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“Should Private Gun Ownership Be Banned?”
Widespread gun ownership in a community could provide a general deterrent to criminal predation, lowering the risk to owners and non-owners alike. But widespread gun ownership could also lead to increased risks of various sorts, including the possibility that guns will be misused by the owners or transferred to dangerous people through theft or unregulated sale. Whether the social costs of gun ownership are positive or negative is arguably the most fundamental question for the regulation of firearms in the United States.
Gun control laws and policy vary greatly around the world. Some countries, such as the United Kingdom, have very strict limits on gun possession while others, such as the United States, have relatively modest limits. In some countries, the topic remains a source of intense debate with proponents generally arguing the dangers of widespread gun ownership, and opponents generally arguing individual rights of self-protection as well as individual liberties in general. Some in the United States view gun ownership as a civil right (Snyder i-ii), where the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right of citizens to keep and bear arms.
One of the earliest U.S. gun-control legislation at the state level were the black codes (laws that replaced the pre Civil War era slave codes which, among other things, prohibited black ownership of firearms) in an attempt to prevent blacks’ having access to the full rights of citizens, including rights guaranteed under the Second Amendment (Halbrook 108). Laws of this type later used racially neutral language to survive legal challenge, but were expected to be enforced against blacks rather than whites.
Following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012, where 20 young children were killed, Wayne LaPierre, vice-president of the National Rifle Association (NRA) proposed, at an NRA press conference, that the solution to such tragedies is to place armed officers in schools, saying: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”
(Washington post). LaPierre blamed the media, politicians in favor of gun-free zones, U.S. mental health services, and violent movies and video games for the shooting. He introduced an NRA-backed proposal to put armed guards in all schools in the U.S., which he called the National Model School Shield Program. In January 2013, the Newtown school board voted unanimously to ask for police officer presence in all of its elementary schools. A 2004 review by the National Research Council concluded that, “higher rates of household firearms ownership are associated with higher rates of gun suicide, that illegal diversions from legitimate commerce are important sources of crime guns and guns used in suicide, that firearms are used defensively many times per day, and that some types of targeted police interventions may effectively lower gun crime and violence” (Welford). Another review conducted in 2011 by the Firearm Injury Center at Penn determined that, “the correlation between firearm availability and rates of homicide is consistent across high income industrialized nations: in general, where there are more firearms, there are higher rates of homicide overall”.
A 2004 review of the literature conducted by researchers at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center similarly found that, “a broad array of evidence indicates that gun availability is a risk factor for homicide, both in the United States and across high-income countries” (Homicide – Firearms Research). Reviews by the HICRC also assessed variation in gun ownership and violence in the United States and found that the same pattern held: states with higher gun ownership had higher rates of homicide, both gun-related and overall. A review published in 2011 found that the health risks of a gun in the home are greater than the benefits, based on evidence that the presence of guns increases the risk of completed suicides and evidence that guns increase the intimidation and murder rate of women (Hemenway 502). The researchers found no credible evidence that guns in the home reduce the severity of injury in a break-in or confrontation or act as a deterrent of assault. A previous study (2003) had similarly found that the presence of a gun in the home significantly increased the risk of suicide and adult homicide (Wiebe 12). A number of studies have examined the correlation between rates of gun ownership and gun-related, as well as overall, homicide and suicide rates internationally. Martin Killias, in a 1993 study covering 21 countries, found that there were significant correlations between gun ownership and gun-related suicide and homicide rates. Gun control has a serious public health, political and economic concerns that need to be addressed respectively. HEALTH/SAFETY
Every year, more than two thousand people die in the United States from gun-related injuries. The population groups most affected by these avoidable deaths are children and young adolescents. The misuse of firearms is a problem worldwide, of course. However, the incidence of firearm use does vary from country to country. According to the United Nations Report on Firearm Regulation, Crime Prevention, and Criminal Justice (1997), the United States has “weaker firearm regulations and higher numbers of deaths involving firearms than all other industrialized and even most developing nations.” The study also noted that the total firearm death rate in the United States in 1995 was 13.7 per 100,000 people, “three times the average rate among other responding countries and the third highest, after Brazil and Jamaica”. More than half the homes in the United States possess firearms, so it is hardly surprising that they rank among the “ten leading causes of death accounting for more than 30,000 deaths annually” (Wintermute 3107). While most people have guns primarily for sporting activities, many owners also have them for personal protection and security purposes.
The public health approach to violence prevention attempts not only to reduce the occurrence of violence, but also to limit the numbers of fatal and nonfatal injuries when such events occur. To prevent gun-related violence, indeed any type of violence, it is important to understand the dynamics of violence as well as the role of different kinds of weapons in both fatal and nonfatal injuries. Research from around the world indicates that socio-structural factor such as high unemployment rates, ethnic and religious hostilities, political instability, financial inequalities, lack of resources, and economic deprivation increase the likelihood of violence. When guns are readily available in such settings, or where legislation to curb their illegitimate use is lax or inappropriate, injuries are more likely to occur, intentional or otherwise. Individual factors can also precipitate violence, including the use of firearms. Substance and alcohol abuse, mental disorders, feelings of personal inadequacy and social isolation, and an individual’s experience with violence in the home are among some of the factors that have been associated with violence.
The more guns there are in circulation, the greater the likelihood that they will be misused. Hence, from a public health perspective, it is important to devise strategies which aim to ensure that those in possession of arms use them for legitimate purposes and not for violent or criminal acts. There are a variety of ways of dealing with the problems caused by guns in society, and legislation is one of the methods most commonly used. Franklin Zimring has noted that laws that regulate gun use fall into three categories: those that limit the place and the manner of firearm use, those that keep guns out of the hands of high-risk users, and those that ban high risk firearms. Place and manner legislation sets out to do as it suggests, to limit certain uses of firearms in certain locations. Examples include banning the use of firearms in public places and prohibiting the carrying of a firearm (except for those carried by security personnel and police). This legislation is difficult to implement, however, without the active support of the police force, and that support requires additional funding to make sure that police monitor potentially violent events. Successful place and manner legislation has been implemented in the country of Columbia, where firearms are involved in 80 percent of homicides. Here, an innovative gun control intervention was implemented by the Program for Development, Security, and Peace (DESEPAZ), in collaboration with the Mayor of Cali, Colombia’s third largest city.
A police-enforced ban was introduced in Cali that prohibited carrying firearms on weekends, public paydays, public holidays, and election days because “such periods were historically associated with higher rates of homicide” (Villaveces 1206). Media-led information campaigns informed the public of the new gun control measure. On the days when the ban was in operation, police set up strategically located checkpoints in areas of the city where criminal activities were commonplace, and they conducted random searches of individuals. “During the ban, police policy directed that if a legally acquired firearm was found on an individual, the weapon was to be temporarily taken from the individual and the individual fined. Individuals without proof of legally acquiring the firearm were to be arrested and the firearm permanently confiscated” (Villaveces1206). Denying high-risk users access to firearms is the second type of legislative tool to control gun misuse. In order for this approach to work, the law has to define clearly
who falls into the category of “high-risk user.” The term is usually applied to convicted criminals, those deemed “mentally unfit,” and to drug addicts. It also applies to minors. Such legislation attempts to make it difficult for members of these groups to possess a firearm.
Every year, in developed and developing countries across the globe, thousands of children and young adolescents die while playing with loaded guns. Additionally, studies have shown that adolescents are vulnerable in terms of firearm misuse and successful suicide attempts. In the United States between 1965 and 1985 “the rate of suicide involving firearms increased 36 percent, whereas the rate of suicide involving other methods remained constant. “Among adolescents and young adults, rates of suicide by firearms doubled during the same period” (Kellermann 467). Restricting minors the access to have weapons can help to reduce these events. Many states now attempt to prevent high-risk groups from obtaining firearms by identifying “ineligible” individuals before they can acquire a gun. Minors would obviously fall into this category. “The screening system included in U.S. legislation known as the Brady Bill which permits police to determine whether a prospective gun purchaser has a criminal record. If the check turns up nothing the purchaser can obtain the gun” (Zimring 53).
The third legislative strategy used to combat the misuse of firearms is to introduce legislation regulating the use of very dangerous weapons. Such “laws limit the supply of high risk weapons” and “can complement the strategy of decreasing high risk uses and users” (Zimring 53). Such supply reduction laws “strive to make the most dangerous guns so scarce that potential criminals cannot obtain them easily” (Zimring 52). They also set out rigid requirements that must be met to prove that possession of such a weapon is necessary. Sawed-off shotguns, machine guns, and certain military devices are the kinds of weapons covered by this type of legislation. Research into this area in the United States has shown that states in which such strict laws operate have lower levels of violent crime than states that do not. Another means of legislating for firearm misuse is to introduce stiff penalties for criminals caught using firearms. “More than half of the states in the USA have passed such laws. This approach is popular with gun owners because the penalties concern only gun related crime and place no restrictions on firearm ownership” (Zimring 52). ECONOMICS
After the school massacre in Newtown, everyone has been putting out proposals for how to reduce gun violence. President Obama created an inter-agency task force. The NRA asked for armed guards in every school and now economists are weighing in with their own, number-heavy approaches (Washington post). In the United States, there are an average of 32,300 deaths (the majority of which are suicide) and approximately 69,000 injuries annually most common in poor urban areas and frequently associated with gang violence, often involving male juveniles or young adult males, with an estimated annual cost of $100 billion(Bjerregaard and Alan 37). American society remains deeply divided over whether more restrictive gun control policies would save lives and prevent injuries. Scholars agree the rate of gun violence in the United States is higher than many developed OECD countries that practice strict gun control. The United States’ low life expectancy (relative to other wealthy countries) may be attributable to guns, with a reduction in average American lifespan of 104 days (Lemaire, 359).
Disagreement exists among academics on the question of whether a causal relationship between gun availability and violence exists, and which, if any, gun controls would effectively lower gun related violence. Cook and Ludwig created a data set that used the number of suicides by firearm in a county as a proxy for gun ownership and checked it against a variety of existing survey data. They figured out the “social cost” of owning a gun. The two economists determined that a greater prevalence of guns in an area was associated with an increase in the murder rate, but not other types of violent crimes (guns, the authors argue, lead to “an intensification of criminal violence”). Why does this happen? One possibility: The two economists found evidence that if there are more legal guns in an area, it’s more likely that those guns will be transferred to “illegal” owners. When the two economists added up the costs of gun ownership, more injuries and more homicides and weighed them against various benefits, they concluded that the average household acquiring a gun imposed a net cost on the rest of society of somewhere between $100 to $1,800 per year (379-382). Now, normally when economists come across a product that has a negative externality like cigarettes or coal-fired plants, they recommend taxing or regulating it, so that the user of the product internalizes the costs that he or she is imposing on everyone else. In this case, an economist might suggest slapping a steeper tax on guns or bullets.
Others might object that this isn’t fair. There are responsible gun owners and irresponsible gun owners. Not everyone with a gun imposes the same costs on society. Why should the tax be uniform? And that brings us to John Wasik’s recent essay at Forbes. Instead of a tax on guns, he recommends that gun owners be required to purchase liability insurance (Washington post). Different gun owners would pay different rates, depending on the risks involved. Who pays the least for gun insurance would be least likely to commit a crime with it. Economist John Lott, in his book More Guns, Less Crime, provides data showing that laws allowing law-abiding citizens to carry a gun legally in public may cause reductions in crime because potential criminals do not know who may be carrying a firearm. The data for Lott’s analysis came from the FBI’s crime statistics for all 3,054 US counties (Lott 50). University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt argues in his paper, Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s: Four Factors that Explain the Decline and Six that Do Not, that available data indicate that neither stricter gun control laws nor more liberal concealed carry laws have had any significant effect on the decline in crime in the 1990s. A comprehensive review of published studies of gun control, released in November 2004 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was unable to determine any statistically significant effect resulting from such laws, although the authors suggest that further study may provide more conclusive information. Fully automatic firearms are legal in most states, but have requirements for registration and restriction under federal law.
The National Firearms Act of 1934 required approval of the local police chief, federally registered fingerprints, federal background check and the payment of a $200 tax for initial registration and for each transfer. The Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibited imports of all nonsporting firearms and created several new categories of restricted firearms. A provision of the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 prohibited further registry of machine guns manufactured after it took effect. The result has been a massive rise in the price of machine-guns available for private ownership, as an increased demand chases the fixed, pre-1986 supply. For example, the Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine-gun, which may be sold to law enforcement for about $1,000, costs a private citizen about $5,000 (Stewart). POLITICS
Gun politics addresses safety issues and ideologies related to firearms through criminal and noncriminal use. Gun politics deals with rules, regulations, and restrictions on the use, ownership, as well as distribution of firearms. Gun control laws and policy vary greatly around the world. Some countries, such as Australia, the United Kingdom or Germany, have very strict limits on gun possession while others, such as the United States, have relatively lenient limits. Most nations hold the power to protect them, others, and police their own territory as a fundamental power vested by sovereignty. However, this power can be lost under certain circumstances: some countries have been forced to disarm by other countries, upon losing a war, or by having arms embargos or sanctions placed on them. Likewise, nations that violate international arms control agreements, even if claiming to be acting within the scope of their national sovereignty, may find themselves with a range of penalties or sanctions regarding firearms placed on them by other nations. National and regional police and security services enforce their own gun regulations. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) supports the United States’ International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) program “to aggressively enforce this mission and reduce the number of weapons that are illegally trafficked worldwide from the United States and used to commit acts of international terrorism, to subvert restrictions imposed by other nations on their residents, and to organized crime and narcotics-related activities.
The issue of firearms has, at times, taken a high-profile position in United States culture and politics. Mass shootings (like the Columbine High School massacre, Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and Virginia Tech massacre) have continually ignited political debates about gun control in the United States. According to a 2012 CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, 10% of Americans support banning all guns except for police and authorized personnel, 76% support gun ownership with some restrictions, and 10% support gun ownership with no restrictions. Michael Bouchard, Assistant Director/Field Operations of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, estimates, there are 5,000 gun shows annually in the United States. In 1959, the Gallup poll showed that 59% of Americans supported banning handgun possession. In 2011, the Gallup poll showed that 26% supported banning handgun possession. In 1990, the Gallup poll showed that 78% of Americans supported stricter laws on gun sales than existed at the time, 17% felt the laws were fine as they were, and 2% supported less strict laws. In 2011, the Gallup poll showed that 43% supported stricter laws on gun sales, 44% felt the laws were fine as they were, and 11% supported less strict laws. In 2001, the Gallup poll showed that 51% of Americans preferred that current gun laws be enforced more strictly. In 2011, it was 60% (Gallup politics).
A 2009 CNN/ORC poll found 39% favored stricter gun laws, 15% favored less strict gun laws, and 46% preferred no change. CNN reported that the drop in support (since the 2001 Gallup poll) came from self-identified independents and Republicans, with support among Democrats remaining consistent. There is a sharp divide between gun-rights proponents and gun-control proponents. This leads to intense political debate over the effectiveness of firearm regulation. Democrats are more likely to support stricter gun control than are Republicans. In an online 2010 Harris Poll, of Democrats, 70% favored stricter gun control, 7% favored less strict gun control, and 14% preferred neither. Of Republicans, 22% favored stricter control, 42% favored less strict control, and 27% preferred neither (Krane 1-2). In the same 2011 Gallup poll, 55% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents had a gun in their household compared to 40% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. Of Republicans and Republican-leaners, 41% personally owned a gun. Of Democrats and Democratic-leaners, 28% personally owned a gun (Gallup politics). Incidents of gun violence and self-defense have routinely ignited bitter debate. 12,632 murders were committed using firearms and 613 persons were killed unintentionally in 2007 (CDC 89). Surveys have suggested that guns are used in crime deterrence or prevention around 2.5 million times a year in the United States (LaPierre 23).
In 2004, the NAACP filed suit against 45 gun manufacturers for creating what it called a “public nuisance” through the “negligent marketing” of handguns, which included models commonly described as Saturday night specials. The suit alleged that handgun manufacturers and distributors were guilty of marketing guns in a way that encouraged violence in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. The NAACP lawsuit and several similar suits, some brought by municipalities seeking reimbursement for medical cost associated with criminal shootings were dismissed in 2003. Gun-rights groups, most notably the National Rifle Association, portrayed it as “nuisance suits,” aimed at driving gun manufacturers (especially smaller firms) out of business through court costs alone, as damage awards were not expected. These suits prompted the passage of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) in October 2005. On January 22, 2013, Congressman Adam Schiff introduced a bill in U.S. House of Representatives to counter the PLCAA, the The Equal Access to Justice for Victims of Gun Violence Act.
Since the days of the pioneers, guns have been around as part of the tradition in countries such as the United States of America (USA), Switzerland and Canada. In recent years, issues concerning the ownership and possession of private guns have become a hotly debated topic in these societies because of the rapid growth of gun crimes. However, guns are still valuable for self-defence. Allowance of private gun ownership can decrease crime rates and a gun abolition policy will produce unwanted outcomes to society. One of the arguments against banning private gun ownership is that allowing private use of guns is effective for self-protection. If a person carries a weapon, it can be used as self-defence against criminals. It is believed that citizens who are unarmed have higher chances to be targeted and assaulted by criminals as most lawbreakers would want to reduce their risks when committing crimes. The supporters of total gun confiscation argue that police who are allowed to carry firearms will be able to stop the crimes. Americans are finally beginning to have a serious discussion about guns. One argument we’re hearing is the central pillar of the case for private gun ownership: that we are all safer when more individuals have guns because armed citizens deter crime and can defend themselves and others against it when deterrence fails. Those who don’t have guns, it’s said, are free riders on those who do, as the criminally disposed are less likely to engage in crime the more likely it is that their victim will be armed. When most citizens are armed, as they were in the Wild West, crime doesn’t cease.
The criminals get better. There’s some sense to this argument, for even criminals don’t like being shot. But the logic is faulty, and a close look at it leads to the conclusion that the United States should ban private gun ownership entirely, or almost entirely. One would think that if widespread gun ownership had the robust deterrent effects that gun advocates claim it has, our country would be free of crime than other developed societies. But it’s not. When most citizens are armed, as they were in the Wild West, crime doesn’t cease. Instead, criminals work to be better armed, more efficient in their use of guns (“quicker on the draw”), and readier to use them. When this happens, those who get guns may be safer than they would be without them, but those without them become progressively more vulnerable. Gun advocates have a solution to this: the unarmed must arm themselves. But when more citizens get guns, further problems arise: people who would once have got in a fistfight instead shoot the person who provoked them; people are shot by mistake or by accident. And with guns so plentiful, any lunatic or criminally disposed person who has a sudden and perhaps only temporary urge to kill people can simply help himself to the contents of Mom’s gun cabinet. Perhaps most important, the more people there are who have guns, the less effective the police become. As more private individuals acquire guns, the power of the police declines and personal security becomes a matter of self-help.
For the police to remain effective in a society in which most of those they must confront or arrest are armed, they must, like criminals, become better armed, more numerous, and readier to fire. But if they do that, guns won’t have produced a net reduction in the power of the government but will only have generated enormous private and public expenditures, leaving the balance of power between armed citizens and the state as it was before, the unarmed conspicuously worse off, and everyone poorer except the gun industry. The logic is as more private individuals acquire guns, the power of the police declines, personal security becomes more a matter of self-help, and the unarmed have an increasing incentive to get guns, until everyone is armed. The logic of private gun possession is thus similar to that of the nuclear arms race. When only one state gets nuclear weapons, it enhances its own security but reduces that of others, which have become more vulnerable. The other states then have an incentive to get nuclear weapons to try to restore their security. As more states get them, the incentives for others increase. If eventually all get them, the potential for catastrophe whether through irrationality, misperception, or accident is great. Each state’s security is then much lower than it would be if none had nuclear weapons. But, as with nuclear weapons, we would all be safer if no one had guns or, rather, no one other than trained and legally constrained police officers.
Gun advocates sometimes argue that a prohibition would violate individuals’ rights of self-defense. Imposing a ban on guns, they argue, would be tantamount to taking a person’s gun from her just as someone is about to kill her. But this is a defective analogy. Although a prohibition would deprive people of one effective means of self-defense, it would also ensure that there would be far fewer occasions on which a gun would be necessary or even useful for self-defense. Guns are only one means of self-defense and self-defense is only one means of achieving security against attack. It is the right to security against attack that is fundamental. In other Western countries, per capita homicide rates, as well as rates of violent crime involving guns, are a fraction of what they are in the United States (New York Times). Gun advocates claim it has nothing to do with our permissive gun laws or our customs and practices involving guns. If they are right, should we conclude that Americans are simply inherently more violent, more disposed to mental derangement, and less moral than people in other Western countries? If you resist that conclusion, you have little choice but to accept that our easy access to all manner of firearms is a large part of the explanation of why we kill each at a much higher rate than our counterparts elsewhere.
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Lott, John R.Jr., “More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws”. Chicago Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1998. 50-122.
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