Guns in America

By Winston Smith


I like to have guns around. I don’t like to carry them.
– Maya Angelou


The new normal. This is a phrase that we have all heard said constantly during the coverage of the latest school shooting where Nikolas Cruz killed 17 and wounded other students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School using an AR-15. There is no doubt that this is not uncommon anymore. The obvious answer that we are all clamoring for is how to prevent these shootings. How do we prevent another Cruz from killing innocent, defenseless children? How do we prevent another Stephen Paddock from killing 58 people and injuring hundreds more? Are these issues that are inherent to firearms or do firearms manifest existing problems with humans? Is there another reason?

With all of these questions, there is not much that is agreed upon. How to address privately owned firearms is one of the most contentious issues in American political discourse. In June 2017 Pew published Public Views About Guns which reports that on April 7, 2017 51% supported gun control while 47% supported gun rights. What is interesting is that this issue did not become so polar until recently. The near 50-50 split come into existence around 2010. Between 1949 and 1999 there was one mass shooting every 5.56 years. From 2000 to the present, there has been one mass shooting every 1.28 years.  Why is there such higher incidence now? Are there proportionally that many more guns in the past 18 years than in the past 50 years? What the hell is going on.

Rightly, all conversation regarding firearm ownership within the United States must begin with a discussion and interpretation of the Second Amendment. 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.

This one sentence has generated such wildly different interpretations which lead to antithetical real-world applications. In this respect, it seems appropriate that an amendment to our constitution has lead to such generous discussion of the topic. However, ambiguity within its language has left us in a quagmire wherein many are entrenched within their own opposing definitions.

It’s easy to briefly sum up the two prominent stances on gun control: stringent checks and the banning of certain firearms, or near-total freedom to purchase and own firearms. Almost have all of us have had these two sides drilled into us throughout our lives. We even almost believe that this, of course, must have been the prevailing stances for the history of the United States. However, this is not true.

In his book Engines of Liberty, David Cole, Professor in Law and Public Policy at Georgetown University Law Center, extensively details the evolution of law and policy surrounding the Second Amendment. In his opening on the issue, Cole writes:

The Second Amendment, adopted on 1791 with the rest of the Bill of Rights, remained a dead letter as a matter of formal constitutional law until 217 years later, on June 26, 2008. On that date, a closely divided Supreme Court, in District of Columbia v. Heller, effectively revived the amendment, announcing for the first time that it protects an individual right to bear arms, and stuck down an DC law banning possession of handguns. (Cole, 97)

217 years is a long time. Even longer when realizing that the United States has only existed for nearly 242 years and with the Constitution only existing for nearly 230 years. The prevailing legal thought regarding the Second Amendment pre-Heller regarded the Second Amendment as providing for an armed militia in the defense of the States. Cole quotes a federal court of appeals’ discussion from 1942:

It is abundantly clear both from the discussion of this amendment contemporaneous with its proposal and adoption and those of learned writers since that this amendment, unlike those providing for protection of free speech and freedom of religion, was not adopted with individual rights in mind, but as a protection for the States in the maintenance of their militia organizations against possible encroachments by the federal power. (Cole, 101)

Even more recently “another appellate court put it in 1971, ‘there can be no serious claim to any express constitutional right of an individual to possess a firearm.’ (ibid)” In addition, in 1988 a different appellate court wrote “‘for at least 100 years [courts] have analyzed the second amendment purely in terms of protecting state militias, rather than individual rights.’ (ibid)”

Cole posits that the change from the prevailing interpretation of the Second Amendment is largely due to the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA was founded in 1871, but the modern NRA was born in 1968 (Cole, 102). Following the “assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcom X, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Congress passed the Gun Control Act, the first major federal gun law since 1934. (ibid)” While the NRA did oppose parts of this bill, the NRA concluded that “‘the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.’ (ibid)” This response seems so foreign to us now, as the NRA has changed so dramatically. In 1977 the membership of the NRA revolted against its existing leadership and elected leaders who wanted to focus “the NRA on defending its vision of the Second Amendment as a protection of individual rights. (Cole, 103)” Following this, the NRA utilized a state by state strategy, supported legal scholarship, and picked the right court battles which fundamentally changed the landscape of the debate regarding an individual right to bear arms vs. a militia view.

The result is obvious as the NRA has been propelled to one of the most influential political organizations in the United States and Heller is the law of land.

As set forth in Engines of Liberty, Cole reveals that this progression mirrors the way in which gay marriage became the law of the land. Therefore, it is clear this is the eventual result of effective advocacy.

However, is this right? Is an individual right the correct answer to firearm ownership?

These questions are currently unable to be answered with federal legislation. In no way is either side is able to effectively use political power at the federal level to levy federal legislation regarding gun control. The reason for this is that the federal government is unable to research gun violence.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) funded research which was published in 1993 in the New England Journal of Medicine which “found that keeping a gun in the home was strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of homicide.” Further, the study concluded “that rather than confer protection, guns kept in the home are associated with an increase in the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance.”

Understandably, this study was the subject of much attention, especially from the NRA. In response to this study, the NRA “campaign[ed] for the elimination of the center that had funded the study, the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention.” This culminated in the Dickey amendment to the 1996 Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Bill which mandated that “‘none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.’” This effectively prevented any further federal research into gun violence. This curtailment persisted even when President Obama ordered the CDC to study causes of gun violence.

In addition, the Tiahrt Amendment further restricts the federal government. Tiahrt prevents the National Tracing Center of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) from “reveal[ing] federal firearms tracing information that shows how often a dealer sells guns that end up seized in crimes.” Therefore, Tiahrt accomplishes two things: one is shielding retailers from lawsuits, academic study and public scrutiny and the second being that it “keeps the spotlight off the relationship between rogue gun dealers and the black market in firearms.”

Federal research is massively important when it comes to the creation of legislation. Without government funded research, all other data can be labeled as political or insufficient, whether appropriate or not, and lack of “trusted” data makes it incredibly difficult to pass legislation. In addition, government-funded research should guide the legislation. If the government’s research finds for a specific policy solution and the government does not follow it, this would mean that the government is contradicting itself. Not good.

For example, the tipping point regarding federal regulation on smoking came following the Surgeon General’s 1964 “report on the health risks of smoking [which] concluded that cigarette smoking was a cause of lung cancer in men.” This government-funded report guided appropriate legislative actions which were aimed at the curtailment of cigarette smoke. However, it is also important to note that cigarettes are not illegal.

So while the example provides for an alternative wherein the subject matter was curtailed, it is also important to note that this is not the inevitable end of all research.

So I will return to an exclamation made earlier in this post. What the hell is going on? The most important answer is that the government does not know. While you or I may have come to our conclusions and rendered judgment on this issue, the government has not. Nor has the government even obtained the information necessary to even begin to make these conclusions. Therefore, to make any legislative change, it is necessary for us to have research. To have this research we need our government agencies to be freed from the undue influence of non-governmental organizations so that we can find the truth. Otherwise, we will forever be stuck.  

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