Firearms restriction, commonly known as gun control, is a hotly debated subject in and out of the political arena. Advocacy groups propose more restrictions, tighter restraints and harsher punishments for offenses. These proponents claim that violence stems from guns and gun owners, gun manufacturers and gun supporters are to blame. Opposition groups to gun control suggest that lesser restrictions, greater availability of different types of firearms and more moderate punishments should be put in place.
History and Background
“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 in fringed.” This is the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. With this single sentence, laws, debates, fights and controversies have begun, ended and are still being fought. Gun control can be defined as “government limitation of the purchase and ownership of firearms”. In the early days of our country there was little gun control. Guns were used both as protection from Indian incursions as well as tools for hunting. It wasn’t until 1934 with the National Firearms Act, passed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, which “prohibited the sale and manufacture of automatic-fire weapons like machine guns, short-barreled shotguns and rifles, parts of guns like silencers, as well as other “gadget-type” firearms hidden in canes.”(Spitzer 141) This act came about from the lawlessness and rise of gangster culture during prohibition. The most controversial piece of legislation was passed in 1968. called the Gun Control Act, this act expanded licensing requirements to include more dealers, and more detailed record keeping. “Handgun sales over state lines were restricted, as well as the list of persons that dealers couldn’t sell to grew to include those convicted of felonies (with some exceptions) mentally incompetent, or drug users.”(Spitzer 142)
The main purpose of the bill was to eliminate the sale of firearms through the mail, or mail-order guns. Up until this time, customers only had to sign a statement that they were over the age of 21 in order to purchase a handgun and 18 for rifle or shotgun. It wasn’t until 1994 that the next two major pieces of gun restriction legislation were passed. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, simply the Brady Act, and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, commonly known as the “assault-weapons ban.” The Brady Act imposed a five day waiting period and mandatory background check before a licensed dealer could sell a handgun to a licensed customer. Also, there was the new FBI run National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
This system was in place on Nov. 30, 1998 and applies to all firearm sales. It allowed background checks to be done over the phone or electronically with most results returned immediately. Spitzer describes the “Assault-Weapons Ban” being passed in order “to ban the manufacture, possession, and importation of new semiautomatic assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition feeding devices.”(152) This means that a large number of semi-automatic rifles were prohibited along with magazines that held over 30 rounds of ammunition. Finally it prohibited juveniles from possessing or selling handguns. In 2002 the Justice Department, under Attorney General John Ashcroft, indicated that it interpreted the Second Amendment as supporting the rights of individuals to possess and bear arms for protection as well as recreation and collection.(Norquist 1) the history of gun control is long and complicated, with recent tendencies swinigin toward more relaxed controls.
In recent years, gun control activists, that is, those in favor of more restrictions, have grown and been favored by the media. Some of these groups include handgun Control, Inc., the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Violence, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Mothers Against Violence in America and the international Stop Handgun Violence.(Carter 75) With increasing media attention with more and more school shootings, proponents of gun control legislation have often held that only federal laws can be effective. If not, states with few restrictions will continue to be sources of guns that flow illegally into states with more restrictions. These groups believe that the Second Amendment is obsolete, or is intended solely to guard against suppression of state militias by the central government.
They ask why a private citizen needs any firearm that is not designed primarily for hunting or other recognized sporting purposes. One mans answer to this question was “‘There is no tradition of civilians owning assault-type guns'”(Edel 75) while another man states “…after much thought, I can see no justification for me – or others like me – to own a paramilitary assault rifle.”(Edel 76) Many proponents of firearm restrictions have advocated policy changes on specific types of firearms or components that appear to be useful primarily for criminal purposes or purposes that pose unusual risks to the public. Fully automatic firearms and short-barreled rifles and shotguns have been subject to strict regulation since 1934. Fully automatic firearms have been banned from private possession since 1986, except for those legally owned and registered with the Secretary of the Treasury on May 19, 1986, the day the ban was passed.(Spitzer 139) The proponents of gun control have presented a strong and solid case. Many firmly believe that guns should be banned throughout the country.
Opponents of gun control vary in their positions with respect to specific forms of control. Generally, they hold that gun control laws do not accomplish what is intended. Many argue that it is as difficult to keep weapons from being acquired by “high risk” individuals, even under federal laws and strict enforcement. In their view, a more stringent federal firearm regulatory system would only create problems for law-abiding citizens, bring mounting frustration and escalation of bans by gun regulators, and possibly threaten citizens’ civil rights or safety. The group leading the battle against gun control is the National Rifle Association, or the NRA. The NRA started as an organization to promote the practice of target shooting. After World War II, while the social outlook on firearms became increasingly negative, the NRA focused its energies on anti-gun control.
Using their newly formed ILA (Institute for Legislative Action) the NRA lobbied politicians and inundated the media with literature and facts about the Second Amendment and how those rights were being infringed. Gun control opponents also reject the assumption that the “only legitimate purpose of ownership by a private citizen is recreational. (i. e., hunting and target-shooting)”(Carter 81) Carter also points out that those opponents “…insist on the continuing need of people for effective means to defend person and property, and they point to studies that they believe show that gun possession lowers the incidence of crime.”(85) Andrews sums up the difference in stance between Red (Republican and pro-gun) and Blue (Democrat and anti-gun) States. He says “[t]his is why the Second Amendment is so bothersome to Blue America.
The right to bear arms is the right to take a stand, to act on the belief that you are right and someone else is wrong, and as such it is a threat to the amoral collectivism that the New Left embodies.”(2) Here, Andrews explains that many anti-gun control activists view the issue from a moral standpoint where the gun control advocates view the issue from an incorrect “interests” viewpoint. Some opponents believe further that the Second Amendment includes a right to keep arms as a defense against potential government tyranny, pointing to examples in other countries of the use of firearm restrictions to curb dissent and secure illegitimate government power. Whatever the case, the peoples leading the fight against the control and legislation against guns carry on and never give up. They believe morally and strongly that gun control is much too restrictive and infringes upon rights given them by the Constitution.
The debate over gun control has been hard fought and intense. To gun control advocates, the opposition is out of touch with the times, misinterprets the Second Amendment, or is lacking in concern for the problems of crime and violence. To gun control opponents, advocates are naive in their faith in the power of regulation to solve social problems, bent on disarming the American citizen for ideological or social reasons, or moved by irrational hostility to firearms and gun enthusiasts. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”(NRA Slogan, 1980-Present)
Andrews, Ned. “Why Guns Matter.” The American Enterprise 01 Sep. 2002: 9+.
Bijlefeld, Marjolijn. People For and Against Gun Control. Westport, Connecticut:
Greenwood Press, 1999.
Carter, Gregg Lee. The Gun Control Movement. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997
Cothran, Helen, ed. Opposing Viewpoints: Gun Control. San Diego: Greenhaven Press,
Edel, Wilbur. Gun Control: Threat to Liberty or Defense Against Anarchy. Westport,
Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 1995.
LaPierre, Wayne R. Guns, Crime, and Freedom. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing,
Norquist, Grover. “Lesons of the Fall.” The American Enterprise 01 Jan. 2003:
Spitzer, Robert J. The Politics of Gun Control. Chatham, New Jersey: Chatham House
Publishers, Inc., 1995.
The Definition of an Issue:
United States Gun Control
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