04 February 2013

On Gun Control and American Violence

In the wake of President Obama's announcement that he has several proposals for Congress relating to gun control, I feel that this article is finally necessary. Please keep in mind that I have been avoiding it for some time, because I know that no amount of argument will change any minds on either side. However, I will take on the task of presenting both sides as I have heard the arguments.
As always, if you are offended by this article in any way, I apologize that you are upset, but I will not apologize for anything said in the article.

On Gun Control and American Violence

First, it is important to note that this recent spur of gun control talks was instigated by the horrific mass murder that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14. 2012. I recall hearing of the incident on my way home with a friend, when my Twitter feed exploded with condolences, sadness, and outrage. As I read the story to my friend, she became so moved with anguish that she bumped her car against the raised pavement on my road, punching a small hole in her bumper.
The next few days, as the world tried to understand what had no rationality, no reason, no true capacity to be outlined on paper, I saw some terrible things on my Facebook feed. So many had jumped to using this tragedy to say, "Oh, that communist d-bag Obama is going to take away my guns now, not on MY Second Amendment he won't!" For anyone who thought that immediately after the tragedy, forgive my firmness, but SHAME ON YOU. This tragedy called for us to mourn, to send our hearts (and for some, our prayers) to the families and friends, and to realize why we should cherish the people we love. To use this as an immediate call to an imaginary arms is preposterous and cruel.
That brief opinionated outburst aside, the posts have continued. The American people have cried that their Second Amendment rights are about to be violated under the Obama administration, using it as just another reason to say, "He is ruining the country because [blah blah blah]." The rights and wrongs of the administration being saved for discussion for another day, let's examine the important issue here; gun control, and whether it really does attack our Second Amendment rights.
The Second Amendment reads, verbatim, "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." Where the argument tends to lie in this is, of course, in the interpretation of the language. Cornell University's Law School Legal Information Institute provides the following analysis:
 "On the one hand, some believe that the Amendment's phrase "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms" creates an individual constitutional right for citizens of the United States. Under this "individual right theory," the United States Constitution restricts legislative bodies from prohibiting firearm possession, or at the very least, the Amendment renders prohibitory and restrictive regulation presumptively unconstitutional. On the other hand, some scholars point to the prefatory language "a well regulated Militia" to argue that the Framers intended only to restrict Congress from legislating away a state's right to self-defense. Scholars have come to call this theory "the collective rights theory." A collective rights theory of the Second Amendment asserts that citizens do not have an individual right to possess guns and that local, state, and federal legislative bodies therefore possess the authority to regulate firearms without implicating a constitutional right." (Source: Cornell University's Law School Legal Information Institute)
Given this information, we then have a heavy task ahead of us: which interpretation is the right one? It is apparent that the majority of the American population believes the "individual right theory" is the correct one. In order to understand this mentality, we have to understand the reason people do or don't want the general public to have access to guns.
So first, the "Right to Defend" side, or those who favour the individuals' right to own guns. According to people who believe that we, as American citizens, should have the inalienable right to purchase and keep a firearm if we choose to do so often believe that we need guns to defend ourselves against other people who intend to harm us. Many of these people are already gun owners, and claim to respect their weapons, and that only those who do not respect the power of a firearm are bound to misuse it (i.e. for unnecessary violence). 
Shortly after the horrible tragedy in Newtown, CT, I began to hear the stories of those who had respected the weapons in their reach by defending themselves or their loved ones from violent attackers. There's a story on the Internet of a boy from Phoenix, AZ, who defended himself from home intruders with his parents' gun. In fact, you can type in "boy defends against intruder" and get a couple of similar stories. People point to this story and say, "See? His parents taught him the right way to approach guns; as a weapon for defense, and nothing more." And they're right. When adults choose to own guns, they have a responsibility to teach their children the proper way to be around them; they are not toys, they are devices that have the power to end a life, and we must respect that power. 
So now for the opposition. Those who oppose the ownership of firearms point to the fact that the United States has the highest number of gun-related deaths in the First World. Many of the people who buy a gun, they say, will use it for violence, and if we limit or criminalize the ownership of guns, we will be able to drastically reduce the amount of violence in the country. As the argument goes, if guns are banned, we won't need guns to defend ourselves. 
To a certain degree, this is right. However, as many arguments point out, banning guns won't necessarily get them out of the hands of criminals. The argument continues to say that, if we ban firearms, then those who will shoot (or threaten to shoot) people will continue to do so, and those who would have defended themselves by responding similarly will no longer be able to (There are many political cartoons available which display this sentiment if you type "gun ban cartoon" into Google's image search). 
Still, there are some significant statistics out there that point to how much violence we are forced to endure simply by allowing the common citizen to own a firearm. For example, the number of gun-related deaths in the United States is the highest amongst advanced countries, but even the statistics provided by NationMaster.com do not provide the full story, where the US comes in fourth place (Worldwide) as of the cited 2002 data. 
As FactCheck.org points out, no one statistic can tell the whole story:

Gun-related murder is decreasing, according to the site, but it's still somewhere between 24 and 30 people murdered each day by someone wielding a firearm. Many use these numbers to point to the need for a gun ban, to protect ourselves from all these would-be murderers. Still others refer to the statistics in Europe (where many countries do not allow gun ownership): Violent crime seems to be considerably higher overseas, but still endure fewer gun-related deaths.
Considering these statistics, it's difficult to say whether a gun ban would provide us with any relief. It would definitely seem that gun-related deaths (which includes murders, accidental deaths, and suicides), would decrease, but can we rationally say it would reduce the amount of crime in the United States? Looking at Europe's numbers, the answer seems to be no. Instead of looking to reduce numbers, then, it seems we have to consider the circumstances we might find ourselves in: Should we feel safer and better able to defend ourselves if guns are banned and our attackers primarily use blunt or sharp objects, or should we rely on the hope of being faster on the draw than they are?
Regardless of how U.S. citizens feel about gun ownership, it has become apparent to the government that something should be done. According to the White House website, the following are components of the plan set out by President Obama:

  1. Require background checks for all gun sales
  2. Strengthen the background check system for gun sales
  3. Pass a new, stronger ban on assault weapons
  4. Limit ammunition magazines to 10 rounds
  5. Finish the job of getting armor-piercing bullets off the streets
  6. Give law enforcement additional tools to prevent and prosecute gun crime
  7. End the freeze on gun violence research
  8. Make our schools safer with new resource officiers and counselors, better emergency response plans, and more nurturing school climates
  9. Ensure quality coverage of mental health treatment, particularly for young people
    (source: The White House Website)
As the site also acknowledges, no one law or group of laws will solve the problem of violence in this country, but inaction is no longer tolerable. Although I don't believe that all of these measures will work, or even make it into law, I do believe that we have to try, for the sake of our citizens.
In response to this proposal, what many have just deemed a "gun ban," I have seen mostly outrage, with people crying that the President is turning into a new-age Hitler, or that they will never give up their handguns, because the Second Amendment protects their right to own one. And sure, maybe the Second Amendment does, at least according to how it is currently interpreted. But if you read the proposal carefully, there is nothing mentioned about handguns, or hunting rifles; just assault weapons. As one conversation I've read noted, "What is the practical use for an assault rifle? Clearly you're not going to be carrying that in your shoulderbag or hunting deer with it."
Still, there are collectors -- people who are mesmerized by the power of assault rifles, those who buy one just to show off to their friends, spout statistics, and admire. Most of these people won't do anything wrong with them, but for those that do, they cause devastating trauma that family and friends may never get over. But for many, they aren't really useful, and therefore, are beyond necessary. Many point out that banning assault rifles will neither solve our crime/gun-murder problems, nor encourage many to hand them over (most use the "banning drugs didn't get them off the streets" argument). It's probably true, but others note that it might make a difference.
So here, finally, is what I think:
  1. Because of this country's history of interpreting the Second Amendment as the right of the individual to bear arms, I don't believe that we will ever succeed in effecting a ban on all firearms. People who own them will fight hard to keep them, and those who don't but support ownership feel empowered by those who do.
  2. A ban on assault rifles will never work, namely because of collectors. Although the limit to ten rounds will be a lot easier to pass, it still will not solve the issue. I've heard interesting alternative ideas, such as taxing assault rifle owners with more than one weapon, requiring all assault rifles to be disabled, so that citizens may still purchase them, but will not be able to fire them, and providing tax incentives for turning over weapons. Although no one (or even perhaps any) of these alternative ideas might work, it is nice to see people thinking out of the box.
  3. I would personally like to see assault rifles leave households, whilst allowing citizens to keep their handguns and hunting rifles. In terms of utility, assault rifles really don't seem necessary, and only serve to put people in danger more than should be the case.
  4. I think that addressing the ownership of weapons is really only the tip of the iceberg. As the President's plan mentions, more attention needs to be paid to the mental health of individuals -- not just gun owners, or potentially violent people, but everyone who shows signs of illness. So many simply get pushed into a pill-popping system that their real problems never get addressed, or even mentioned. As one article I read noted, pharmaceutical psychology treats the symptoms, but not the disease, which can allow the illness to fester until it culminates in something everyone involved will regret. Without a comprehensive method of treating mental illness, we will continue to have incidents perpetrated by people like Adam Lanza.
  5. I think that people who are crying that their Second Amendment rights are being infringed as we speak need to read all the available information carefully and realize that they are only getting upset for the sake of being upset.
  6. I think those who learned of the tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary and immediately worried about the government taking their guns instead of reflecting on the tragedy and cherishing their loved ones should be ashamed of themselves and need to consider their priorities a little more carefully.
  7. I don't think that the President's proposal will solve our problems with gun-related crime, but I do believe that we have to try something, because not doing much, if anything, as we have, is not helping us at all.
That's all I have to say about this for now. Thank you for reading, and I hope this article was able to give you a wider perspective of the argument, and has enabled you to come to a thoughtful conclusion. As always, please feel free to comment below. I welcome all discussion on this matter. For the full proposal presented by President Obama, click here.