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.
These, the words of the Second Amendment, are fairly straightforward. However, they have sparked a fair amount of argumentation throughout the history of the United States, as each new generation decides whether it is time to give up the literal interpretation of this Revolutionary War era clause, or whether to preserve its gift of individual freedom. In the United States, there are 88.8 guns per 100 people (about 270 million guns), which is the highest total and per capita total in the world. In a country where almost 1 in 4 people own guns, it is important to examine both sides of this controversial topic, to better understand various perspectives and ultimately improve the way that guns are handled in the United States to minimize harm.
For many, the right to bear arms is not up for discussion. It is seen as a natural extension of the principles on which this country was founded. While the roots of American gun culture can be traced back to its colonial history, revolutionary times, and frontier expansion, many feel that it is still relevant to today’s society for the liberty that it grants the individual. At the time of its creation, the founding fathers feared that citizens might lose their original right of self-defense should they allow the government to strip them of their personal weapons. According to some who identify with a more literal viewpoint on the Second Amendment, it would be unjust to allow representatives of a democratic, free, nation to disarm citizens. Furthermore, our individual rights should not rely on our ability to exercise them successfully. Rights should be inalienable– with jury trials given to those who are eventually found guilty, free speech given to those who spew inaccurate remarks, and the permission to own a firearm given to those who may not use them successfully.
Rights should be inalienable– with jury trials given to those who are eventually found guilty, free speech given to those who spew inaccurate remarks, and the permission to own a firearm given to those who may not use them successfully.
Additionally, proponents of maintaining the Second Amendment in its raw, original form counter stricter gun control advocates’ claim that the founding fathers could not have imagined modern-day by claiming that the era we now live in is even more tyrannical. In colonial times, complaints surrounded under-representation in government, while modern day societies today have seen tyranny in the form of ethnic cleansing of entire races and enslavement of whole countries. Many, including one opinion writer for the Washington Post, argue that not only could the founding fathers not have imagined this new modern world, but that the idea of them thinking the Bill of Rights is too lenient after seeing what this century’s tyrants are capable of is preposterous. Jim Crow, the KKK, lynching, and legal segregation are often used to exemplify “modern-day” tyranny, providing stark examples of just how easily an entire race was limited in their freedom. Guns, in these examples, can be seen as the great equalizer of races, with the state a “capricious beast”.
So what about the other side of this issue? If guns are the so-called “equalizer” of free democratic citizens, why argue for increased regulation? Promoters of stricter gun laws would answer this by saying that times have changed. In the past thirty years, this country has seen an unprecedented increase in gun ownership, as well as in gun violence, and many feel that while important, the Second Amendment is not an unlimited right to own guns. We are in uncharted territory in terms of increased gun violence, with over 300 people shot each day, 41 of which are children 18 and under. It is long overdue, many argue, that the Second Amendment be re-interpreted to take into account this recent boom in gun ownership and abuse. In 2008, District of Columbia et al. v. Heller the US Supreme Court majority opinion, stated that, “like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited… the right is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose… nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places… or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” This modern translation of the Second Amendment, many gun control advocates believe, is more appropriate to present day society.
At the most basic level, gun control laws would also reduce gun-related deaths, especially suicides, and unintentional deaths- both of which are preventable. In the United States, death by firearm is the 12th leading cause of death, surpassing liver disease, hypertension, and Parkinson’s. Furthermore, gun-related deaths severely influence child mortality, with children under the age of 15 in the United States being 9 times as likely to die of a gun accident when compared to children in other advanced developed countries. Studies conducted during the last ten years have linked the ownership of a handgun to increased risk of violent death, as well as provided evidence towards the potential of federal universal background checks reducing firearm deaths by almost 57%. Further federal regulation of ammunition purchases and gun identification requirements could reduce gun-related deaths by up to 82%, according to the same study, giving proponents of increased gun control an arsenal of statistics to build their platform upon.
In addition to these arguments for increased regulation, supporters need only point to the increased occurrence of mass shootings in the past twenty years. Columbine, San Bernardino, and the PULSE nightclub shooting, are only three examples of the many mass shooting events that have occurred in the recent past, yet are seared into the memories of many American citizens as reminders of the power of the weapons we so freely possess. One of the largest contributors to mass shooting events, many argue, is the ability to purchase high-capacity magazines, relatively unregulated by the federal government. A Mother Jones investigation found that high-capacity magazines were used in at least half of the mass shooting events since 1982, maximizing the chance of harm to targeted populations, while minimizing the accuracy required to cause destruction. David H. Chipman, former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives agent puts it bluntly: “High-capacity magazines turn killers into killing machines,” increasing the number of deaths as a result of gun violence, leaving behind devastating loss.
So, where do we stand as a nation? I’m sure we can all agree- no matter what side of the gun control debate we stand on, that we want to minimize unnecessary gun violence and have responsible gun owners. So, why does our society not mirror this seemingly unanimous desire? Often times, we hear discussion about increased regulations, or stricter background checks, designed to quell fears of violence. However, these false assurances only hold for so long as our “stricter” policies have been supposedly implemented during times such as the Orlando PULSE nightclub shooting- the single largest mass shooting terrorist event since 9/11. According to one opinion writer for the Washington Post, “When it comes to regulating firearms, we only pretend to legislate.” He uses the example of the 1994 federal assault weapons ban that outlawed various models of firearms to prove his point that such regulations are superficial, pointing to the fact that gun manufacturers simply made cosmetic adjustments to the outlawed weapons, renaming and rebranding them to appear as a different, safer product. This appeared to have made all parties happy- gun control advocates appeared to gain safety and limits on firearms, while those who support less regulation still were able to use “different” but “safer” weaponry as they pleased.
However, the purpose of this ban was lost in the process of keeping the peace. As so horrifyingly depicted in the San Bernardino shooting, a couple purchased four assault rifles legally from a licensed retailer, in a state with the nation’s strictest gun control legislation, taking the lives of 14 people and wounding 21. The couple had a right to own guns, underwent various background checks and requirements by the state of California to obtain them legally, and yet still were able to cause irreversible devastation. So, what do we do with this example? This opinion writer believes that devising a point system that rates a weapon’s accuracy, ammunition capacity, ease of reloading, cyclic rate, and ballistics could potentially lead to the banning of weapons that scored too high. But for those that don’t? What do we do to prevent violence due to these “safer” weapons?
And, if California supposedly gets an A on its gun law score, how do the rest of us measure up? Unfortunately, not as well as we would like to. North Carolina is ranked 25th out of the 50 states in its gun law score, an F by the standards set by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. In 2015, North Carolina enacted a law that relaxed the requirements needed to acquire a handgun permit, and additionally loosened restrictions on permit holders keeping guns in vehicles. While there lies a significant amount of room for improvement, North Carolina has implemented some notable gun regulation. Their permit to purchase law requires permission from the sheriff to purchase a handgun after passing a “good moral character” test. While this law contains racist remnants from a different era, it does assist modern-day gun control in the state by providing an additional form of a “background check” with a sheriff deeming citizens morally sound before licensing them.
But, despite California’s seemingly rock-solid gun regulation score, San Bernardino still happened under these regulations, and we must as a society ask ourselves not only what to do about this, but why this happened in the first place? If everyone can agree that unnecessary gun violence is bad and far too prevalent, then why do we not have stricter policies like those described by the Washington Post opinion writer such as scoring firearms? The short answer lies in three letters: the NRA.
The NRA, or National Rifle Association was founded in 1871 as a recreational group designed to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis.” However, this organization has sense moved beyond this purpose and into the realm of political lobbying. It currently is among the most powerful special interest groups in the United States, with enough financial backing to be able to influence members of Congress on gun policy through its Political Action Committee, the Institute for Legislative Action. According to BBC, the NRA publicly grades Congressmen and women from A to F on their perceived friendliness to gun rights. These letter grades can have serious implications for poll numbers and ultimately cost candidates their seats in Congress should they express pro-gun control sentiments. So, if the NRA is conducting shady political actions, why does it still prevail? What is its purpose anyway? Proponents argue that more guns make the country a safer place, and that the Second Amendment irrevocably legitimizes the right to bear arms. It’s alleged body of close to five million American citizens feel that the unnecessary gun violence should be answered with increased prevalence of gun ownership and responsible use to stop these unnecessary events from happening.
So, who is right in this age-old debate? Should we have stricter gun laws and regulations to prevent unnecessary tragedy? Is it our legal right to bear any arms at any time for any purpose? Should the NRA have such striking political influence and sway over gun legislation? The answers to these questions, along with the answers to many others surrounding this controversy are not simple, but some, such as another opinion writer for the Washington Post attempt to find middle ground. According to the writer, the Second Amendment does give an individual a right to own guns, whether we like it or not. However, the American public, too, has a right to be protected. Strengthened background checks, and steps to close the gun show loophole should be seen as constitutional, and necessary if we want to stop the increased prevalence of gun violence in this country. These measures offer what may be our strongest chance to address unnecessary gun violence that happens every day.
Contrary to much of the debate over gun control, it is possible to have both safety and freedom. Whatever means are necessary to obtain both of these realistic goals, it is imperative that we remember that the Second Amendment does not prohibit us from making a safer nation, while still maintaining the liberty to bear arms. No matter where you may stand on the spectrum of gun control, it is safe to say that we all strive for a safer country, and that ultimately in this newfound era of prevalent gun violence, this requires dialogue on how we choose to handle firearms as a nation.