Is there any more polarizing or controversial topic than gun ownership in America? I suppose Donald Trump, but I can’t think of anything else, and the gun ownership debate is clearly present in each of our current Presidential candidates’ campaigns as well. Some folks are no doubt basing their vote on this issue alone. Gun ownership and gun control is what I mean to discuss. My tone will be one which I think is largely being lost in the shuffle these days: respect and honest debate.
There seem to be, broadly speaking, three schools of thought on gun ownership. One says that due to the Second Amendment to the Constitution everyone has a right to almost any weapon made or available in the US. Another is that the Second Amendment was drafted at a time when the most advanced weapons available were muskets, and the founding fathers did not intend private citizens to own fully or semi-automatic weapons, these ought not be publicly available but other guns are fine. The third school of thought is that firearms of any sort are too dangerous to be owned by private citizens, and ought not to be owned or used by any but the military or police forces.
A Little History
We can’t proceed further without directly quoting the Second Amendment to the Constitution: “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.” It’s very brief, and different interpretations of this Amendment have caused a lot of debate. This Amendment came about due to eventual Congressional agreement that the US will have a standing army, and that citizens will not be deprived of their right to own guns just because the military does.
Currently US gun laws allow a legal right for private possession of firearms to any citizen, permanent resident alien, and even “non-immigrant aliens” under specific circumstances. They must be over age 18 (Edit: or 21 to possess a handgun, thanks for a friend’s correction), and are allowed to own firearms unless they are under indictment or convicted of a felony, have been adjudicated ‘mentally defective’, have been discharged dishonorably from military service, or have renounced their citizenship. This right was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller, which overturned a Washington DC ban on handguns. The Court found “the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home…Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
In 2010 the Supreme Court ruled in McDonald v. City of Chicago that the guarantee of an individual right to bear arms applies to state and local gun control laws and not just federal laws. The Supreme Court has never ruled on whether the Second Amendment protects the right to carry guns in public for self defense.
What’s a mass shooting? The short answer is, nobody really agrees. The narrowest definition I’ve found is “indiscriminate rampages occurring in public places involving the deaths of at least 4 victims” by Mother Jones. According to this definition, there were four mass shootings in 2015. The Gun Violence Archive has a slightly different definition: “Four or more shot and/or killed in a single event [incident], at the same general time and location not including the shooter.” They say there were 331 mass shootings in 2015. That’s a heckuva large range. For brevity’s sake, let’s just cover a few of the landmark shootings.
The first significant mass shooting I’ll include occurred in 1989 and is known as the Cleveland School massacre. A gunman shot and killed 5 school children and wounded 32 others before killing himself. The weapon involved was a Type 56 assault rifle.
The next significant mass shooting was the 101 California Street Shooting of 1993 which involved a man shooting and killing 9 people (including himself) and injuring six more in the offices of a law firm in San Francisco. The weapons involved were two TEC-DC9 semi-automatic pistols which he had outfitted with hollow-point ammunition and Hellfire trigger systems.
Following this was the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, in which two students murdered 13 people and injured another 21 before killing themselves. The weapons involved included an Intratec TEC-DC9 Semi-automatic pistol, Hi-Point 995 Carbine, Savage 67H pump-action shotgun and a Stevens 311D double barreled sawed-off shotgun. Columbine was hardly the first school shooting; reports of shootings that took place at schools go back to the 1800’s. However this was the case that seemed to ignite debate across America. It was a game changer, and hit the US like a cultural shock wave. It’s clear that mass-murder shootings have accelerated in the US since Columbine.
Then we had the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, the deadliest up until this year. A senior at Virginia Tech diagnosed with a “serious anxiety disorder” shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in two separate attacks that day. The weapons involved were a Walther P22 semi-automatic handgun and a semi-automatic Glock 19. This shooting didn’t just involve us–because the student was born in South Korea, the entire nation of South Korea responded with sympathy and a sense of national shame. Read about it here.
Another influential mass shooting was the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in which 28 deaths occurred, including the perpetrator. The weapon used was a Bushmaster XM15-E2S assault rifle. This shooting reignited gun control debates across the country, as well as the effects of violent video games.
Most recently at the time of this writing is the Orlando nightclub shooting, the deadliest mass shooting in US history, which claimed the lives of 50 people (including the shooter), and has made world-wide headlines. The weapons involved included a SIG Sauer MCX assault rifle and a 9mm Glock 17 semi-automatic pistol. Why all these shootings? The reason for this is beyond the scope of my article, and honestly I don’t know anyway. I don’t think anyone knows for sure, though some speculation about American culture is out there.
Gun Control Laws
Various gun control laws have been enacted over the years. The first major one I’ll mention was the Gun Control Law of 1968, which came about due to President Kennedy’s assassination, and the subsequent assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F Kennedy. The President was shot and killed with a rifle purchased by mail-order, so a law banning mail order sales of rifles and shotguns (and prohibiting most felons, drug users and people found mentally incompetent) from buying guns was passed. It’s interesting to note that the Vice President of the NRA at the time said, “We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States.”
In 1993 the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was passed. This bill created a background check system which required those who sold guns to conduct a background check of prospective gun purchasers, and created a list of categories of individuals to whom the sale of firearms is prohibited.
In 1994 ex-Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan wrote Congress asking that semi-automatic assault guns be banned in the wake of the Cleveland School Massacre in ’89 and the 101 California Street Shooting. This resulted in the Federal Assault Weapons Ban on the manufacture or use of assault weapons for 10 years.
After Columbine there were increased calls for gun control measures, as well as a radical change in security at schools. Days after the shooting, in a move that drew almost universal criticism the NRA decided to move its national convention to nearby Denver. At this convention the NRA CEO said something I completely agree with: “First, we believe in absolutely gun-free, zero-tolerance, totally safe schools. That means no guns in America’s schools, period … with the rare exception of law enforcement officers or trained security personnel.”
The Sandy Hook shooting again resulted in multiple proposals for gun laws, including background checks on all firearm sales and a renewal of the Assault Weapons Ban, but it failed. Nothing at the Federal level passed, but states began enacting their own bans. Currently 8 states in the US have some form of assault weapons ban. Following Sandy Hook, the same NRA CEO said: “Politicians pass laws for Gun-Free School Zones. They issue press releases bragging about them. They post signs advertising them. And in so doing, they tell every insane killer in America that schools are their safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk.”
What Do I Think?
I think there have been a lot of mass shootings in the past 20+ years in the US, and a notable acceleration since 2011-2012. Gun sales have reached record highs in 2010, 2011 and 2012. This can be a little misleading though, because it makes you think that more Americans are buying guns than ever before. In reality, that’s not the case. In 1973 about half of us had a gun in our homes; that’s down to 37% in 2013 according to Pew Research. Depending on where you check the number varies from 34 -41%, but it’s clearly gone down. Gun sales are going to people that already have guns, not to Americans that don’t. So what do I think about where our gun control laws should land? In general I agree with Ronald Reagan’s sentiments made February 6, 1989:
I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen for sporting, for hunting and so forth, or for home defense. But I do believe than AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon or needed for defense of a home.
The Supreme Court itself, as cited above, supports the Second Amendment but states it is not unlimited. We have the right to own weapons for the defense of the home, and in other common uses such as hunting. As much as I support the Second Amendment, it does not give us the right to own “any weapon whatsoever.” I haven’t yet heard someone demanding that they need their assault rifle in order to hunt deer any more than I’ve heard we need to have the right to own weapons-grade plutonium. According to Ronald Reagan and many others, we don’t need it for defense of the home either.
We didn’t used to be so frightened about losing our guns. Let me be clear: Nobody is coming for your guns. This is a lie perpetuated in large part by the NRA to keep their organization thriving. As much as I want to like an organization that is supposedly there to lobby for defense of the Second Amendment, the typical magazine issue has articles that are clearly fear-mongering. To make it clear again, I am totally in favor of civilian private ownership of guns such as handguns, hunting rifles and shotguns. There are no laws on the books that will rob a citizen of their right to own these. It would never make it past Congress, and even if it did the Supreme Court would shoot it down (heh). If any laws were to come up, I will be voting against it just as much as I urge my reader to.
To those who say that guns don’t kill people, people kill people, I say I agree! However, automatic and semi-automatic weapons help kill a lot of people a lot quicker. Orlando just could not have happened on the scale that it did without an assault rifle. Assault rifles have one purpose: to kill people. It is a weapon of war, intended for soldiers who fight in war–not civilians. As cool as it can be to shoot one, that is not a sufficient justification for owning one. A recent study looking at 30 years of homicide data found that for every one percent increase in a state’s gun ownership rate, there is a nearly one percent increase in its firearm homicide rate.
Some will say, if you take guns out of the hands of civilians then only the criminals will have guns, look what happened in England! In England the Firearm Act of 1997 was passed after the Dunblane School Massacre, where a gunman killed 16 children and a teacher with Browning and Smith & Wesson pistols before killing himself. This act went further than banning assault rifles, it banned virtually all handguns. A recent analysis shows that violent crimes had increased, as some have pointed out, but after 2004 it has decreased every year. The violent crime rate now is comparable to the rate before it was first enacted.
Then there’s Australia, where they enacted the National Firearms Agreement in 1996 after the Port Arthur massacre in which 35 people were killed and 23 wounded. The weapon involved was an AR-15 assault rifle, so they banned semi-automatic and pump-action weapons and forced civilians to sell them back to the government. There had been 13 mass shootings previously; none have been recorded since. Here is a news article on it. Clearly, taking some kinds of guns out of the hands of civilians does not mean violent or gun-involved crime will increase.
The best approach I’ve seen is in Switzerland. Switzerland is a nation with the third highest proportion of gun ownership in the world, and they have very few gun-related deaths. All healthy Swiss men aged between 18 and 34 are obliged to do military service and all are issued assault rifles or pistols which they are supposed to keep at home. In Switzerland the army recommends all citizens to keep the barrel of their guns stored separately. They do not view gun ownership for protecting themselves or their family, but for protecting their country. They know that guns stored intact at home are often used in domestic violence cases, or unintentionally shooting those they know. Talking with a Swiss citizen and ask them about the gun culture and you will get an angry response: “We do not have a gun culture!” Carrying a gun in public is possible with a permit, but they are usually issued only to people who work in security, once they have passed theoretical and practical exams. It’s a great approach.
(Edit: this paragraph was added recently) Finally, some believe the 2nd Amendment gives us the right, whether implicitly or explicitly, to ‘fight back’ against our government if we need to. I’m not sure I agree with this interpretation, or even in which circumstances this would justifiably apply. First of all, most Americans do not fear the armed forces, and virtually no one thinks that an armed populace could defeat those forces in battle. This is not the age of the flintlock rifle. If “the government” decides you are dangerous to the public, owning any kind of gun will not allow you to win against highly trained tactical teams or military forces, I don’t care who you are. Justifying owning fully-automatic weapons, for example, for some hypothetical doomsday scenario is not enough of a reason. I’m a Christian. If I died defending my innocent family, we’d go to heaven and our Lord would take any necessary vengeance. So that’s not a good enough reason for me, not when actual mass shootings continue to happen so frequently.
The NRA CEO has said that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Do you know how many mass shootings have been stopped by armed civilians? As far as decades of records show, 0. Whether it’s a disgruntled employee, a mentally deranged person, a gang member or a terrorist, it doesn’t matter. A good civilian with a gun did not stop Orlando, anymore than he stopped 9/11. I have no problem with gun ownership for home defense, hunting or sporting. I support and will defend the Second Amendment, as I would the entire Bill of Rights. But I do not believe people have the ‘right’ to own military and paramilitary weapons. I’m in good company: former presidents in both parties and the Supreme Court agree with me.
I don’t think civilians should be able to own fully automatic weapons, or semi-automatic ones with larger magazine capacities–say, over 10 rounds, as per the assault weapons ban–and no detachable magazines. These guns do not save lives, and the fun of shooting them does not justify owning them. The AR-15 in particular seems to be a favorite of those who perpetrate mass shootings. Consider the tally: Aurora, CO, 12 killed; Newton, CT, 27 killed; San Bernardino, CA, 14 killed; Las Vegas, 58 killed; Sutherland Springs, TX, 26 killed; Parkland, FL, 17 killed. This is a clear example of a weapon that is not needed for defense of a home, or hunting. It’s only good for killing people. It should not be in civilian hands.
I don’t consider myself a liberal any more than I consider myself a conservative. I am a rare American: a moderate. I hunted with my dad throughout my entire growing up years, and had a good time. While I believe some gun control would help, ultimately the shootings and massacres aren’t about guns. I like to think this is not an extremist view on one side or the other, and I hope that mainstream America shares my view. Why do we have so many mass shootings in America? As I stated earlier, I don’t know. If I were to hazard a guess, in large part I think it’s due to the break down of the family in so many societies around the world, and the unfortunate hyper-individualism in the US. But in the words of Dennis Miller, that’s just my opinion, and I could be wrong. 🙂