Craig Whitney spent much of his long career with The New York Times as a reporter in Europe, where he got the same question over and over.
"People would often ask me in a baffled way, 'What is it about you Americans and guns?' especially after things like Columbine happened," he said. "I would give the best answer I could, but then I realized I didn't really know myself."
After retiring as an assistant managing editor in 2009, Whitney decided to find out. The result of his research was the book, Living With Guns: A Liberal's Case for the Second Amendment (Public Affairs Books, $28.99). It was published last November, a month before the school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
Whitney will be in Lexington Thursday to talk about his findings, some of which surprised him. His book offers a path to finding sensible middle ground in the gun-control debate, balancing Second Amendment rights with public safety.
In an interview last week, Whitney said he began his research by looking at Colonial history to find out what the nation's founders intended when they wrote the Constitution's Second Amendment: "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."
Many gun-control advocates argue that the Second Amendment is an anachronism, or that it was never meant to guarantee the right of individual gun ownership outside military service. But the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected that argument twice recently, in 5-4 rulings in 2008 and 2010 that struck down handgun bans in Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
"I found myself surprisingly agreeing with the conservative justices," Whitney said. "That it is an individual right, not tied to militia service, and that the Second Amendment recognized a common-law right the colonists had had from the very beginning."
Whitney said gun-control advocates must accept the Second Amendment, as well as the reality that gun ownership is a deeply ingrained aspect of American culture that isn't going away. His book notes that more than 60 million Americans own more than 300 million firearms.
By the same token, gun-rights advocates should quit stoking fear that the federal government will somehow find a way to confiscate the weapons of law-abiding citizens. That would be clearly unconstitutional, Whitney said, and such paranoia stymies much-needed public safety measures like universal background checks.
The National Rifle Association has promoted gun-seizure fears since the 1970s. Whitney noted that it has been an effective fundraising strategy for the NRA and has dramatically increased gun sales.
Whitney doesn't own guns, although he carried one while serving in the Navy in Vietnam. Legal gun ownership is difficult where he lives in New York City. But he is an NRA member.
"I joke in the book that I would never have believed half the things that the media report the NRA says if I hadn't read them in the NRA's monthly magazine," he said.
Whitney is critical of the NRA, but he is just as critical of extreme gun-control advocates such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Violent crime has declined dramatically in America during the past two decades, but Whitney disputes NRA propaganda crediting that to more people carrying guns for self-defense.
"I also don't buy Mayor Bloomberg's argument that keeping people like me from buying guns or having them in New York City keeps crime down in New York City," he said.
Whitney noted that more than half the nation's 30,000 annual gun deaths are suicides — and half of those are done with rifles and shotguns. While so-called assault weapons have been used in high-profile massacres, most gun crimes are committed with handguns.
"Common sense is what we need to apply to the gun-control debate," Whitney said.
"Not ideology, which on the one hand says that all regulations are unconstitutional and on the other hand says all guns should be illegal."
Whitney's book makes several sensible policy recommendations. History shows that guns have been regulated since the nation's earliest days, and the Supreme Court has clearly stated that reasonable gun regulations are perfectly constitutional.
One of the most effective strategies, Whitney believes, would be state licensing of gun owners after they receive safety training and pass a proficiency test. Who should do the training and testing? Whitney suggests the NRA.
"Politically, they've gone off the deep end," Whitney said of the NRA. "But I think they do excellent work in the firearms training and safety courses they have."
Improving the public's proficiency with firearms was the main reason the NRA was founded in 1871, Whitney noted in his book. And one of the two founders, William C. Church, was a former reporter for The New York Times.
Lecture by journalist and author Craig Whitney
When: 7 p.m. Thursday.
Where: University of Kentucky, Taylor Education Building, 597 South Upper Street.
Sponsors: UK's College of Communication and Information, the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.