With the Second Amendment giving American citizens the right to bear arms, and approximately fifty percent of Americans owning some form of a firearm, issues involving the ownership and possession of guns have led to heated debates in American society. Most notably is the issue of gun control. Many feel that some form of gun regulation is necessary in order to lower the level of gun-related violence in the country. On the other hand, the opponents of gun control feel that it would be an infringement on their second amendment rights. The outcome and extent of gun control have strong political implications because it basically determines the present-day meaning of the Second Amendment. While each side has strong points to their arguments, one quote by writer Michael Warfel basically sums up the need for gun control. He writes, “ an individual’s right to own and bear arms must be balanced by the greater social needs of a society” (18). Today, based on the number of crimes and violent acts committed with guns, society needs more gun control.
Issues and policies relating to gun control in the United States date back to the late 1800s where the supreme court made the decision that the “right of bearing arms for a lawful purpose is not a right granted by the Constitution” followed up with a decision that states are “free to regulate the rights of citizens to bear arms” (Maguire 60). Later in the 1930’s president, Roosevelt tried to pass legislation on gun regulations, but they were defeated in congress. Calls for gun control have usually followed major and highly publicized crimes and attacks involving guns, such as the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. Also, the shooting of John Lennon and the attempt on President Reagen, as well as the recent string of shootings in American schools. Following the assassinations, the Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed, with its central aim being a national standard on how and to whom guns were sold. This was added in 1994 with the Brady Act, which required gun dealers to run background checks on gun buyers before selling them (Rosen 61).
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While there is obviously some gun regulation currently in effect in the United States, pro-gun control advocates still call for more, while anti-gun control advocates strongly oppose them. Along with a number of other things, the two opposing views are backed by different interpretations of the Second Amendment. The Amendment reads, “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” (Maguire 57). Interest groups supporting gun regulation tend to concentrate on the first part of the amendment where the keyword is “militia”. In focusing on this part, gun control advocates basically feel that the right to own and possess guns lies with the militia, not the individual (58).
The gun regulations they call for include national standards on purchasing firearms, such as criteria for who is eligible to purchase and own guns, as well as longer waiting periods and more in-depth background checks, with tougher penalties for those who do not abide. In addition, they call for laws banning specific weapons, such as handguns, and various other assault weapons. Those against gun control, often led by the NRA, strongly oppose the new policies pro-gun control advocates are trying to enact. For anti-gun controllers, the keyword in the second amendment is “people”, found in the second part of the sentence. They take the term in an individual sense, therefore giving the individual the right to own and possess arms (58). The new laws and regulations being advocated by pro-gun controllers give those in opposition the feeling that their rights involving guns are slowly being taken away and worry how far it will go.
So is gun control necessary? In answering this, one must take into consideration that the United States has the most violence of all Western societies. By simply looking at the statistics, notably those that are gun-related, most anyone can get the idea that gun regulations are needed. For example, in 1997, 32,436 Americans were killed in gun-related incidents, as compared to the 33,651 that were killed in the Korean War (Rosen 50). Each day, on average, around 80 people will die from gun-related violence, approximately 12 of them being children. In one study, the yearly gun-related death totals came out consisting of 13,000 homicides, 17,500 suicides, and 1,000 accidental deaths. All this gruesome death and violence and those numbers do not even include the number of injuries suffered as a result of guns. As one analyst from the Violence Policy Center said, “ The more accessibility to guns you have, the higher the rates of gun-related death and injury” (50).
This seems to be the truth; the chances of a gun-related death or injuries are considerably less if a gun is not present, and gun control laws aim at keeping those guns from being present. Anti-gun control advocates provide their strongest argument by sticking to the United States Constitution. They claim regulating guns is an infringement on their rights as American citizens because they read the Second Amendment as giving them the right to bear arms. However, regardless of how the Amendment is interpreted, the need for gun control is still there. The framers of the Constitution could have never imagined the amount of violence in today’s society. The anti–gun activists counter this by giving the need for self-defense from criminals along with the threat of tyranny, it is their Constitutional right to form a militia and protect themselves. However, in one case the Supreme Court ruled that the National Guard is the militia spoken of in the Constitution, therefore the right to own guns does not lie with individual citizens.
Gun control for an individual security is also a major part of their argument in needing to own guns. However, by again looking at studies and statistics, their argument seems to be invalid. For example, statistics have shown that those who attempt to use their guns in self-defense are often ineffective, and are 8 times more likely to be killed than those who do not make any effort to defend themselves are (79). Another study has shown that “a firearm in the home is 43 times more likely to be used for suicide or a murder than self-defense” (Rosen 50). The extent to which guns are used as they were meant to be as stated in the Constitution, is far outweighed by the extent to which they are used for violent acts. Rather than providing a reason for the right to bear arms, this apparent misuse of guns provides more than enough reason for gun regulation.
The lack of clarity and ambiguity of the Second Amendment is much of the reason for the gun-control debate. If the Amendment were more clear one way or the other, “guns are for militias only,” or “guns are for the individuals,” laws and regulations would be much easier to make. However, this is not the case, but it could be soon enough. One case making its way through the federal court system involves a man who was arrested for possessing a gun while under a restraining order. The judge in the case threw out the charge because he said it violated the man’s Second Amendment right (Cannon 24). The case is major because it has the potential to make it to the Supreme Court, and if it does it will force the court to rule one way or the other. If they uphold the decision, giving the individual the right to bear arms, as one law professor writes, “the hands of the American people would be tied up in regulating arms” (24). If the decision is overturned, the courts will “define the limit of the law” (24). The result is an answer to who has the right to bear arms.
In addition to giving a look at the role courts can and do play in politics, the gun control debate demonstrates some of the effects of interest groups on American politics. The whole gun control debate is for the most part brought to the government by pro-gun control interest groups, and then heavily opposed by its opponents. Interest groups from both sides fundraise and support candidates that will propose and support bills and policies that agree with their interests. In this way the gun control debate can have an effect on who is currently in office, whether it be Congress or the President, and who is in the office is key as to whether proposals make it anywhere or not. Interest groups have kept the issue of gun control in legislation for many years because they lobby candidates and the issue goes back on forth but makes no real significant progress either way. Money plays a role in the debate because of its effect on the ability to lobby candidates.
Much of the NRA’s success in defeating or “watering down” gun control bills is due to the amount of money they spend on supporting candidates to get them in office and lobbying congressmen already there. Gun control is a number of things: a heated issue in American society, an excellent example of interest groups and their effect on the three branches of government, and most importantly it is the best way to solve the nation’s problem with crime and violence related to guns. The NRA claims the problem with violence and guns is not the guns, but with societal values and broken homes, and that’s what needs to be fixed. However, as long as crimes are being committed with guns, ways of stopping those guns from ever being there should be in effect. In addition, gun regulation seems likely to be a much speedier process than teaching American society morals and mending broken homes.
- Cannon, Angie. “Rights and Wrongs of Guns”. U.S. News and World Reports. 7 Jun. 1999. 24-26
- Dizard, Jan E. Guns in America: A Reader. New York: New York University Press 1999.
- Maguire, Stephen, and Wren, Bonnie. Torn By The Issues: An Unbiased Review of the Watershed Issues in American Life. Santa Barbara: Fithian Press, 1994. 53-84.
- Rosen, Gary. “Yes and No to Gun Control.” Commentary Sep. 2000: 47–54.
- Warfel, Michael W., “Why Gun control.” America 14 Mar. 2000. 18–21.