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Gun Control

22 Aug 2016Government and Law Essays

Every time you read the newspaper or turn on the TV to watch the news, you hear about gun related violence. Not only war, suicide, and gang-related shooting, but also six-year-old boys killing their classmates in school. On Tuesday, February 29, 2000, a six-year-old boy shot his classmate, of the same age, to death. The two children had gotten into a fight the previous day. The boy had brought a gun from home to frighten her but accidentally fired it. One single shot was fired inside the classroom at Buell Elementary School, in Mount Morris Township, Michigan, that morning.

Historical Perspective

The gun control controversy started long ago with the colonists and the Native Americans.  Constant wars and heavy losses to the English gave the colonists the idea of gun control.  A war in 1675 ended up wiping out two Native American tribes and resulted in heavy casualties to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and surrounding colonies.  The colonists began to restrict tribes from the use of firearms of any kind.  (Jacobs 25-26)  This was the first event that involved gun control of any kind in the history of America, and it was fraught with colonization domination and fear.  It was not until the constitution was written and the Second Amendment ratified that people were guaranteed the right to bear arms.

Since 1996, there have been 30 major school shootings around the world, 20 of which occurred in the U.S. Most recently, on November 9 this year, a 15-year-old shot and killed an assistant principal and seriously wounded two other administrators at Campbell County High School, Jacksboro, Tennessee.

Although violent crimes have declined heavily during the last decade, 1,272,374 cases of murder, robbery, and aggravated assaults involving firearms were committed last year. Out of these, 16,137 were murder (The U.S. Department of Justice). In 2000, the U.S. had the highest firearm murder rate per capita of all developed countries in the world (Nation Master).   These numbers are terrifying and indeed alarming.

Constitutional Analysis

The Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution says:  “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.“

A lot of conflicts have risen under this constitutional right since it can be interpreted in two very different ways. The groups and organizations that are advocates of strict gun control laws believe that The Second Amendment were created strictly to guarantee the states, not individuals, the right to possess firearms. They consider this yet another part of the checks and balances – a right for the states to protect themselves against the Federal Government if it should try to exercise too much power.

They also claim that the words ”a well-regulated militia” aims at the state troops each state enforced at the time the Constitution was instituted. Todays equivalence, the National Guard, does no longer supply itself with weapons, but get its guns subsidized by the Government. Therefore, the anti-gun groups claim that the Second Amendment, in reality, does not fill any purpose except for its historical importance nowadays (The Brady Campaign).

This standpoint has a major strength seen from a constitutional aspect. The Supreme Court has never really taken a stand about how the Second Amendment shall be interpreted, but in the United States vs. Miller case from 1939, the  Supreme Court appointed that the possession of a short-barreled shotgun was not protected by the rights from the Second Amendment, since they did not consider it to be "ordinary military equipment" that could "contribute to the common defense." Never since has any gun control law been considered unconstitutional by the Supreme Court (Volokh).

The other side of the debate, the adherents of less or none gun control, strictly claim that the Second Amendment was created mainly to give individuals the right to keep and bear firearms for the purpose of protecting themselves. They do not oppose that the states also are given the privilege to possess firearms, but claim, as mentioned before, that the right of the individuals is its main purpose.  The ”well-regulated militia” has been interpreted as an armed population, who’s purpose is to protect the country against a potential tyrannical government or dictatorship (NRA).

An important argument the pro-gun organizations frequently use to emphasize the, according to them, the obvious individual intent of the Second Amendment are statements from the Founding Fathers. The National Rifle Association published a fact sheet on their web page earlier this year containing a quote from James Madison, one of the Founding Fathers: "the advantage of being armed," that was lacking in other nations, where "the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms." Further on, they continue by quoting Patrick Henry, another important man behind the revolution: "great object is that every man is armed. . . . Everyone who is able may have a gun."

According to the pro-gun group, the phrase ”the right of the people”, is obvious proof of that the Founding Fathers meant the Second Amendment to apply to individuals. In addition, all of the other Amendments in the Bill of Rights are focused on the individual’s rights, so why would the Second Amendment differ?

The pro-gun groups have some authoritarian support too. In 2004, The U.S. Department of Justice published a report addressing the Second Amendment. The report is based on, as they express themselves: ”the Amendment’s text, as commonly understood at the time of its adoption and interpreted in light of other provisions of the Constitution and the Amendment’s historical antecedents”. Their conclusion reads: “we conclude that the Second Amendment secures a personal right of individuals, not a collective right that may only be invoked by a State or a quasi-collective right restricted to those persons who serve in organized militia units”. The Department of Justice also agrees with the pro-gun Americans about the definition of the term “a well-regulated militia”. According to the report,  one has to consider the prevailing language for the time the Constitution was written when interpreting it. This is the reason why the Second Amendment has been interpreted incorrectly by for example the anti-gun groups.

Although it has been frequently debated, the word militia, interpreted under today’s language circumstances, is always subject to federal, state, or local government control (Wikipedia). The constitutional issue is, or at least should, for that reason mainly be focused around whether the Second Amendment was meant to apply solely to a ”well-regulated militia” or to individuals as well.

Gun Control Laws

People frequently estimate the total number of U.S. gun control laws to over 20,000. This is, in all probability, not true. There are about 300 relevant state and federal laws regulating guns, and an unknown number of local laws. What is known, though, is that this unknown number is far from exceeding 20,000. Instead of focusing on a large number of gun control laws, one should focus on the efficiency of today’s gun policies (Vernick & Hepburn).

There are six federal gun control laws in place today. The first one, the National Firearms Act, passed congress in 1934.  This law applies to machine guns, destructive devices, sawed-off shotguns and rifles, and silencers. These weapons are called NFA-weapons and are under law required to be registered in the NFA register. Transfers can only be made within the buyer’s own state and are also imposed a $200 excise tax.

Individual transferees have to fill out a form with an attached photo, which has to be signed by a local chief law enforcement officer. Transferees are also required to submit their fingerprints in relation to the transfer (Bardwell).

Four years later, in 1938, the Federal Firearms Act was ordained. The purpose of this law was to limit the interstate transfer of firearms and to prohibit criminals convicted of violent crimes from purchasing and possessing firearms.  Dealers and manufacturers were required to be licensed in order to participate in any interstate commerce involving firearms. They also had to keep the record of all trade activities, including a register of their customers (Ascione).

Increasing rates of crime and violence along with the murders of Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Junior forced the Government to take action. In 1968, the Gun Control Act was passed. The act is divided into two titles. The main objectives of Title I are to mail-order sales of firearms and ammunition, to limit purchases of firearms to the buyer’s state of residence, and to prohibit certain groups of people from obtaining firearms. Drug addicts, convicted felons, and mentally defective people are some of the people who cannot obtain firearms.   Title II is a revision of the National Firearms Act of 1934 and applies to short-barreled shotguns and rifles, machine guns and destructive devices such as grenades, rocket launchers, mortars and large projectiles. In order to acquire and possess the earlier mentioned weapons, both approval from the Attorney General and federal registration are required. The act also requires all guns to be marked with a serial number (NRA and The Brady Campaign).

In 1993, The Brady Law was created. This law is perhaps the most important and efficient gun control law ever created. The Brady law requires all gun dealers licensed by the federal government to run a background check on everyone who wants to purchase a gun. The background check comprises of, among other things, prior criminal convictions, mental condition, residence, age, and employment. There is also a five-day waiting period, to give time for the background check when purchasing a gun (The Brady Campaign). In 2003, 126,000 people were denied when trying to purchase a gun due to the Brady Act background check. Between February 1994, when the Brady Act went into action, and December 31, 2003, about 1,102,000 people were denied when trying to purchase guns.

A year later, in 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was applied. This resulted in the prohibition of a number of semi-automatic gun types and external magazines larger than 10 rounds of ammunition. It also made it a crime for juveniles to transfer and possess firearms. Lastly, it enhanced the requirements for obtaining gun dealer licenses. The most recent federal gun law was applied in 1996. The Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban made it illegal for people convicted of domestic violence crimes to obtain and possess guns (The Brady Campaign). Notably, in the District of Columbia, Chicago, and most recently, San Francisco, handguns are banned (NRA).

Deaths vs. Enjoyment & “security”

The numbers of deaths and injuries caused every day far outweigh the enjoyment hunters experience or the money that gun shop owners make.  Sure, right now people may feel like they have protection if they own a gun in their home.  It might make them feel secure and safe.  However, there is always a chance that an accident occurs, especially if there are young children or teenagers living in the house.  Today’s music, TV, and video games make firearms very interesting to young people.  When kids and teenagers find their parents’ gun, sometimes they might feel an urge to play with it and experiment with it.  If this happens, the injury is sometimes unavoidable and death is a definite possibility.  Of course, guns help America win wars, guns help hunters hunt animals of all kinds, and guns make money for people.  But these are hardly enough to say that they outweigh the negative results of guns.

When shootings like the Columbine High School shooting take place, one must begin to wonder if not controlling guns more strictly is worth it.  If a criminal wants to find a gun, a criminal is going to find a gun.  However, if guns were reserved for only the military and police, criminals and terrorists have to look harder, take longer and pay more.  When the law enforcement agents of America have to arrest these lawbreakers, it is much more difficult and much more dangerous to do if the criminal is armed.  These armed crimes, sadly, happen every day in our country.  Homicides, kidnappings, suicides, armed robberies, etc., put the lives of innocent people at risk too many times per year.  Therefore, the thousands of deaths that happen every year far outweigh the supposed “good” qualities that guns supposedly offer.

What if there was a simple, yet effective, solution that made everyone happy and put no one at the disadvantage?  Well, American law enforcement agents could start more strictly enforcing the laws America already has.  Boston is a perfect example of this.  “In Boston, by enforcing the existing laws, (such as a 10-year penalty for felons found to be in possession of a firearm), and employing aggressive intervention strategies, youth gun homicide was reduced to zero” a few years ago.  In parts of the city, small community-based groups were formed called the Youth Violence Strike Force.  Policemen came and talked to kids who had already been involved in some gun-related incident.  Similar enforcement was executed in Jacksonville, Florida when crime skyrocketed years ago.  As a result of Jacksonville’s improvements, murder by juveniles dropped 72% and rape and sex offenses dropped 50%.

All in all, it is clear that gun control is a very complex issue in the American society today. The fact that gun control is addressed in the Second Amendment makes it even harder to get to the root of the problem since it is then a matter of interpretation. However, while people are debating over how the Second Amendment should be interpreted and what is self-defense, guns are used to injure and kill people every day both intentionally and accidentally. If a new law controls guns more firmly, it would keep a higher percentage alive and wealthy. However, the deaths of innocent people caused by misuse and abuse of firearms far outweigh the need of guns to protect from intruders and from government abuse.  If guns were controlled more strictly, fewer people would have guns to commit crimes and accidentally hurt themselves or others.  Sure, illegal purchases of firearms would still be a problem, but the police and the military would be protecting the people of the country.  One would feel safer knowing that a criminal is not going to intrude his/her home armed or try to hold them at gunpoint.  That sense of safety is greater than the safety one gets of owning a gun, because with that safety comes the fear of actually having to one day use it.

References:

  1. “Federal Firearms Laws: Gun Control Act of 1968.” The NRA. 11 March 2006. http://www.nraila.org/federalfirearms.htm#summary
  2. “Crime Data: A Time Line of Recent Worldwide School Shootings.” Info Please. 2005. 11 March 2006 http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0777958.html
  3. The U.S. Department of Justice. “Key Facts at a Glance: Nonfatal Firearm-Related Violent Crimes, 1993-2004.” 25 September 2005. Bureau of Justice Statistics. 11 March 2006.  http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/glance/tables/firearmnonfataltab.htm
  4. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Centre for International Crime Prevention. “Seventh United Nations Survey of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems, covering the period 1998 – 2000.” Nation Master. 11 March 2006. http://www.nationmaster.com/graph-T/cri_mur_wit_fir_cap
  5. “The Second Amendment.” The Brady Campaign. 2006. 11 March 2006. http://www.bradycampaign.org/facts/issues/?page=second
  6. Volokh, Eugene. “Supreme Court Cases: United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939).” 10 March 2006. http://www.law.ucla.edu/volokh/2amteach/sources.htm#TOC11
  7. NRA. “The Second Amendment Fact Sheet.” 3 May 2005. 11 March 2006.http://www.nraila.org/Issues/FactSheets/Read.aspx?ID=177
  8. Department of Justice. “Whether the Second Amendment Secures an Individual Right.” 24 August 2004. 11 March 2006. http://www.usdoj.gov/olc/secondamendment2.pdf
  9. “Militia.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Militia#United_States
  10. Vernick, Jon S. & Hepburn, Lisa M. “Twenty Thousand Gun-Control Laws?” The Brookings Institution, December 2002. 11 March 2006. http://www.brookings.edu/es/urban/publications/gunbook4.pdf
  11. Bardwell, James O. “FAQ on National Firearms Act Weapons.” 1994-2001. 11 March 2006. http://www.cs.cmu.edu/afs/cs.cmu.edu/user/wbardwel/public/nfalist/nfa_faq.txt
  12. Ascione, Alfred M. “Law Review: The Federal Firearms Act.” St John’s Law Review, Vol. 13, p 437. 1939. 11 March 2006. http://www.saf.org/LawReviews/Ascione1.html
  13. “The Six Federal Gun Laws.” The Brady Campaign. 2006. 11 March 2006. http://www.bradycampaign.org/legislation/federal/pages.php?page=6fedlaws
  14. Kleck, Gary, and Halbrook, Stephen P.  “GunCite.”  Gunsite.  September 2004. 

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