“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.”
- Second Amendment, U.S. Constitution
This one statement has produced controversy beyond measure in the history of the United States. The effect of this amendment on the civilians of the United States is not one of that much importance for the continuation of most peoples’ normal lifestyle, and yet argument after argument occurs. These disagreements and harsh exchanges of words are due to the significant place guns have in our American culture. “Gun culture,” as it has come to be known, is a direct result of firearms being involved in America from colonial days to the present. When the Constitution was planned and written in the late 1700s, a group of people, the Anti-Federalists, was not pleased with the amount of power bestowed upon a centralized government. They were scared the tyranny overcame in the war would be replaced by the newly formed United States government. So, in order to satisfy them and have the Constitution ratified, a Bill of Rights was added to the end. The Bill of Rights consisted of rights granted to the states as a kind of check and balance towards the central government. The 2nd Amendment was one of these rights granted to the people. The purpose of the 2nd Amendment when it was written was directly related to the tyranny forced upon the colonies by the King of England. The colonists abhorred the British army and were engulfed with the idea of liberty. Samuel Adams, one of the key revolutionaries, declared that a “standing army, however necessary it be at some times, is always dangerous to the liberties of the people” (Spitzer 168). This statement defines the reason why the colonies did not have a national army and were dependant on the state militias during the Revolutionary War. Thus, the 2nd Amendment was written as a declaration of a civic right, which is not related to either of the two present arguments (Cornell 2). The people of that time period were terrified of having another tyrannical power rule their lives. As a result, after defeating the English king, the Framers of the Constitution wanted a defense against the reoccurance of a tyrannical power. The state militias were this defense. The Post-Revolutionary War militias consisted of citizens that found it their civic duty to defend their country. The men in the militias were responsible for their own expenses as stated in the Uniform Militia Act of 1792, “Each man was to provide his own weapons, two flints, 24 rounds of ammunition for a musket or 20 rounds for a rifle” (Spitzer 169). As time progressed, the importance of these militias’ lessened and lessened. Although written as a civic responsibility originally, the 2nd Amendment has caused the formation of two idealistic groups in the modern world, gun rights advocates and gun control advocates. The history of these sides has proven that neither one of these groups is going to get exactly what they want. Thus, the argument over the 2nd Amendment cannot have a resolution consisting entirely of gun rights proposals or entirely of gun control proposals, but rather should be a resolution intertwined by compromises made by both sides of the controversy. This sort of resolution would still give individuals the right to keep and bear arms, but there would be limits and regulations that would have to be followed.
The gun rights side of this argument interprets the 2nd Amendment in the sense that bearing arms is an individual right that the government cannot interfere with. Supporters of this ideology believe that guns can and should be owned and used by American citizens. The main reasons for support of the gun rights ideology is that guns provide a very effective means for self-defense and a great source of recreation. In the sense of self-defense, carrying a concealed weapon can save peoples’ lives. Just one example would be Florida, where in five years, the allowance of carrying a concealed weapon resulted in an 8% decrease in murders, a 7% decrease in aggravated assaults, and a 5% decrease in rapes (Munday 23). The allowance of firearms also provides a great source of recreation for those who choose to participate in it. The recreation includes the sport of hunting, practice firing, and collecting. Hunting has always been a pasttime for American citizens beginning with the settlers hunting for food and fur. Sharpshooting has also developed into an activity that can be enjoyed by everybody. There are tournaments that can be participated in that test proficiency and accuracy using clay pidgeons and various other targets.
In opposition to gun control, supporters of gun rights believe that reducing the amount of firearms will not accomplish what gun control advocates desire, including a decrease in homocide and suicide rates and a decrease in the number of violent crimes. First of all, suicides and violent crimes do not necessarily have to use a legal gun to carry out the action, specifically suicides. Although a sad statement, the fact of the matter is that if someone wants to kill him or herself, they are going to find a way to do it – with or without guns. There are plenty of other tools of destruction in homes that people can use to harm themselves. Canada exemplifies this statement by the fact that although stricter gun control laws were introduced, suicide rates are similar now to what they were beforehand. What is happening is people are using different methods to commit suicide, including the method of hanging. The rates in gun-related suicides have dropped by more than a quarter, but this decrease is being made up for by the number of hanging suicides with an increase of more than fifty percent (Gunter A13). Also, banning guns will not have a major effect with respect to the amount of violent crimes. Violent crimes that are committed are typically undertaken using an illegal firearm. Therefore, banning firearms would not result in an obvious change in crime rates. This trend has been noticed in places such as Britain, New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. The fact of the matter is “gun control is not crime control” (Gunter A14).
Gun control advocates comprise the group of people on the other side of the argument. This group of people is typically outright against any sort of firearms being allowed outside of the military. They interpret the 2nd Amendment as declaring guns are only allowed in a collective manner for the militia (Spitzer 174). The back-up for this statement is based on how much more powerful and unnecessary firearms are in the present time. The development of firearms has progressed rapidly over the last several decades. They are now more accurate and more deadly then ever. New science and technologies have led to the further development of ammunition and the improvement of accuracy and distance, which in reality are not necessary for citizens to possess. Another point for their stance on gun control is that removing guns from the streets will result in a fewer amount of violent crimes. Research shows that guns result in about 30,000 homocidal, suicidal, or accidental deaths each year. They believe that this is a direct result of the large amount of firearms in circulation in America. The amount of firearms in private ownership has increased by 180 million guns in the last 45 years. Also, the number of households owning guns has decreased from one half to about one third of the total households (Spitzer 174). The most despicable firearm in the eyes of a gun control advocate is the handgun. Statistics show that 80% of gun-related crimes are committed using a handgun. Resulting from these gun crimes are 13.7 deaths per 100,000 people in the United States. This stat is double that of any other country with France being its closest competitor with 6.3 deaths. Using statistics such as these, gun control advocators push for the banning of firearms from the streets of America (Spitzer 175).
As time progresses on, the two sides of gun rights and control seem to be separating further and further apart. People involved with the issue are fickle and keep changing their minds about what should be the rules about guns or what the 2nd Amendment states. Even the Supreme Court has had changes of mind exemplified by court case decisions from years ago being overturned by a recent court case. This could go either way, for gun control or against it. To exemplify this fluctuation are the court cases U.S. v. Cruikshank and U.S. v Miller. U.S. v. Cruikshank took place in 1876 and declared that there was an individual right of bearing arms and that it would be protected by federal law. This was one of the first court cases that actually declared a side on the 2nd Amendment. Then in U.S. v Miller in 1939, Justice James C. McReynolds spoke for the Court and stated:
In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a
“shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length” at this time
has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well
regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right
to keep and bear such an instrument. (Spitzer 190)
Thus, the Supreme Court changed its mind and supported the “collective” interpretation of the 2nd Amendment. In more current cases, the Courts of Appeals, specifically the Fifth Circuit and the D.C. Circuit, have been voting in favor of the individualist view (Spitzer 193). These previous Court of Appeals cases have resulted in the Supreme Court taking a more in-depth look into the interpretation of the 2nd Amendment. The case District of Columbia v. Heller is currently underway and is presumed to finally set a standard for the interpretation of the 2nd Amendment. The discussion of the case was originally started due to the very strict firearm regulations in place in Washington, D.C. The case is supposedly going to be a landmark case for the 2nd Amendment and for the upcoming presidential elections in 2008 (Barnes A01).
Congress has also played a vital role in developing the gun control conflict. Several laws and acts have been put in place by Congress, most of which enhance regulations and increase gun control. The National Firearms Act of 1934 was the first major congressional act that increased gun control. The primary goal of this act was to rid the streets of machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, and other “gangster” style weapons (Spitzer 180). Then, in the late sixties, Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968 to further intensify gun control. The act specifically laid out further restrictions on interstate sale of weapons, in which guns could be sold by excluding minors, convicted felons, and drug addicts, and lastly, on firearm dealer regulations (Cornell 205). The Brady Bill was another important bill for increasing gun control. The Brady Bill provided that there be a waiting period for the purchase of a firearm. The consumer would have to provide the necessary information for a background check, which then would take place during the five days after this. Although set in motion, the bill’s waiting period was soon dismantled due to the quickness of a computer background check (Spitzer 186). Next in line in terms of congressional acts was the Assault Weapons Ban. This bill outlawed unnecessary weapons from the streets. The list of outlawed weapons consisted of nineteen specific types of assault weapons and copycats of each of the styles. The bill was carried out, but it expired in September of 2004 due to one of the amendments placed on the bill. Instead of re-signing it as President Bush previously assured, he let it expire (Spitzer 190).
Although Congress has passed passed several acts that affect gun control, the majority of the regulations and laws are the responsibility of the states. Each state has its own set of gun laws that go side-by-side with the federal laws previously stated. For example, the state of South Carolina has its own list of persons that it prohibits from being allowed to purchase firearms legally. This list consists of “any person who is convicted of a crime of violence in any U.S. jurisdiction, a fugitive from justice, an habitual drunkard, a drug addict, adjudicated mentally incompetent, a member of a subversive organization, under 21 years of age, or adjudged unfit to carry or possess a pistol” (Gonzales). This state also does not set any requirements on waiting periods and does not allow machine guns, military firearms, or sawed-off shotguns. There are other cases in which a state decides to totally ban firearms in spite of how the 2nd Amendment is interpreted. New York is one state that fits this description by not allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons. One thing they do, though, is require that a safety course be taken in order to be able to purchase a firearm (Gonzales).
The continuation of arguments over the issue of gun control and the flip-flop nature of the interpretations has led to the necessity of a compromise. The debate has lasted several centuries, and it seems that closure is nowhere in sight. In order to bring the argument to an end, supporters of both sides are going to have to come together and cooperate. Gun rights advocates have to realize that guns cannot roam freely around the streets without any threat whatsoever. Also, gun control advocates have to realize that guns are a vital part of our culture and the very nature of democracy. With this in mind, firearms should continue to be available to the American public for the purposes of self-defense and recreation, but only with several other rules for obtainment and stricter regulations.
To reach an agreement, gun rights supporters have to accept that rules and regulations are important and necessary. Firearms are very powerful weapons that inflict a great amount of damage. They have to be treated with respect and not handled carelessly. Background checks and banning of unnecessary firearms illustrate this notion. As of now, background checks are required in order to purchase a firearm, but they are not necessarily done in an efficient manner. When the Virginia Tech shooting occurred, the initial reaction by everybody was grief and sorrow. It was a dark spot in the history of this country. After a time of healing, the issue of gun control was brought into the light (Ward 11). Of course people jumped on the gun control bandwagon, but the real question that had to be answered was how a man like this obtained a firearm. Students and faculty alike knew from classes at Virginia Tech that they would not be comfortable around a man like this with firearm. One faculty member described him as “troubled,” while another even referred him to see a counselor on campus. When the seller of the firearms was questioned, he stated that he sold the killer a Glock 9 mm because he passed an instant background check (Knowlton 1). There was once a bill in place that might have a had a chance at stopping this catastrophe. The Brady Bill once had a five day waiting period incorporated in it, but when realized that the computer could complete a background check in a matter of minutes, this piece of the bill was removed. As a responsible American, in support of gun rights or gun control, one should see fit that a waiting period must be re-employed. The role that a wait like this would have would be keeping guns out of the hands of someone that is about to do something rash and without thought. Also, a five day period would allow for a more thorough check. It is a big “what if?”, but maybe this could have prevented the Virginia Tech massacre.
Another improvement that could be made on the background check involves the scope of the background check. The killer in the Virginia Tech shooting, as previously stated, used a legal gun that he purchased himself. The problem that occurred was that he had a past issue involving his mental state, and yet he still easily passed the current background check. In order to keep the allowance of guns safe, this background check has to do a better job. Congress already has a bill in the process of being completed that deals with a more efficient background check. With the proposed bill, the federal government will authorize the spending of $400 million a year to help states automate their previously formed lists of convicted criminals and mentally ill. The states then in turn will give these automated lists to the FBI to put in their background check system. This will allow a smoother transition of information pertaining to gun purchases from the state level to the federal level. Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and Andrew Arulanandam, spokesman for the National Rifle Association, were both in support of this move by the government. Helmke stated that this bill “will ensure that dangerous people who are prohibited from legally purchasing a gun because of mental illness or felony records will be stopped at the checkout counter at a gun store” (Hardin A6). Gun rights advocate Arulanandam stated that the NRA will continue to “be supportive of the legislation that would add the names of those adjudicated as mentally defective to the national instant check list” (Hardin A6). Already, advocates of both side of gun control are coming together to help solve the problem.
Another aspect of gun control that responsible American gun rights advocates should willingly agree on is the reimplementing of a revised Assault Weapons Ban. There is no case that can be made about allowing assault weapons on the streets. The Assault Weapons Ban bill outlawed nineteen specific firearm designs that would not be of any use to a white-collar worker in New York City. Gun rights advocates argue that guns should be permissible for the reasons of self-defense and recreation. Assault weapons fit in neither one of these categories. The only reason that one can think of is the “macho” factor. This, by far, is not a legitimate reason to put weapons of this caliber on the streets (Worthington 49). These types of weapons really have no purpose except for hurting people. Thus, they should be banned from the public and allowed only in the military or police.
One last addition to the pre-existing regulations on firearm purchase should be a safety class. This would allow the self-defense nature of firearms to be fully achieved. It would be required to attend before the purchase of every firearm. The class should incorporate things such as information about gun history, an education about the rules and regulations of firearms, and instruction on how to correctly use a firearm. A class like this would ensure that the purchaser of the firearm has genuine reasons for the purchase. The class should be federally funded and available in every state in order to be efficient.
Going along with the idea of compromise, gun control advocates have to accept the fact that guns are permissible in the United States. Gun control advocates seem to be blinded by the idea that guns equal death and violence. Guns are a part of American culture, and they provide a great means of self-defense and recreation. In the sense of the Virginia Tech incident, gun allowance could have provided a mode of self defense, and in turn, could have been a preventative to the catastrophe itself. The students in the building where the main shooting took place were trapped and defenseless. Targets were everywhere for the shooter, who just walked up and down the hallways picking students off, one by one. After the shooting, gun control laws were being pushed by a lot of people. But the fact of the matter is, most gun control laws prevent unworthy people from purchasing a firearm. Most gun-crimes are done by a person using an illegal gun. So, gun control laws do not even affect the majority of gun-related crimes. These gun control laws affect the law-abiding, not the criminals. Although this is true, it was not the case at Virginia Tech. Here, the killer purchased a gun legally, background check and all. It was inevitable that the killer was going to enter the building after he had already purchased the guns, but the amount of damage could have been drastically less if firearms were allowed on school grounds. Self-defense could have been taken if a student had had a legal firearm at his side. Police are the main components of crime deterrence, but most of the time, they arrive too late. The crime has usually already taken place, with the criminal gone or dead. Allowing citizens the freedom to carry a firearm provides a mode of defense in the most awful of situations (Lott 10).
Firearms also provide a means of recreation for the American public. Our culture is straying away from its original roots of landscape and outdoors to one of business, technology, and schedules. “Gun culture” has been part of our nation from its beginning. It is one of the aspects of America that sets it apart from all others. As technology is increasing and forests are being cut down, things such as hunting are disappearing. The number of Americans holding hunting licenses exemplifies this. In 1985, the percent of hunting licenses held was 10%. Last year, this number was down to 6%. Guns will soon not have any other meaning besides violence and crime (“One Step Back: Gun Control”). This should not be allowed to happen. In order to prevent this decline, guns and hunting should be promoted. This promotion can be done using several stances including getting outdoors, spending time with family, such as father and son hunting together, and exercising. Performing these actions will help remove the negative connotation guns have about only resulting in negative outcomes. Rather than the thought of violence, thoughts of the outdoors or one’s son would occur.
While it would be convenient for these compromises to already have taken place, the future presidents are going to be the ones making the decisions regarding the issue of gun control. The 2008 presidential elections are approaching rather rapidly, and each of them has their own views on gun control. Whoever is elected will have a major say in what future gun restrictions are. Typically, the Republican Party advocates gun rights and the Democratic Party advocates gun control. As the election draws near, it seems from polls around the nation that Giuliani is going to be the Republican candidate and Clinton is going to be the Democratic candidate. Rudy Guiliani, the Republican candidate from New York, follows the Republican trend and is a supporter of the gun rights argument. He follows the idea of certain restrictions, such as nationwide licensing and assault weapons ban, but believes that the 2nd Amendment gives individuals the right to bear arms. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton is a firm supporter of gun control. She has not stated anything about the individual or collective right to bear arms, but she has supported every restriction that one can think of about gun control including limiting access to weapons and implementing tough gun control laws to keep guns out of the wrong person’s hands (On the Issues). These are things one should keep in mind when voting next year for the future President of America.
Gun control has not always been a prominent issue in the United States, but it does have enough importance to be discussed by the representatives of this nation. As in the case of Virginia Tech, certain aspects of gun control could have saved the dear lives that were taken on April 16 last year. This division on the issue has plagued the United States for too long, and to end it, both sides of support are going to have to cut their losses. The first thing that must be done is compromise. The gun rights advocates have to accept that gun regulations are safety precautions and are important for the protection of citizens. Also, gun control advocates have to accept that guns are going to be allowed. It is a right that every citizen has to be able to “keep and bear Arms.”
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