Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the United States is that the Constitution does not protect the State from the people. Rather, it protects the people from the State. As Thomas Jefferson remarked, “the natural progress of things is for the government to gain ground and for liberty to yield.” Yet, the Founding Fathers also knew that a central authority is needed to protect individual rights from infringement by other individuals and groups. Hence, the fundamental contradiction of American government; the State must exist to defend the very same liberties to which it poses a constant threat.
What resulted from this contradiction was a complex web of checks and balances, a federal system with powers highly devolved to the states, and, as a failsafe of last resort, the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution. Some advocates for gun control argue that “the right…to keep and bear arms,” exists only for the, “well-regulated Militia,” mentioned in the amendment’s text. However, the ellipsis glosses over three vital words—“of the people.”
Two relatively recent Supreme Court rulings have rejected this militia interpretation. First, in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court decided that Washington D.C.’s ban on handguns was unconstitutional and that the right to bear arms is not exclusive to a militia. But Washington’s special status as a federal district meant that the Court did not rule on whether the Second Amendment applies to the states under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This clause of the 1868 amendment protects individual liberties from interference by state governments where the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment protects those liberties only against the federal government.
A second landmark ruling resolved this uncertainty. In McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010), a challenge to Chicago’s handgun ban, the Supreme Court decided that the right of an individual to, “keep and bear arms,” is indeed incorporated under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Therefore, the existing body of American judicial precedent shows clearly that this right may not be infringed upon by federal, state, or local governments.
Nevertheless, neither decision eliminated the possibility of limited regulation on firearms in the United States, leaving the door open for the current debate about gun control legislation. This debate, like so many others, is contentious and emotional for many on both sides. However, too often high-strung feelings of moral superiority on the left—complete with fiery ad hominem condemnations of firearm advocates like “you’re killing our kids”—get in the way of facts and reason. This is not helped by the political and media climate that encourages constant outrage, incivility, and the treatment of political opponents as enemies—and evil ones at that. I’d like to take down the temperature in the room by looking purely at the facts and the solutions I believe they support.
If we are going to talk about guns, first we need to have some idea of just how widespread they are in the United States. The problem here is that estimates of the number of guns in America vary widely. This imprecision is probably unavoidable since, in order to have an accurate count of firearms, there would have to be a central federal registry. Yet, this is in direct contradiction to the purpose of the Second Amendment—to protect the people from a tyrannical government. If the government knows how many guns people have, what types they are, and exactly where they are, then it would be quite simple for a tyrannical government to quash any attempt at armed resistance.
One highly popular gun control proposal is a ban on assault weapons. Its popularity is largely due to sensationalized media coverage of mass shootings. And not only is the coverage itself sensational, but mass shootings are also the only kind of shooting that receives national media attention, despite representing less than 1 percent of all murders. Since mass shootings are disproportionately committed with assault rifles, the natural conclusion to draw is that if assault rifles were to be banned, there would be fewer gun deaths. I do not believe the facts support this conclusion.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in the United States, there are about 33,000 gun deaths annually. About two-thirds of those are suicides while about one-third are homicides. In 2016, according to the FBI crime statistics, 374 Americans were murdered by rifles compared to 7,105 by handguns and 1,604 by knives. Moreover, almost 80 percent of American gun crimes are committed with illegally obtained firearms. After all, if you are intent on committing murder, why would you draw the line at stealing the gun or obtaining it from the black market? Given these statistics, it seems unlikely that a national assault weapons ban would solve anything. Assault rifles already make up a tiny percentage of total gun deaths, and the criminal can and will obtain the weapon illegally if he must.
Anyway, an assault weapons ban has already been tried in the United States. In 1994, President Clinton signed into law a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that barred their further manufacture or sale to the American people. The law expired in 2004, and while crime fell during that ten-year period, a comprehensive study concluded that there was no proof the ban contributed to that decline. The same report, commissioned by the Department of Justice, stated, “should it be renewed, the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.”
In fact, the statistics, in general, do not bear out the supposed correlation between highly restrictive gun control and low crime. For example, California’s state constitution has no provision protecting an individual’s right to bear arms. On top of that, the state has the strictest gun control measures in the nation yet also the most gun homicides at about 1,800 in 2017. Though California makes up 12 percent of the national population, it accounts for 16 percent of firearm murders.
On the contrary, there may be a correlation between high gun ownership and low violent crime. Currently, the murder rate is at a 33 year low, and the overall violent crime rate is at a 21 year low. While the causes for this extreme decline are not entirely clear—and there are certainly a myriad of factors at play simultaneously—the number of guns has roughly doubled since 1968. So, while there may or may not be a correlation between these two facts, the blanket assertion that more guns equals more crime is simply not true.
Looking outside the United States to countries where gun rights are not constitutionally enshrined can be informative. Following the Dunblane school shooting in 1996, the United Kingdom passed measures including a ban on handgun ownership. Nevertheless, gun crime continued to rise sharply during the 90s and only began to subside in 2005. In Australia, following a gun buyback program in 2003, gun crime continued to decline at the same unremarkable rate it had before the legislation. Gun buybacks, in general, cannot be effective since it is likely that the only firearms collected would be from already law-abiding gun owners.
Another measure supported by gun control advocates is the Gun-Free School Zones Act (GFSZA), passed by the U.S. Congress in 1990. While there is no evidence that shooters specifically target gun-free zones, shootings, nevertheless, continue to occur in them. This fact arguably supports the view that schools should not advertise their defenselessness. Of course, there are exceptions to the GFSZA. It is not meant to prevent school security guards or policemen from carrying guns; it is meant to ensure that children do not bring guns to school.
However, in the tragic Parkland shooting, gross negligence and cowardice on the part of the school’s security guard contributed to the deadliness of the attack. Additionally, police negligence and slow response time can cause serious problems given that the average duration of a shooting is just five minutes.
So what can protect children from school shootings? A higher number of adequately trained security guards would likely help, but this is an expensive solution which may not be feasible for already underfunded schools. We should at least entertain the idea of allowing teachers, on a voluntary basis and with rigorous training, to carry concealed guns. After school shootings, there is inevitably reporting on heroic faculty and staff who put themselves in the line of fire to protect their students. If these responsible and selfless adults had the capacity to better defend themselves and their students, school shootings could be less deadly.
Though mass shootings by mentally ill people make up only 1% of overall gun violence, a disproportionate number of mass shootings themselves are committed by mentally ill individuals. The left-leaning news site Mother Jones found that about one-half of mass shooters between 1982 and 2018 displayed some sort of mental health issue. While we should not expect a significant decrease in total gun violence if we focus only on mental health-related solutions, it could have a marked effect on mass gun violence.
Similarly, there should be a means by which a family can petition a court to revoke someone’s Second Amendment rights on the grounds that the individual is a danger to himself and others. In this case, the household in which the mentally-ill person lives should not possess any firearms. These along with other common sense solutions like expanded background checks, can reduce mass shootings, and gun violence as a whole, whether related to mental illness or not.
Unfortunately, many measures that could be very effective in curbing gun violence are insufficiently enforced. For instance, under the Lautenberg Amendment of 1996, it is already illegal for convicted domestic abusers to purchase guns, but the criminal records are not reliably updated. Reliable criminal databases and adequate enforcement would prevent many who should be ineligible to purchase guns from falling through the cracks in the system.
The existing system of background checks is supposed to be the apparatus that prevents ineligible people from purchasing guns. This applies only to retail gun sales, which account for about 87% of all firearm sales in the United States. Expanding into a universal background check system—which would cover the remaining 13% of sales that take place privately—would be effective only with adequate enforcement. But given adequate enforcement, data from states where universal background checks have already been implemented suggest that it would be a highly successful policy.
The reasons for gun crime in the United States are many and varied, but effective solutions need not be radical. Those I have mentioned could all have a significant impact on gun violence without sacrificing our constitutional rights and without demonizing the many millions of Americans who lawfully own firearms. I myself have no interest in guns, so these arguments do not come from a personal place except in that I care deeply about the integrity of the Constitution.
On whatever side of the debate you fall, we should bear in mind always that the Republic relies on the assumption of good faith amid reasonable political difference. If we can approach the gun control debate confident in the knowledge that no one, right or left, wants undue harm to befall anyone, we can move forward with optimism for the future of American democracy.
Teddy David ’22 is a prospective history major and a Junior Editor of the VPR. He is also a member of VOICE and the Vassar College Republicans.