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IS THERE A MIDDLE GROUND IN THE GUN DEBATE CONTROVERSY?
There is a grave danger to our nation that our political leaders have a moral obligation to protect us from. Its a product that is easily obtained by the masses that produces death and ruins lives wherever it is abused and its time we as a people put a stop to it! It is the only sane thing a civilized people can do and, indeed, must do to assure the safety of our children, the innocent, and, indeed, future generations as well!
Sound like a pitch for gun control? Nope. Its a pitch for temperance or, as it is more commonly known, prohibition, and it was a common sentiment at the dawn of the twentieth century. Notice, however, how easily words designed to outlaw alcohol can be made to apply to firearms as well, and how it elicits much the same response in many people today as prohibition did a century ago. It almost makes one wonder if the raging gun debate isnt the twenty-first centuries equivalent of prohibition.
Of course, everyone knows how prohibition turned out. It was a failure.
Not a total failure of course, for statistics did show a marked decrease in alcoholism and schlirossis of the liver (a common side effect of alcoholism) during the first years prohibition was in effect, but the silver lining didnt last long. We all know what happened next: people circumvented the laws against the production and distribution of liquor by making the stuff themselves, thereby creating an especially lucrative cottage industry of illicit booze. Organized crime got into the act as well, building mob empires based around "bootlegged whiskey" and leaving thousands of dead in its wake as rival gangs fought over their turf. Finally, tax revenues fell since selling the stuff was illegal, depriving state and federal coffers of much needed revenue.
In the end, prohibition was repealed and things went back to normal, with liquor once more flowing freely and death from alcohol poisoning taking its rightful place right up there alongside heart disease and tobacco as major killers. But we learned our lesson, didnt we? We realized you cant make people give up things if they want it bad enough (as the recent marijuana legalization votes in Colorado and Oregon prove.)
Or have we? Obviously not. Too many people still believe that if you outlaw firearms, you create a safer world in exactly the same way that if you ban liquor, you create a sober society. But is that realistic?
Consider that, at least according to a 2007 study by the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, there is an estimated 875 million firearms in the world (with about 270 million of them in the U.S. alone). Further, there are over 1,100 companies worldwide that manufacture another 8 million firearms each year, so as you can see, banning firearms is an imposing task. In other words, it simply couldnt be done in even the most draconian world imaginable, and it would be entirely impossible within the borders of any country that calls itself a democracy. They can be regulated, registered, taxed, and controlled to some degree, but banned entirely? Not a chance. As such, those who imagine a world free of firearms are not living in a world that reality calls home.
Plus there is that pesky second amendment thing to worry about. Clearly banning firearms could not be done without a repeal of the second amendment, and thats simply not going to happenever (or at least not as long as there 270 million guns in this country). Obviously there has to be a middle ground that both honors the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution as well as takes into account the need for public safety.
In this article, we will examine both sides of the issue before us and see if there isnt some room for compromise. Well also look at the practicality of each position in an effort to see if there arent truly workable solutions out there. And, finally, well examine the real motivations and beliefs that drive both sides of the gun debate to see if we cant identify the psychological/emotional factors that impel people to embrace one position over another.
Before we move on, the reader may want to know what my take on the issue is. For this who imagine that I'm some sort of card-carrying NRA nut job who owns an entire arsenal and am only one bad day away from taking out my wrath on my community, they will be disappointed. Nor am I some tree-hugging liberal who breaks out in hives even being around a firearm. In fact, Ive owned firearms in the past and own a small handgun now that I keep carefully locked away in my office closet well out of sight and out of mind. Also, as a military veteran, I am not uncomfortable being around weapons (up to and including nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, I might add) so the NRA has no reason to fear me. On the other hand, Im not particularly interested in firearms and have no desire or intention of ever purchasing one. (There might be one exception: I think it would be very cool to have a Civil War era rifle on display in my office, but since a real one costs a small fortune, I think that dream will remain unrealized.) Im also not a person prone to using violence to solve disputes, plus I agree that we live in a society that glorifies violence and sees it as a primary source of entertainment, (and yes, I do believe that influences some people to act out on their more violent tendencies) so I guess that makes me at least sympathetic to the anti-gun lobby. Basically, Im something of an armed peacenika contradiction if there ever was one. Whether this makes me a truly objective observer, I leave to the reader to decide. (I'm more likely to anger both sides, but thats the risks one takes when they decide to write stuff like this.)
Okay, with the preliminaries out of the way, the best place to start is with the U.S. Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, and specifically the second amendment which 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."
So what does that mean and, more importantly, what is all this talk about a well regulated militia? It appears on first reading to be talking about the rights of each colony to call up its own militia (localized military force made up of armed civilians) to defend the country, and that to do so, it is necessary that the right of the people to bear arms be guaranteed. Of course, this makes sense. After all, you cannot raise a militia if you take peoples guns away from them, which clearly ties the right to bear arms directly to the authorization to raise a militia.
To better understand what all of this is getting at, its necessary to understand what was going on in 1789 (the year the amendment was passed). The United States had just emerged from its revolution against Great Britain as a small and weak country too poor to maintain anything like a permanent, standing army. It had a tiny navy and a few hundred permanent troops, but most of the defensive needs of the country were provided by each colony (or, now, state) raising and outfitting what was effectively their own private armies. Naturally, these armies (or militias, as they were known) were made up not of trained soldiersthough there were usually a few men in each unit who may have actually had some military training in the pastbut of private citizens who showed up with their own private arsenals. This process served as the template by which the United States responded to armed conflict for most of the nineteenth century as well--and why units fighting in the Civil War were designated by the states from which the heralded, such as the 2nd Maine or 40th Alabama, etc. The only difference was that during wartime they would be centralized under federal authority so as to fight more effectively en masse. In the early years, however, before the ability to readily move large numbers of troops was available, most militias were called up simply to defend their home turf.
Apparently, then, the founding fathers saw the second amendment as a means of providing for the common defense which, in the context of 1789, made perfect sense. The problem is that the amendmentat least in terms of its original intent is concernedhas since been rendered obsolete. Today we have a large standing army to provide for the common defense, and no one would seriously consider raising a militia of self-armed, private citizens under even the most dire circumstances, so obviously the second amendment is an anachronism. Its an eighteenth century amendment that has no relevance to the twenty-first century.
But not entirely. The part about the right to keep and bear arms survives and is enshrined in our national psyche right alongside of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Even anti-gun proponents admit that the amendment has been subsequently reinterpreted (or reinforced, if you wish) by the Supreme Court to be a blanket guarantee of private gun ownership, as attested to be several high court rulings over the years. As such, even if the original amendment is obsolete, parts of it remain in effect to this day.
Now we get to the interesting part. How does one define arms? Most interpret to word to mean weapon, though even that term is a bit nebulous. A sword, for example, is also a weapon, as is a baseball bat. In effect, there are many things that are not firearms which are considered weapons, so one could make the case that the right to bear arms does not necessarily apply only to firearms. Obviously, however, the amendment is referring to firearms, for there were no other weapons that a militia could use that would be truly effective in defending the country from invasion or revolution.
But what sort of firearms are we talking about here? Unfortunately, the amendment does not spell that out, so we have to assume that the founding fathers were talking about firearms from their erathe late eighteenth century. And the firearms of that era was the flintlock musketa crude but effective weapon that had been the mainstay of American expansion for over a century by that time.
While on the surface this may seem both obvious and insignificant, it is actually an important point to consider, especially when we consider what the role of the musket was in the world of 1789. At that time muskets were a prized possession that served more than the role of a weapon for self-defense. In the largely rural nation America was in 1789, the musket was what put food on most Americans tables, making it as indispensable to survival as flints were to making a fire. To live in rural America in the late eighteenth century without a musket, then, was foolhardy and sure recipe for eventual starvation. It was that important.
The question that needs to be asked, then, is would the founding fathers have enshrined a guarantee into the constitution that was a matter of survival? Consider that while we need food and water and shelter to survive, the constitution does not expressly spell out that we have a right to such things, for it is naturally assumed that we have to have these things to survive. The constitution only guarantees those things that lie beyond the needs required for mere survival, such as freedom of speech, religion, and assemblynone of which are required to survive. Could the musket, then, have fallen into the same category, thereby placing it outside the pervue of being a right? The second amendment could be read, then, not so much as a right to possess a firearmwhich was a necessitybut a guarantee that authorities could not take them away, thereby potentially placing a persons very survival in jeopardy.
Its a moot point today, of course, for the Supreme Court has subsequently turned gun ownership into a right rather than a guarantee, thereby removing firearms from the venue of being a necessary tool for survival and making it instead into an object one had the right to purchase and own. But that brings up a different question: if we now have the right to own firearms, what firearms are we talking about exactly? If we stick with the intent of the founding fathers, we must assume they were referring to the firearms of their erathe single-shot flintlock musketand not AR-15s and Thompson sub-machineguns. The framers of the Constitution could not have anticipated the extraordinary technological leaps firearms would take over the next two centuries nor could they have foreseen how they would proliferate around the world. Had they been aware that one day there would be such a thing as a gun that could fire 500 rounds a minute, I suspect they may have been a bit more circumspect about the precise wording.
In the end, the question comes down to whether the government has the power to limit a right and to what extent can they do so without infringing upon that right. The answer to the first question is obvious: just as there are limits of freedom of speech (one cannot shout fire in a crowded theater, for instance) it makes sense to place limitations on what sort of firearms one has the right to own. In other words, our constitutional guarantees are not carte blanch freedoms, but ones that must be tempered by common sense.
In fact, we already see such restrictions in place, which is why it is illegal to own a functional, fully automatic machinegun (or, at least it is unless one is willing to jump through a lot of hoops and pay an exhorbitant amount of money) or a bazooka, for instance. As such, it is apparent that the government does have the right to decide how far a right goes, and in so doing has already made itself the arbiter of how extensive our freedoms can be.
The reason government limits certain freedoms, of course, is for reasons of public safety. In other words, it tries to walk a tightrope between the rights of the individual to do as they please and the requirement to guarantee public safety. This is why freedom of speech does not extend to shouting fire in a public venue; its simply too dangerous a thing to do. Were that not the case, a person could cause serious bodily injuries or even deaths by stampeding a crowded theater and get off scot-free by appealing to his first amendment rights. In the same way, then, the government has an obligation to restrict some forms of speech for the public good, it can be argued it has the same right to do so with firearms because of their potential to the so much harm if they were to be used in an unlawful way.
The problem comes in determining just what weapons constitute such a danger and which ones dont, which is were the gun debate is stalled now. Gun proponents generally take the tack that no firearms are truly dangerous in responsible hands while gun opponents work from the assumption that while that may be true, even single-shot firearms can be extremely dangerous when they fall into irresponsible hands. The problem is, of course, that both sides are right. Most gun owners are responsible and very few firearms ever take another life. (Estimates are that fewer than one in a thousand firearms will ever be used in the perpetration of a crime, and even fewer will ever be used to take a life.) However, because of increased magazine capacities and semi-automatic capabilities, when a firearm is used in an act of violence the results can be profound and devastating (as evidenced by the recent Aurora, Colorado theater shooting and the Sandy Hook Elementary attack in Connecticut.) And so a stalemate ensues by the fact that guns are paradoxically both quite safe and extremely dangerous at the same time.
So who wins the debate? Lets look at both sides positions and see how strong their arguments are.
Pro-gun lobbyists maintain that firearms arent the problem but that the mental health system is the culprit, and to a large degree this is true. Many murders and almost all mass shootings of the type seen over the last few decades have usually been perpetrated by mentally unstable people who managed to slip through the cracks of the mental health system, suggesting that the fix lies in more stringent monitoring of those individuals the mental health system designates as unstable. Unfortunately, its not always easy determining just which individuals are dangerously unstable and bear watching and which ones arent (plus there is the legal ramifications to consider if a health care specialist is mistaken. Could the fear of being sued be why many of these people slip through the cracks?)
Anti-gun lobbyists counter this argument by maintaining that since it is impossible to ensure that the mentally unstable wont have access to firearms, it is necessary to severely restrict what firearms are available to both the mentally healthy and unhealthy alike. This is essentially the European model, where gun restrictions are far more extensive. Additionally, anti-gun proponents point out that as a result of Europes more stringent gun laws, homicide rates by firearms are lower than they are in America, which, on the surface, is true. However, there are some caveats to such statistics. First, Europe has always lacked a cultural mindset in which gun ownership was considered normal, largely because guns were too expensive for the average citizen to afford. Additionally, unlike America, there were no wild frontiers that needed to be tamed, vastly reducing the need for personal firearms for survival and self-defense. In other words, since police authority was well established throughout Europe, the continent lacked the wild west mentality that has been so ingrained in America (and the western hemisphere in general). Secondly, until comparatively recently, European governments were authoritarian and often repressive, making it possible to suppress the availability of firearms by force. As such, Europeans are used to living in a society where firearms have been routinely limited and so dont see even the most restrictiveby our standards--gun control measures as unreasonable or unfair. As such, comparing America to Europe may be a case of comparing apples to oranges, in which case its easy to jump to erroneous conclusions.
The problem for the pro-gun advocate, however, that gun laws in Europe and Japan (which have among the strictest controls on the planet) do appear to work. Certainly, the rate of death by firearms are indisputably lower than they are in the United States. For example, in 2009 there were only .07 deaths per 100,000 people by firearms in all of Great Britain whereas in America that number is 3.21 deaths per 100,000. In Japan that number is even lower, with no more than a handful of deaths by firearms per year (and this in a country with a population of over 127 million people!) Those are the sort of stats gun-control advocates are fond of quoting, and there is no doubt that such statistics do make a good case for stricter controls.
However, not all is rosy in gun control land. Home break-ins in England (especially during the day when residents are home) are far higher than in America, largely because thieves are considerably more reluctant to break into a home if theres a chance the homeowner is armed. Additionally, there are also those cases in which homeowners have actually disarmed or scared off would-be robbers with firearms, or in some cases used a firearm in self-defense, thereby saving their own life. Finally, there is the statistic itself to contend with: if the death rate is 3.21 per 100,000, that means your chances of being killed by someone with a gun is one in 30,000 which, last I checked, are pretty long odds. As such, unless one lives in a high crime area, runs with a gang, or is involved in illegal activity, a persons chance of being killed by a firearmoutside of suicideis exceedingly remote (and this despite the fact that some 85% of Americans own a firearm!)
But what of the recent spate of mass shootings? Certainly they argue for tighter gun laws, do they not?
Again, the perpetrators of the most recent and best known mass shootings (Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, the attack on Gabrielle Giffords) were, without exception, the works of deeply disturbed men who, once again, managed to slip through the mental health care system. There were numerous warning signs in each case that simply went ignored, and in almost every case the perpetrators acquired their firearms illegally, rendering the argument that stricter gun laws keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and the insane vacuous. In fact, one of the most heinous mass murders in historyand one that left a total of 77 dead and 319 injured--took place in Norway, a country with some of the most restrictive gun laws in the world. Unfortunately, the fact that Norway has made purchasing a gun so difficult didnt stop the perpetrator from acquiring his arsenal elsewhere. The lesson to be learned then, is that not even the most encompassing gun laws can prevent a determined mad man from acquiring and using weapons to commit mass murderespecially if that person is intent on giving their own life in the process.
Does that mean, however, that we shouldnt try? Certainly, it seems reasonable to have some limitations on what sort of guns a person can own, and background checksthe bane of the NRA and gun rights proponents everywherealso appears, at least on the surface, to be a prudent step. Obviously, neither will do anything in regards to stopping criminals and crazies intent on committing a crime, but such have been shown to occasionally stop a few people who really shouldnt own a firearm from acquiring one.
The pro-gun side, however, counters that such laws have little detrimental effect on criminals and largely only inconveniences honest gun owners (as well as being another way to raise revenue through background check fees) which is, of course, quite true. The fact that it may stop a few people who shouldnt have a weapon doesnt seem enough of a benefit to justify the cost and paperwork involved, many maintain, and it only criminalizes gun owners who refuse to submit to a back ground check for invasion of privacy reasons. Their answer to the seemingly burgeoning cycle of gun violenceespecially on college and school campuses? Permit responsible citizens to carry concealed weapons, thereby serving as a detriment to those who might be inclined to visit a college classroom with an assault rifle.
Clearly this is an idea that needs to be considered, especially in the case of teachers and school administrators, who, one would imagine, should be responsible enough to be trusted with a firearm (especially after taking the proper courses of instruction on their safe use.) Clearly, had there been armed teachers at Columbine, Virginia Tech, or Sandy Hook (who were willing and able to use their weapons effectively) one can argue all three tragedies may have been averted or, at a minimum, reduced in scope and severity. Of course, this remains purely conjectural, but one can make a case that it might well have made a difference.
Anti-gun activists, however, find this armed camp mentality frightening and counter-productive. To many who believe the solution to gun violence is fewer guns, this only seems to make matters worse rather than better. Arming more people only improves the likelihood of violence, not lessen it, or so many believe. Additionally, what happens if the shooter is a disturbed or suicidal teacher or school staff member? While such a scenario is unlikely, it is not impossible, especially considering that even police officers have been known to go postal and turn their guns on others (as the recent Christopher Dorner--a former LAPD officer who turned against his own department, leaving five dead--case proves.)
The counter argument is that simply being armed isnt going to provide an incentive to turn ones gun on others. Such an act is the culmination of a process of increased desperation, anger, and despair, not an impulsive act. As such, if a teacher or police officer are determined to kill others, theyre likely to acquire more of an arsenal than their small handgun, and they will normally show a pattern of increased mental instability in the days or weeks leading up to the event. And, finally, in such a case, if more than one teacher or staffer is armed, they can respond to the errant shooter in the same way they might if a gunman tried coming in through the front door.
Finally there is the question of gun registration, which is itself a political hot potato. Gun control advocates maintain that it is only common sense to keep track of what weapons are out there and who owns them as a matter of course. After all, one has to register their automobile and their dog, so why not their guns? Further, registration doesnt preclude ownershipit merely keeps track of whats out there. And finally, it could even prove beneficial to gun owners themselves in case their firearms are ever stolen. Certainly, keeping a listing of serial numbers along with their owner's names and addresses would be a way of returning stolen firearms in much the same way that such information makes it possible to recover stolen cars and other merchandise. Finally, it helps police by making it possible to determine if a homeowner in a dispute or stand-off is known to possess firearms and what kind they are. Obviously, this would give cops an advantage in a domestic violence call if they knew that there were weapons at a particular address.
Gun-rights advocates and civil libertarians maintain that gun registration constitutes a major invasion of privacy and is simply a step towards seizure by the government of all firearms. After all, if the government knows where all the firearms are, it makes it much easier to seize them in an emergency. This is the slippery slope argument so many gun proponents make that is almost impossible to either prove or disprove. Of course, if the federal government did maintain a database of who actually owned guns, it would make it easier to seize them, but how it would actually go about seizing 280 million firearms from the roughly thirty percent of Americans who own them without causing major chaos is difficult to envision. It might be a case in which the cure is far worse than the disease.
And herein lies the crux of the entire gun debate issue. What drives this debateunlike prohibition a century ago (which was considered more a moral correctness issue)--is fear. Gun control proponents fear their fellow citizens and feel they would be safer if the populace was entirely disarmed while gun rights advocates fear their government and believe the only way to guarantee freedom is by being prepared to challenge and, if necessary, fight against those who would restrict those freedoms. And therein lies the problem: as long as fear is the motivating factor, there is unlikely to ever be a compromise that will satisfy both sides. This is a fight to the death in many peoples eyes, with personal safety and even survival itself at stake, leaving no room for dialogueat least between those most committed to their perspective.
So what is the middle ground if, indeed, any such thing exists? How about this: limit magazine capacity (no one really needs a twenty-round magazine to hunt unless they're hunting people), insist on background checks as a matter of routine (for a reasonable fee, or course), and create a national firearm registry that would track private ownership and sales of firearms. I also believe that proper firearms usage should be taught on a high school level much the same way that sex education is taught. (This class needn't involve the actual firing of weapons, only an appreciation for their destructive potential and how to safely operate one.) Further, the idea of arming pilots (we don't consider it strange to arm air marshals so why is arming the pilot or even a flight attendant to be considered bizarre?), some teachers (especially if they have a military background and already know how to use a weapon) and others in position of authority should also be seriously considered. As gun proponents maintain, firearms are only dangerous when in the hands of irresponsible people. In qualified hands, however, they are no more a threat than a pocket knife. Finally, the health care profession needs to be more aggressive about identifying possibly dangerous patientsespecially if they have proven violent or sociopathic tendencies or have made threats. They could anonymously alert authorities who could place a "watch" on such an individual. (This is where the gun registry would come in handy: if a person was identified as a potential risk, a quick check could tell if there are any firearms at their place of residence. Their name could also pop up on the computers of gun dealers, who would be obligated to notify authorities if they sell a firearm or copious amounts of ammunition to such a person.) While none of these ideas would guarantee that no mass shooting will ever occur again, they could make them much more uncommon.
In the end, it
is unrealistic to imagine we can ever live in a truly threat-free world. Even
the most stringent gun laws cannot do that (as the people of Norway found out).
However, the threat can be reduced if we take a balanced approach and try to
avoid the "all-or-nothing" mentality so evident on both sides of the
debate. As long as we live in a fear-based society, guns will always be a part
of our environment. We can't change that any more than we can change human nature.
It is only as we accept that fact that we can move forward as a society and
forge the sort of world in which the thought of taking another person's life
is unthinkable. We are many decadesif not centuriesaway from such
an ideal, but until then, we have to do the best we can, for both our own sake
and that of future generations.
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