Debate over federal gun control laws generates some of the most heated and emotionally charged rhetoric even in a generally polarized political environment. Mass shootings have become disturbingly commonplace, and they always ignite angry calls to tighten the comparatively lax gun control laws in the US. However, these demands are met with equally forceful defenses of the individual right to own rearms.
What is Gun Control?
As noted in a survey of gun control laws by the Council on Foreign Relations, the Second Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” However, as is the case with other constitutional freedoms such as speech and press, the US Supreme Court allows reasonable legal limitations on this right. The need to arrive at a critical balance between individual freedom and reasonable limitation has led to the historical development of fire arm legislation.
Gun control laws tend to be less restrictive in the US than in other developed countries. Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that a 2007 report by the Small Arms Survey found that there are almost 89 guns per 100 people in the US, the highest rate in the world. In fact, the US, despite having less than five percent of the world’s population, has around a third to a half of the world’s civilian-owned guns. Correspondingly, the US has the highest rate of firearm homicides among first-world nations.
Despite these startling comparisons, it is not as though there is an absence of US gun control laws. The Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibited the sale of firearms to minors, criminals, dishonorably discharged veterans, illegal aliens, the mentally disabled, and other high-risk individuals. As strengthened by the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, the law now requires background checks on unlicensed buyers obtaining guns from federally licensed dealers. Significantly, though, current federal law does allow certain high-powered firearms, such as semi-automatic assault weapons, that are banned in other countries.
Other developed countries do not themselves ban all gun ownership. They do tend to have more restrictions on what types of firearms are obtainable and the conditions under which they can be obtained. Some have even implemented arms reduction measures such as buyback programs. When comparing the effectiveness of laws across countries, it is important to consider how well existing laws are enforced. Reason.com notes that one of the latest US shooters was inadvertently allowed to buy his gun legally despite having a disqualifying condition.
A Brief Timeline of US Federal Gun Control Laws
Historical overviews offered by ThoughtCo., The Washington Post, and the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies provide several insights. Federal gun control laws began being passed during the gangster era. The Federal Firearms Act of 1938 required anyone selling any firearms to get a license and maintain records on buyers. This law also banned sales to convicted violent felons. The aforementioned Gun Control Act of 1968 passed largely in response to the assassinations of several public leaders including President Kennedy. Penalties were later increased for unlawful possession under the Gun Control Act of 1986 just a few years after James Brady was injured in the assassination attempt on President Reagan.
Citizens’ Reactions towards Gun Control
The Conversation notes that we have a tendency to make decisions based less on examinations of the evidence than on emotional reactions. This leads to scenarios, such as this one on Soapboxie, in which people present what they believe are reasoned, evidence-based views only to receive angry responses. Because safety and rights are involved in the gun control debate, it is easy to see how passions get stirred. Moreover, Vox shows how political activism can lead to disproportionate influence in policy-making.
The Pros of US Gun Control
Arguments for strengthening gun control laws include increased safety in our homes. Soapboxie notes that research shows that household members or friends are killed by guns kept in homes more often than intruders are. Related to home safety is personal safety. ConnectUS reports that, while people who carry guns do so for self-defense, carrying guns actually makes them 4.5 times more likely to be shot during an assault.
These findings spill over into the overall picture of public safety. ThoughtCo. reports that guns are involved in most murders and half of suicides in the US. Moreover, the vast majority of shooting deaths are intentional.
Aside from the statistics on intentional shootings, accidental ones do occur. ConnectUS notes that 50 people die daily in the US from unintentional shootings. Some of these incidents result from negligence such as failing to prevent access by children. In other cases, drug or alcohol abuse is a factor.
While gun rights are often looked at from the perspective of individual rights, the right of all people to be safe from gun violence has to be factored in. ThoughtCo. notes research showing that 90% support banning regular citizens from bringing guns into public places. Most people believe that policy would reduce gun violence. Accordingly, ConnectUS discusses that the proliferation of guns negatively affects people’s sense of safety and may even encourage criminals to arm themselves.
The most obvious potential benefits of more gun control, then, are feeling safer and actually being safer. According to a survey of gun control research by Vox, reducing access to guns really does lead to less gun violence. This conclusion is based on numerous studies based on both US and foreign data. In fact, one study suggests that our high overall crime rate relative to other developed countries can be attributed to our gun-related fatality rate.
The Cons of US Gun Control
While the arguments laid out above are convincing, the issue of gun control can still be looked at from another perspective. The Charles Street Times notes that other objects, even cars, can be used as murder weapons. Obviously, it is not desirable or practical to ban every conceivable item that could be used to kill. Moreover, guns do have legitimate purposes such as hunting for survival and self-defense.
Another con is the potential failure of gun control laws to actually be effective in preventing access to guns by those who would end up using them for harmful purposes. Something like this is exactly what happened during Prohibition, when laws against alcohol proved unsuccessful. The fear would be that the laws would keep guns out of the hands of responsible citizens but not criminals, thereby giving criminals free reign.
OneHowTo reports that there is actually some research that does not support the effectiveness of gun control. Bans on firearms in certain states have failed to reduce the number of murders. Navajo Code, accordingly, notes the argument that gun ownership can be a deterrent to crime.
Perhaps the con argument ultimately comes down to the assertion of gun ownership as a constitutional right. Actually, Life, Liberty, and Technology carries the argument further, asserting that the Second Amendment is superfluous because the rest of Constitution never specifically gave Congress the authority regulate gun sales in the first place. Although not without controversy, it is conceded by The Guardian, Bustle, and Moyers & Co. that the Supreme Court, in 2008, recognized the Second Amendment as conferring a right to individual gun ownership in the home. Accordingly, no new laws may change that.
Nevertheless, limitations on the right are still allowed, subject to further review by courts. Paste argues, though, that the effectiveness of new laws may be limited by the volume of guns already owned. It is impractical for the government to get all of those guns out of circulation, and, in order for it do so, it would likely have to appear tyrannical and risk civil unrest. Any new law, then, would be useful only as a nonproliferation regulation. It is noteworthy, though, that, even in our high gun ownership country, most people do not own guns, and about three percent of the population owns around half of them.
How Current Gun Control Law is Helping Our Country
Alien Gear Holsters notes that the economic impact of gun control is an often overlooked aspect of the debate. Over 300,000 American jobs are either directly in the gun industry or related to it. In 2016, the industry produced over $15 billion in wages and more than $51 billion in economic output. Additionally, the sector has been growing since 2008.
While the individual and family impact of these numbers is obvious enough, further impact results from the corresponding taxation. Almost $4 billion in related federal business taxes were collected in 2016. That same year, nearly $2.7 in state business taxes were collected. Whatever our opinions about guns themselves might be, the loss of this economic activity would be painful and felt by a lot of people.
While the current number of individual gun owners may be surprisingly low, there seems to be room for growth. Outdoor Life reports that the number of FBI background checks more than tripled between 2005 and 2016. Also, “the number of National Firearms Act (NFA) firearms processed in applications by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) increased from 147,484 in 2005 to 1,426,211 in 2015.” There has been a 215 percent increase in concealed carry permits since 2007.
The Guardian, however, expresses frustration over the lack of political will to pursue what it understands as reasonable responses to high-profile gun incidents. Some of what they oppose is a scaling back of current gun control. They oppose a “concealed carry reciprocity” law that would require all states to recognize another states concealed carry permits. In addition, they object to a proposal to relax restrictions on obtaining silencers.
The Bottom Line on the Gun Control Debate
We have seen that there is valid reason from research to believe that we are safer when guns are not around. Nevertheless, it is not the case that gun control has been effective in all cases. Gun ownership cannot be completely banned in light of current constitutional interpretation, and getting existing guns out of circulation would be impossible. Most people want at least some gun control, but a growing number are getting guns and concealed carry permits. Moreover, the economic impact must factor into the equation.
Whether we like it or not, guns, at least to a certain extent, are here to stay. However, gun rights will continue to have limits, and, likewise, this will be regardless of any objections. The meaningful debate will be along the lines of what these reasonable limits should be. This means that there will be an ongoing tension between our rights as individuals to own guns for whatever purposes matter to us and our collective rights to be safe from the harm caused by them.
This leads to the question of whether existing gun control is sufficient or whether we should pass more. Beyond this is, of course, the question of whether each of us personally chooses to own firearms. SafeWise points out that the aforementioned statistics on the dangers of guns being kept in homes applies regardless of the types of guns, how many there are, and how they are stored. Further, when children are present in the home, the risk can be amplified. Research shows that a significant number of kids handle guns in the home without their parents’ knowledge, and over 70 percent of minors killed by firearms are killed by ones that come from inside their homes. Another consideration is that the actual potential need to have to defend our homes from intruders may be overestimated, as almost 75% of burglars avoid breaking in while owners are home.
MintPress News points out research that undermines core arguments on both sides of the debate. On one hand, overall murder rates in certain countries that have enacted gun bans have remained largely the same, even as gun-related murders have dropped. On the other hand, crime rates tend to go up shortly after gun bans are implemented before going back to normal. This data seems to indicate that gun control neither reduces overall deaths nor gives criminals free reign. The implication is that there is perhaps something about our culture that accounts for why are murder rate is so high.
It should be emphasized that gun control is not a single national debate. States, as long as they do not contradict federal gun control laws, may pass their own laws on the matter. This potentially allows significant leeway for states to act in accordance with their prevailing political culture. Inverse Innovation offers a breakdown of current state gun control laws.
It is simply the case that there are reasonable arguments on both sides of this debate, and neither side is likely to completely prevail over the other any time soon. Certainly, each side can advocate for its views, hopefully in a more mutually respectful tone than has been the case in recent times. At any given time, the pendulum may swing to one side or the other, but no drastic changes are likely. It may be that the proper focus is for each of us to make our own informed personal choices about whether gun ownership is right for us while working together on the deeper root causes of our unique national tendency toward violence.