The Background & Question
- The Second Amendment states: "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."
- Twenty years ago, President Clinton signed the Brady Bill, which requires federally licensed gun dealers to run background checks on their customers before completing sales. From 1994 until 2004, a federal ban on so-called "assault weapons" was in place but expired in accordance with its sunset provision.
- In April, the Senate debated, but did not pass, a bill that would expand background checks to some private transactions and internet sales and reinstate the assault weapons ban.
We asked our contributors: What is your opinion on current gun laws, the second amendment and specifically background checks and the reinstatement of automatic weapon bans?
On The Left
Liberal | Teacher & Copy Editor
I wish guns were banned. Collect them all, throw them in a big pot and melt them down. If I were King, that's what I'd do.
Of course, I’m not king, the United States isn’t a monarchy and that won't ever happen in America. I've consigned myself to that fact. If the horror of Sandy Hook Elementary School won't commit a country to that kind of change, nothing will.
But just because that won’t happen doesn’t mean real change can’t. You need the courage to change what you can, accept what you can’t and the wisdom to tell the difference.
Simply put, America needs real limits on weapon choice, a real background check system and an elimination to any and all “gun show”-type exemptions to that system.
Our wonderful U.S. Constitution presents what is, to some, a barrier to any and all possible changes to gun laws. Half a sentence in Amendment II acts as inviolable doctrine to this group: “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The first half always seems to be forgotten: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State.”
I won’t parse the language about militias (although it’s a perfectly valuable argument). The focus should be on the use of “well regulated.”
The 10 amendments of the Bill of Rights focus solely on the preservation of inalienable rights. Rarely has humanity produced a document more focused on the rights of the individual, even for society’s most unsavory elements (See amendments IV, V, VI and VIII). The word “regulated,” or a variant thereof, appears exactly once in the Bill of Rights. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
I’m willing to accept that guns form an important part of America’s tradition and society. I will not, however, accept that the only way for America to allow its citizens to protect themselves and to honor that tradition is to acquiesce to a small minority of gun-obsessive citizens and the gun manufacturer’s lobby in the face of the opinion of a clear majority. Regulations must be enacted and enforced.
We already limit what kind of weapons our citizens can possess (good luck trying to cobble together an atomic bomb by yourself). We already have a background check system that has kept weapons out of the hands of more than a million dangerous potential buyers. It has helped reduce gun violence over the last 20 years. Why not try to fix what holes we’ve left in place? It just makes sense.
I don’t think this proposal is asking for the world. There are sensible solutions to America’s gun problem, specifically our modern epidemic of mass shootings. Other “First World” societies don’t have this particular problem. Is it because we’re not as good as them? Is it because we’re inherently more violent? I refuse to accept that.
On The Right
Republican | Lawyer
Expanding background checks and renewing the federal assault weapons ban would do nothing to curb gun violence. However, enforcing existing laws could go a long way.
Expanding background checks sounds great in theory but would have little or no impact. First, almost everyone can pass a background check because few people have documented criminal histories or mental health issues that rise to the level of a legal determination. The shooters at the Washington Navy Yard and Virginia Tech passed background checks before purchasing weapons. The shooter in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater may not have been subject to a background check, but he too had no documented history at the time he purchased his weapons that would have stopped him. The shooter in Newtown, Connecticut probably could have passed a background check. Adam Lanza, unfortunately, brings me to my second point because he, like most criminals, acquired his gun illegally, bypassing the background check process. He stole his weapon from his mother. Others purchase guns on the black market where background checks are not an issue. Expanding background checks will do nothing to address illegal guns.
Next, the federal assault weapons ban that was in place from 1994 until 2004 was purely cosmetic. It listed characteristics and said that if a gun had two or more of those traits, then it was an assault weapon. Some of the criteria included “folding or telescoping stock” and a “pistol grip” on a rifle. It had little or no effect on crime because gun-related crime rarely involves assault weapons, according to the National Institute of Justice study submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. In fact, the FBI reported that more murders were committed in 2011 with hammers and other blunt objects than with any rifles, let alone “assault rifles.” According to the National Research Council, the ban “did not reveal any clear impacts on gun violence outcomes.” And author and researcher John Lott actually claims that assault weapons bans tend to increase murder rates slightly.
Now, I don’t want to criticize proposals put forward by people trying to make a positive difference without offering anything constructive myself. So here are two recommendations. First, states should put mental health red flags into the national background check database, known as NICS. Some have begun doing that in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting, but more should join in. Second, let’s enforce existing laws! In 2009 alone, the FBI reported 71,000 people lying on background checks for gun purchases. The Department of Justice prosecuted 77 of them, or much less than 1%. By the way, gang members who serve as straw men with “clean” histories to purchase guns for their friends are background-check liars. Law enforcement would go a long way towards rooting out the illegal handguns responsible for nearly half of all homicides.
I live in New York City. I appreciate efforts to curb violence in neighborhoods that are suffering. But we have tools at our disposal that are going unused. More federal legislation will generally increase burdens on law abiding Americans and have little or no effect on criminals.