Generally, when we discuss gun ownership today, we are invariably immersed in a battle between left and right, where common sense, tradition, and Constitutional rights arguments are framed and stretched to meet the particular aims of whichever side of the debate one falls. Yet, the question of a citizen’s right to bear arms in America is as old as our Republic. In fact, gun ownership in the USA has a long and complex history. In order to examine the issue in a meaningful way, it is instructive to look at this history to help frame the discussion.
Most people today recognize that the right to bear arms is enshrined in the US Constitution via the Second Amendment, which succinctly 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.” However, not everyone has a universal understanding about the meaning of the Second Amendment with regard to an individual’s right to bear arms (firearms).
From the time the Second Amendment was included in the US Constitution in 1791, there was precious little Federal regulation or focus on gun rights. It was not until 1934, with passage of the National Firearms Act (NFA) by President Roosevelt, that any real regulation was in effect. The NFA was borne out of a desire to curb gangland violence, much of which was centered in Chicago and New York. The defining moment that lead to the NFA, was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The NFA imposed a $200 tax on the manufacture, sale and transport of certain types of firearms specified in the act (short-barreled shotguns & rifles, silencers, and machine guns).
The NFA was quickly followed by passage of the Federal Firearms Act of 1938, which required firearms dealers, manufacturers and importers, to obtain a federal firearms license and keep records related to the manufacture, sale and transport of firearms. It also imposed restrictions on a group of people from legally obtaining a firearm (Convicted felons). The NFA remained in effect until 1968 when Congress repealed the NFA and passed the Gun Control Act of 1968 as a replacement. This act added language restricting “destructive devices” such as bombs and grenades, while clarifying and expanding the definition of a machine gun. It also imposed age restrictions on the purchase of handguns (21 years old), and further restricted felons, the mentally ill, and certain others from purchasing guns. It also instituted the requirement that guns be stamped with a serial number, among other changes.
Other legislative initiatives include the 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act; the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act; the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (subsection – Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act or assault weapon ban); and various other laws or amendments that provide for shielding retailers and manufacturers from lawsuits related to violent use of firearms by criminals.
Lastly, there is the landmark Supreme Court holding in District of Columbia v. Heller, which shifted the focus from “well regulated militia” to an individual’s right to possess a firearm that is not dependent on military or militia service. Per Heller, an individual has the Constitutional right to bear arms, but such right is not absolute, and remains subject to reasonable restrictions, such that the mentally ill and convicted felons can still be restricted from purchasing firearms. The decision in Heller was later re-affirmed and clarified in the McDonald v. City of Chicago (held that the individual right to keep and bear arms is enforceable against the states) and Caetano v. Massachusetts (held that all bearable arms are covered, including stun guns) decisions.
Once we understand the history, we can turn our attention to what has grown to be a flashpoint in American politics – the phenomenon of “mass shootings”, which has spurred much debate over the breadth and meaning of the Second Amendment, the right to own or possess a gun, and the broader issue of Gun Control. To begin, there is much debate over what constitutes a “mass shooting”. There is no well-accepted definition. However, some commonly used definitions used today define a mass shooting as one involving three or more victims, not including the initial shooter. Due to the lack of a commonly accepted definition, the number of such shootings recorded each year can vary from 17 to more than 350. I find it unhelpful to dwell on this aspect of the debate, since most people have an understanding that a mass shooting is one with multiple victims, which happens close in time and location. The many well-reported mass shootings begin with Columbine and carry forward to the more recent shootings in Las Vegas and Florida.
To begin, any death, whether caused by a firearm, incendiary device, bat, hammer, poisoning, or other nefarious means, is a tragedy, and regrettable. Indeed, there are approximately 33,000 – 39,000 deaths per year owing to the use of some type of firearm. The breakdown of these deaths, on a yearly basis, is quite consistent with roughly 60% being suicides, 33-37% being murder, with the balance being accidents, police involved shootings, or unknown. Of the deaths characterized as murder by firearm, roughly 60-70% involved a handgun, with approximately 30% unknown, and roughly 3% using a rifle/shotgun.(1) With regard to those deaths attributable to a rifle the average yearly number is approximately 300 deaths – which is for ALL types of rifles, not just those deemed “assault” rifles.
((1) Reference to most recent CDC statistics: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/homicide.htm)
The main push for gun control today, is in direct response to the many widely reported “mass shootings”. In the wake of these shootings, many groups have formed seeking stricter regulation of guns, gun confiscation, and even repeal of the Second Amendment. With over 350 million guns believed to be in the hands of citizens of the US, it is highly unlikely that gun confiscation or repeal of the Second Amendment will gain enough support to actually happen. As such, the main viable issue is that of gun control through laws aimed at restricting access to and ownership of guns and ammo.
Since the expiration of the Federal Assault Weapons ban, there have been similar statutes enacted in several states. It is widely believed that such bans will diminish or end mass shooting events. However, this belief is unfounded. Several studies on the impact of the Federal Assault Weapons ban found that there was no measurable effect. In fact, today, there is an estimated 4 million AR-15 type weapons in circulation in the USA, or roughly a bit over 1% of all firearms. When we realize that there are approximately 300 deaths per year owing to any type of rifle or shotgun, the desire to ban 4 million weapons is hardly a reasonable action. The focus on so-called assault weapons (which are simply semi-automatic weapons, meaning one fired shot per trigger pull, not automatic, like a machine-gun) is misplaced. It is a political term used to spike emotional responses to mass shootings, despite many mass shootings being carried out using handguns, or combination of handguns and semi-automatic rifles.
The better focus would be to concentrate efforts on reasonable measures that will actually make our communities safer. Changes are needed. We need to engage in meaningful debate about solutions that can actually work. We need to focus on possibly raising the age to buy semi-automatics from 18 to 21; perhaps require basic safety and operation training; enhance background checks to cover private sales of firearms and ensure that states timely and accurately report to the NICS system so that criminals, mentally ill, and domestic abusers don’t slip through the cracks. On that front, we need to enforce current gun laws and hold our elected representatives accountable. We need to increase funding for mental illness treatment and adjust privacy laws as necessary so folks who are deemed a danger can be reported to NICS. We should also look at doing away with Gun-Free zones – they do not work, and only make innocent people and kids sitting ducks. We need to increase school security. We need to allow teachers and staff who are qualified and pass rigorous training/tests the right to carry concealed on school grounds. So many options need to be discussed and debated, then take the best, and make them LAW. You see, I believe that with Rights, come Responsibilities. I am a Lifetime Member of the NRA. I believe in the right to bear arms. I believe in responsible gun ownership.
For those who believe gun ownership should be restricted, or even eliminated, consider the following:
Approximately 35,000 people each year die from car accidents. Roughly one-third of those deaths (~10,000) are attributable to accidents involving drunk drivers. Laws exist which make driving drunk a crime. Penalties for those convicted of drunk driving include fines, jail time and loss of driving privileges.
Approximately 33,000 people per year die due to guns. Roughly half of those are due to suicide (~16,000), with NO MORE than ~350 of all gun deaths attributable to rifles generally and even less to AR-15 style rifles. There is the general belief among many that these statistics warrant the banning of AR-15 style rifles. Some call for “smart gun” technology (which does not work) or an outright ban all together.
Yet, no one calls for a ban on cars? Well, that would be insane, right? I know – cars are not designed to kill, like guns. Yet, they cause as many deaths.
So, with regard to the drunk driver issue. I propose that ALL CARS IN THE USA should be equipped with breathalyzer start devices. Before starting a car – ALL DRIVERS, whether they have been convicted of drunk driving or not, WILL BE REQUIRED TO BLOW INTO A BREATHALYZER MACHINE before starting or driving their car. Reasonable, no? It would STOP ALL DRUNK DRIVING! THINK OF IT – WITH ONE SIMPLE LAW, WE COULD END ALL DRUNK DRIVING ACCIDENTS. SAVING ~10,000 lives per year and countless injuries.’
All in favor? No? Not fair to those who have driven for years and are responsible drivers? Not fair because they have never broken the law? Well, same rationale applies to LAW ABIDING FOLKS WHO OWN GUNS AND ARE RESPONSIBLE OWNERS!
So, what’s reasonable?
- Allow those 18 and over to purchase handguns, rifles or shotguns that are not semi-automatic (revolvers, single-shot, pump-action, lever-action, break-barrel, etc.).
- Set 21 as the minimum age to purchase any semi-automatic weapon.
- Require basic safety and operation training for purchase (set minimum 8 hour course and pass written and range test).
- Enhance background checks to cover private sales (ex: father to son)
- Require states to timely and accurately report to the NICS system used to conduct background checks. Today too many states fail to report timely, accurately, or at all!
Some basic changes – one’s that will actually make a difference, and have a chance to be approved by both the left and right. These are the changes we need to focus on.
Thanks for reading….