Debating the “Mighty Constitutional Opposites”
Debating the Gun Issue
Many Americans agree that guns are winding up in the wrong hands and being used in the wrong ways. From there discussion bursts into an array of incompatible views, posing questions with no easy answers. In balancing the individual’s “right to bear arms” with the need for public safety, should the United States
- concentrate on enforcing existing laws?
- enact more gun laws?
- insist that manufacturers include safety features and that gun owners take safety training courses?
- ban certain types of firearms?
- abolish the right to bear arms?
There are many arguments for and against different means of gun control, and the answers to the questions that arise vary greatly depending on who has the floor and how that person interprets the information coming from the many different sides of the gun issue. But the principal arguments fall into two categories: those that center on the meaning of the “right to bear arms” and those weighing the extent to which gun possession by ordinary individuals tends to increase the risk of injury or prevent crime.
Right to Bear Arms
The Second Amendment reads, “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.” Proponents of gun control legislation argue that this language should be collectively interpreted—that the Second Amendment refers to an organized group (militia) whose function is to protect the nation’s freedom, such as the National Guard. This theory’s supporters have pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939), which comments that the “obvious purpose” of the Second Amendment is “to assure the continuation and render possible the effectiveness of” state militia forces.
Gun control opponents are unpersuaded. They argue that this amendment, like others in the Bill of Rights, simply affirms a right that the people already have, one that the Bill of Rights expressly forbids the government to touch. Quotes from the Founders are used to reinforce this argument, including Thomas Jefferson’s statement, “No man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.” Many proponents of this interpretation of the Second Amendment fear that gun control is a step toward confiscating weapons, and that confiscating weapons is a step toward government tyranny.
Gun control supporters counter that statements such as Jefferson’s in no way prohibit gun regulation. If this argument is accepted, another is close behind: how far can regulation go before it starts to infringe on the right to bear arms?
Crime and Injury
Does gun possession by ordinary individuals tend to produce a high percentage of otherwise preventable injury and death? On the other hand, are guns in the hands of private individuals an important crime deterrent?
The public has heard many arguments that guns at home are much less likely to defend against unknown intruders than they are to cause accidental, suicidal, and angry shootings of people belonging or known to the household. Tragic cases of shooting deaths among juveniles support this viewpoint, as do incidents of one adult shooting another over a disagreement. Recent examples involving juveniles include the planned murder of students by fellow students at Columbine High School in Colorado, as well as a case from Michigan in which one six-year-old pupil killed another with a gun from home. Gun control proponents use such tragedies to bolster many aspects of their arguments: If the guns hadn’t been available to the juveniles, they couldn’t have used them. In the case of the six-year-olds, if the gun had had a safety lock, the accident would have been much less likely to have occurred. Gun regulations with stern penalties for owners and sellers—as opposed to an outright ban on private gun ownership—would protect communities while not infringing on the individual’s basic right to bear arms, according to these arguments.
Gun control opponents offer their own statistics, using them to disagree with regulation proponents at different levels. For example, some opponents argue serious research has indicated that the “right to bear arms” stops criminal attacks approximately 2.5 million times a year. Of these incidents, a large number do not involve firing the weapon—just showing it is enough to make the attacker retreat. Furthermore, regulation opponents claim that there is no research to substantiate the theory that private gun ownership turns differences of opinion into bloody shootouts. In fact, since the liberalization of the concealed carry laws, over one million Americans have obtained a license to carry a firearm, and the accidental death rate has not even slightly increased. Can regulation proponents back up their claims with statistics and research, rather than simply relying on what regulation opponents call anecdotal information? Or are such data already available, but ignored, by the other side?
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