college-level historical inquiry and assessment of primary and secondary sources; improve their understanding of the intersection of public opinion and public policy; and play a role in building a digital exhibition that will given them exposure to digital museology and practice in evidence-based writing for the public.
First, they will examine documents from debates in several state legislatures over the Second Amendment, to understand the particular, 18th century problems that the Second Amendment was written to solve. Next, students will read advertisements and accounts of personal use of new gun technologies, including the earliest machine guns, Smith & Wesson ads, accounts from multiple parties and perspectives over the thirty years of late 19th-century Indian Wars, and the founding documents of the National Rifle Association. Students will then be given an array of data sets on topics including wartime gun technology, international arms trading agreements, rates of gun ownership and homicide, and mapping and identification tools, and challenged to formulate interpretations of the Second Amendment that respond to key moments which threatened its legitimacy in the 20th century. Finally, students will consider recent history, looking particularly at the status of women’s rights in the passage of a handful of state laws and the incorporation documents of some of the political action committees (PACs) which constitute the “gun lobby.”
After undertaking the work of this course, students will be able to consider the contemporary public debates around mass shootings, police violence, and vigilanteism in light of historical questions of gender, race, state prerogative, and property rights. Students will then be able to meaningfully participate in the ongoing debate over precisely how and where the state may regulate the purchase, carrying, and use of firearms, and for whom those regulations apply—some of the major public policy questions of our time.
The final project will be a small digital exhibition, made up of individual student’s case studies and built on an Omeka/Curatescape platform. Students will each be responsible for clearly and succinctly examining the public policy responses to localized gun crises since 1945, and explaining a primary source document which responds to the crisis in question. This will give students an opportunity to practice creating well-evidenced and visually interesting writing for public forums, and thereby to gain competence and confidence in so doing.
The combination of historical analysis, evidence-based debate and inquiry, and the final exhibition project builds on Dr. Robyn Schroeder’s areas of expertise. Her research area is U.S. constitutional culture; she has experience in teaching at the undergraduate and graduate level at Brown; and her professional background is in museum education and curation, capped by her current work as Director of Graduate Studies for Brown’s masters program in the Public Humanities.
Students will gain understanding of the methods of historical analysis used in college classrooms, as well as some exposure to a mode of historical presentation that is commonly used in the museums and library institutions in which they may seek internships or pursue special projects. Because this course touches on so many moments in and dimensions of U.S. history, it will also improve general American history understanding that will aid students who have not yet taken the AP test.
Prerequisites: Students in this course would, of course, be aided by a general grasp of U.S. history; but official coursework is not required inasmuch as international student knowledge and transnational perspectives are considered an asset and would be deeply welcome. The instructor is willing to meet with any and all students outside of class hours to expand upon or explain upon topics with which students might struggle or have further questions.