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The central debate of American gun politics revolves around how to interpret the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. It reads as follows:
"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."
On its face, this seems simple enough. A well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a state? Sure. The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed? That's as simple as it gets. The problem comes from the ambiguity of these statements in combination; did the Founders primarily intend to guarantee a militia, the unrestricted right to bear arms, or both? Since the guiding principle of American constitutional law whenever possible is "what did the Founders intend?", this simple sentence has created one of the more contentious issues of American politics. It boils down to two basic camps: pro-gun and anti-gun.
The pro-gun lobby, which is represented by the NRA and other organizations, believes that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms; that is, that the "well-regulated Militia" clause of the Second Amendment is purely explanatory (and/or that the meaning of "well-regulated" has shifted over time; in the late 1700s, "well-regulated" meant "well-equipped") and the government has no right to disarm the people. They support their position with the arguments that an armed citizenry reduces the incidence of violent crime and allows citizens the opportunity for self-defense, that individuals using firearms illegally are criminals, and that most new gun control laws tend to get in the way of lawful uses of firearms. Arguments are also made that some of the Founding Fathers were distrustful of government (which is Truth in Television), which is then used to claim that the purpose of the 2nd Amendment was to guarantee an armed uprising would be possible in the face of a government with Zero-Percent Approval Rating. Because the Constitution already provides for a national army and navy without the Bill of Rights, the militia clause is most often interpreted to refer to the people themselves rather than a government-organized and -armed force.
The anti-gun lobby believes that, unlike the rest of the Bill of Rights, the Second Amendment guarantees a collective right; in other words, that the amendment isn't concerned with individual ownership of weapons, but seeks merely to ensure the presence of an armed militia among the American citizenry in a time when, due to the young nation's underdeveloped transportation system, the regular army would not have been able to reach every place in the country that might come under invasion (i.e. by the British). They then argue that since the government now maintains a large and indisputably well-armed standing military, there is no need for every Tom, Dick, and Harry to run around with an AK-47. They support their position with the arguments that an armed citizenry increases the incidence of violent crime and allows citizens the opportunity for gun violence, and that most individuals using firearms are criminals. They support their position by arguing that there is nothing "well-regulated" about an armed population. The disagreement then becomes about how to measure "well-regulated" or why a single piece of the bill of rights guarantees a collective right, while the rest guarantees individual rights. Then there are those who point out that the United States has no authority to maintain a standing army, but that's another matter. (Besides, the government kind of went ahead and invented one anyway. As they used to say in Sparta, "If you can get away with it, it's legal.")
The concept of a citizen militia dates back to 12th century English common law, and its requirement that royal subjects keep and bear arms for military duty. King Henry II, in the Assize of Arms, obligated all freemen to bear arms for public defense. King Henry III required men between the ages of fifteen and fifty (including non-land owning subjects) to bear arms. The reason was that in the absence of a regular army and police force, it was the duty of citizen militias to keep watch and ward at night to capture and confront suspicious persons.
As of June 26, 2008, the United States Supreme Court found that an individual right to keep and bear arms for self-defense exists within the Second Amendment, in the landmark case District of Columbia v. Heller. The chances of this solving the general argument are about nil.
On June 28, 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in McDonald v. Chicago that the right to bear arms is incorporated against the states, meaning that states (and, by extension, local governments, which were created by the states) cannot ban guns outright. However, Justice Alito's majority opinion clearly leaves leeway for other kinds of regulation, like bans on certain kinds of guns, age restrictions, bans on selling guns to convicted felons and the insane, other "reasonable" limitations, and the background checks and waiting periods necessary to enforce these regulations. Naturally, even this does not satisfy some parts of the gun-rights base, who are now launching challenges to these regulations. Since the District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago decisions don't explicitly specify which restrictions are acceptable, it's anybody's guess how these challenges will turn out.
There is lot of barking. The tropiness of it: The two sides are of different cultures.
Both sides like to claim the meaning of the Constitution is both important and supports their side. Therefore, some background behind why the Second Amendment was added is useful.
The American Revolution (when the USA fought a war to no longer be a British colony) was said to have "officially" started when the British got word that American militias were storing up large amounts of gunpowder and other weapon materials. Militias at that time were the primary defense of towns and villages from Indian attacks, riots, and all other military problems. All adult males were normally expected to be a member of the town or village militia. In case of war, local militias would be mustered and grouped into armies.
The State governments at that time did not have large armed forces and there was no national government, the British served as the government above the States. Thus, in time of war, local militias would be called upon to muster and be commanded by state officers to fight.
So, on April 19, 1775, the British sent out a force from Boston to the countryside to confiscate militia arms and arrest revolutionaries in Concord. It was the first fighting of the American Revolutionary War, and the news aroused the 13 colonies to call out their militias and send troops to besiege the British in Boston.
As a result of this, after the Americans won the war and were setting up their own government, the Second Amendment was written with the idea that no national government should have the right to disarm the militias. The idea that the government would ever have the right (or the need) to outlaw private citizens from owning guns was probably not something they contemplated.
This isn't as much of a party-line issue as most topics. From the 2008 Presidential Democratic and Republican nomination cycles, Bill Richardson was a Democrat and a gun-friendly candidate, while Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani were very much on the side of further gun control while being Republicans. That having been said, no remotely sane Republican candidate for President can risk grossly alienating the National Rifle Association voting bloc during the general election season, while at least one Democratic candidate has done so and still won.
American gun control policy is one of the more emotional issues in the sphere of US politics. Its importance derives partially from the concept of "single-issue voting", which we here on the enlightened and egalitarian TV Tropes database call "Single-Issue Wonk". What this means is that there are certain blocs of people who will vote for or against a candidate based solely on their position on a single hot-button issue: the candidate could agree with them on everything except that one issue, and the single-issue voters would still go against them. Besides gun control, other hot-button topics include abortion, the war in Iraq, gay marriage and legalization of marijuana.
Many Americans on the pro-gun side of the debate argue that private gun ownership is an essential hedge against government tyranny; on the whole, Americans are very distrustful of governments, including (or perhaps especially) their own, which makes sense when you think about the Jerkass British rule that they overthrew to establish their nation. Besides, enough abuses of power are reported daily to inspire some mistrust of a government monopoly on firepower, some of them in America but quite a lot more of them in other countries where governments (especially authoritarian ones) have taken away all the guns. In addition, some feel that private gun ownership forms a useful last-ditch defense against foreign invasion. These arguments are essentially theoretical, given the state of American government and military spending, and Americans favoring gun control tend to ignore them or consider them irrelevant to modern politics.
More contentious is the usefulness of firearms against street-level crime. Gun-rights advocates often play up the deterrence effect of an armed citizenry, while gun-control groups tend to believe any such effects are outweighed by accidental deaths and greater availability of firearms to criminals; plenty of anecdotal evidence gets thrown around by both sides, along with statistics of questionable believability. States with high personal ownership of guns have low murder rates, says one side. States with high rates per capita of personal ownership of guns have high murder rates, says the other. The Department of Justice did a study in 1994 titled "Guns in America: National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms" that estimated approximately 1.5 million defensive gun uses (that is to say, incidents where the presence of a firearm either successfully defended against crime or deterred a criminal from committing a crime, without the firearm in question having necessarily been used) occur per year. Counter arguments note that the above mentioned Washington D.C. ban on handguns was followed by an increase in gun crimes (note that the homicide rate dropped), and that Switzerland, where every male is drafted into the militia and stores a assault rifle at home, has less than 100 gun crimes per year (in a country of seven million).
Part of the difference in opinion is due to the usual rural/urban divide in American politics. In rural areas, police presence is much lower, and while crime is generally lower, in the face of a criminal a citizen is less likely to get a timely response from a police officer and more likely to need to take self-defense into his or her own hands. In a heavily urban area, police presence is higher and hence the need for personal lethal self-defense is lower, while the density of people means that even legal guns are more likely to find their way into criminal hands (e.g. through theft).
Understanding American gun legislation requires a certain amount of familiarity with terminology. Here's a short primer:
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE, but commonly referred to as simply the ATF) defines the categories of small arms as follows:
- Rifle: A firearm designed for use with 2 hands, with a rifled bore and either a shoulder stock or a pair of vertical grips. Minimum overall length 26 inches, barrel length 16 inches from muzzle to breach face.
- Short Barreled Rifle: As above, but failing one or both of the length minimums. Legal, with a $200 tax stamp.
- Shotguns Are Just Better: Similar to Rifle, but with a smooth bore and a minimum barrel length of 18 inches.
- Short Barreled Shotgun: Determined and taxed as Short Barreled Rifle. A modified (sawed-off) shotgun is considered illegal due to concealability concerns.
- Pistol: A weapon intended for use with one hand, with a rifled bore. No length restrictions.
- Any Other Weapon: A firearm that does not fall into an above category. The most common examples of this category are smoothbore pistols. Though it costs $200 for the initial tax stamp, it costs only $5 to transfer the weapon.
- Machine Gun: Any weapon that fires more than one bullet at a time, regardless of what other categories it falls into. This includes fully automatic (constant fire), burst (firing a mechanically regulated set number of rounds) and selective (possessing 2 or more user selected firing modes). Originally phrased as one bullet "per trigger pull", but was changed after people started making weapons with no triggers. Does not include crank powered weapons such as the Gatling Gun. Legal, and costs $200 to transfer, but no new tax stamps have been issued since 1986.
- Destructive Device: A rifled bore weapon greater than .50 caliber in bore, explosive devices, and any weapon repurposed to launch an explosive device. Includes anti-tank weapons. Does not include flare guns unless you either acquire or make a grenade that will fit it, in which case both will be considered a Destructive Device when the charges are filed.
In 1994, the US Congress passed an assault weapons ban, a measure that limited the sale of larger capacity weapons and was somewhat of a porridge of a law. Valid for only 10 years, it lapsed in 2004. In addition to banning some weapons by name (including the TEC-9 pistol, which had come to be associated with street gangs) and restricting magazine capacities to just ten rounds, it introduced a list of features that a weapon could have only a certain number of, including heat shields, bayonet lugs, pistol grips and thumbhole stocks on rifles and magazines outside the grip on pistols. This law is generally considered a joke on both sides, largely for the same reason: it banned things that looked scary (like the heat shields, which are, in fact, safety features for the operator) regardless of actual lethality. In addition, most arms makers were able to Retool their lines, trimming off enough listed features to stay in production (such as the deletion of the bayonet lug from Colt's post-'94 AR-15 rifles). This law only applied to semi-automatic weapons, even though the news networks often played footage from the North Hollywood Shootout while discussing it.
Civilians can own machine guns made before May 1986. However, due to high demand and a very small and increasingly worn-out supply, they are more expensive than most cars. Obtaining one requires a substantial amount of paperwork, the same background check that purchasing a single shot rifle does, and a $200 tax stamp (this is not a permit, though it is mistaken for one a lot). The $200 tax stamp rule was started in the 1930s when $200 was cost-prohibitive to almost everybody. While the dollar amount has stayed the same since the '30s, owning a machine gun or assault rifle is still far too expensive for most Americans due to the aforementioned value of such weapons.
As of recent years, some states (Kansas, Georgia and Texas to name a few) have fully legalized machine guns and other fully automatic weapons, although the permits required for them can typically fill bookcases.
Most but not all states have concealed-carry laws, allowing a person to carry a weapon in a concealed holster with a permit. The ease of obtaining these permits varies widely; Alaska, Vermont and Arizona don't require permits at all, allowing people to carry guns as they see fit, while in other states, multiple legal hurdles have to be jumped through to acquire a permit. Many states do not outlaw the carry of an unconcealed weapon, or require a permit for such activity, although even carrying a weapon openly and lawfully can result in negative political results and get you a lot of funny looks depending on where you are. However, in some places like Wisconsin, unlicensed open carry is the only option, as concealed carry is illegal with the exception of a small handful of former police officers (and even then, there are some departments that won't let retired cops get a permit to concealed carry). In California, unless you are rich, powerful, know the right people or live in a rural county, a concealed carry permit is out of the question, as they are issued at the discretion of county sheriffs. You can open carry, but it must be unloaded in incorporated cities. Hence you can legally openly carry a sidearm and a full magazine, but the magazine must not be in the magazine well, nor can you have a round in the chamber in most urban areas.
The issue of gun laws frequently ends up in the courts, but these cases don't tend to go anywhere; the Heller decision on DC gun laws is the first Supreme Court ruling on the topic in nearly seventy years.
In general, where there is a requirement to have a permit to carry a concealed weapon (CC permit), the permit system generally devolves into one of two forms: "shall issue" and everything else. Under a "shall issue" system, you fill out a form, may have to provide some qualifications (like having had some firearms safety training), and pay a fee. You get fingerprinted and photographed, and unless you have a criminal record, the police shall issue you a permit; they cannot refuse. Under all other permit systems, they can impose additional requirements or refuse to issue you a permit altogether.
In some places, you couldn't carry, open or concealed without a permit, but if you have a permit it will allow concealed carry. Until the Heller decision, Washington D.C. was under a "shall not issue" regime; you could be a security guard (as Heller was) who had a police permit to carry a weapon on duty, but you could not, for love or money, get a permit to have a gun at home. New York City was almost as restrictive, but if you either have (considerable) money or (equally considerable) political connections you could get a permit. Chicago is perhaps the most restrictive of all -- the city refuses to even print the registration forms required by city ordinance to allow firearms to be kept in the home, let alone carry permits. That is, unless you have the aforementioned considerable money or political connections (note that Chicago is infamous for its corrupt machine politics, so this isn't special).
National Rifle Association (NRA) and Assorted Gun Rights Advocates
The main gun lobby is the National Rifle Association's Institute For Legislative Action. Not only do they spend large amounts of money supporting politicians and lobbying, but the NRA itself provides legal support, firearms safety training, and sponsors marksmanship tournaments throughout the United States. In some instances, NRA-certified instructors have an official status in gun training and hunting; most states that license the carrying of concealed weapons specifically recognize NRA instructors by statute.
While they officially state their primary purpose is to support game hunters, target shooters, gun collectors, and the defense of lawful citizens from crime, they tend to take a hard line against gun control measures regardless of their apparent relation to these groups. While very recently they have moderated some of their more extreme positions, they have resisted attempts to ban machine guns, assault weapons (however defined), and armor-piercing ammunition, as well as identification measures to prevent felons and mentally ill people from buying firearms. Their resistance to background checks and licensing for gun owners has also attracted some controversy. On the other hand, the NRA supported the current background check system, the NICS, and seldom lobbies against legislation to increase penalties for preexisting crimes.
While the NRA is the predominate supporter of lawful gun usage, it's not the only one in the United States. Other noteworthy groups include the Pink Pistols, who focus on self-defense for GLBT individuals, the Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, and the Gun Owners of America; the latter two tend to be more absolutist on the matter of gun control than the NRA. The Second Amendment Foundation and Law Enforcement Alliance of America are generally, although not always, considered more moderate supporters of gun owners' rights.
Joyce Foundation and Associated Gun Control Advocates
American gun control advocates do not really have a single unified public face like the NRA does. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence was particularly powerful during the early-mid '90s, but now is primarily a force inside major cities, while the Violence Policy Center and American Hunters and Shooters Association tend to have stronger showings in more suburban or rural areas. General points of focus are the ban of assault weapons, handguns, and some types of ammunition, in addition to raising taxes on guns and ammunition, requiring longer waiting periods or police permission for gun ownership, and limiting sales of firearms.
The most general and noteworthy group would be the Joyce Foundation; it does not lobby personally, but is a major source of funding for a lot of different gun control advocates, ranging from groups as small as blogs to as large as the Violence Policy Center.
Gun control advocates tend to be criticized on a number of grounds -- beyond questions of constitutionality, critics often bring up the tendency of murderers to break laws in the first place, claim that the gun laws advocated by these groups punish the innocent without blocking the criminally inclined, and that the facts and terms used by gun control advocates are misleading at best and more likely entirely false.
Back in the 1980s, there was a significant increase in crimes being committed on tourists in Florida. Nobody could figure out why tourists were being targeted for robberies and other violent felonies until someone looked at the change in the law. Florida had gone to a "shall issue" concealed carry permit system which allowed any resident without a felony conviction to get a permit for concealed carry. But this obviously did not apply to non-residents, so criminals watched for people who drove automobiles that had rental car license plates, and (correctly, in most cases) targeted those people as they would be less likely to be a resident who might be carrying a concealed weapon. This problem became serious enough that Florida and some other states discontinued, except on request, the special classes of license plates that indicate a vehicle is a rental car. Of course, the facts that tourists are a popular and easy target just about everywhere, and that Florida gets huge numbers of them, is rarely mentioned.
The Violence Policy Center, for example, has falsely claimed that there "are virtually no significant differences" between semiautomatic assault weapons and automatic assault rifles (except for that the fully automatic weapons continue to discharge rounds for as long as the trigger is held back, and semi-automatic weapons fire only one round per trigger pull, which you'd think would be considered a "significant difference"!), falsely accused Barrett Firearms Company of selling .50 caliber rifles to al-Qaeda, and has stated that "[Semi-Automatic assault weapons are arguably more deadly than [selective fire] military versions."]. The Brady Campaign has moved to ban plastic guns, despite the fact that no guns capable of passing undetected through x-ray machines or metal detectors currently exist, fictitious claims about the x-ray-opaque and >1.5 lbs of metal GLOCKs aside. The Joyce Foundation is also criticized for funding small groups of other advocates and of scholarly studies, with pro-gun groups claiming that this amounts to astroturfing and creating questionably accurate studies on an amazing scale. The NRA and other gun control advocates have also criticized the terms "assault weapon" and "armor piercing ammunition", as they do not have any clear definition, and proposed laws claiming to ban just "assault weapons" or "armor piercing ammunition" have covered popular non-military rifles and handguns like the Ruger 10/22 or Walther P22, as well as ammunition used for deer hunting, like the .30-06.
All these arguments and statistics also overlook one important fact, no matter what state bans guns, it is always easy for people willing to break the law to go to another state and buy guns and bring them home. Unless guns are restricted nationwide, trying to use statistics of tourists in Florida as an argument is invalid, completely aside from the fact that there are other reasons to target tourists than lack of guns.
Also forgotten in any argument over the Second Amendment is that at the time it was written, the weapons referred to were muskets, muzzle-loaded, smooth bore (occasionally rifled), single shot long guns. Pistols were extremely rare, expensive, large, and of course, single shot and with horrible accuracy (i.e. during the time of the Founders, guns are not exactly the instrument of mass homicide that modern weapons can be). On the other hand, cannon were sold with no restrictions, making the US port of choice for merchantmen looking to arm. Gun control advocates tend to get cranky, though, when you mention that things like high speed printing presses, the internet, and the Church of Happyology weren't around when the First Amendment was written, either.
According to Department of Justice statistics, in the year 2008 (the most recent year for which this data and analysis is available)
"The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) measures the nonfatal violent crimes of rape/sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated and simple assault. Victims who experience violent crimes are asked if the offender(s) used weapons.
In 2008 —
- An offender was armed with a gun, knife, or other object used as a weapon in an estimated 20% of all incidents of violent crime.
- Offenders used firearms to commit 7% of violent crime incidents in 2008.
- Robberies (40%) were the most likely crime to involve an armed offender.
- Firearms (24%) were the most common weapons used in robberies.
- Most rapes and assaults did not involve the use of a weapon.
- Of serious nonfatal violent victimizations, 28% were committed with a firearm, 4% were committed with a firearm and resulted in injury, and less than 1% resulted in gunshot wounds."
While this is not hard proof of anything, it does strongly suggest that the availability of firearms does not cause crime, as the vast majority of violent crime incidents do not involve firearms.
Firearm-Related Suicide Statistics
According to a cross cultural study done by Harvard the availability of firearms does not increase either the murder rate or suicide rate. It does change the rate of suicide by firearm though. However, the same number of people still commit suicide, they just choose to do so with guns in places where guns are available and resort to other methods (hanging, overdosing, etc) where guns are not available.
Firearm Death Statistics
Of the industrialized democratic nations, the United States leads in firearm deaths by a huge margin. The United States also happens to be the only one with mass access to firearms.
Guns per 100 residents have the United States with 90, Switzerland with 46, France 32, Finland 32, Greece 31.8, Canada 31.5, Sweden 31.5, Austria 31, Germany 30, New Zealand 26.8, Australia 15.5, Italy 12.1, United Kingdom 5.6. Note these figures are based on the total number of guns; if a collector owns 50 guns, it obviously doesn't mean one person per gun.
List of the same countries by firearm-related death rate per 100,000 population in one year:
- United States: 15.22 (or 11.66 depending on which figure you use)
- Switzerland: 6.4
- France: 6.35
- Finland: 6.86
- Greece: 1.5
- Canada: 4.78
- Sweden: 2.36
- Austria: 2.94
- Germany: 1.57
- New Zealand: 2.66
- Australia: 2.94
- Italy: 2.95
- United Kingdom (England/Wales): 0.46 or 0.38
Note that the relationship between firearms and crime is also inversely related to gun ownership. The United States, with the most firearms per capita, also has the most homicides per capita of the nations listed, but it has lower crime rates in other categories. However, opponents of gun control will point out that Europe had less crime before the restriction of firearms, thus concluding that a comparison between other countries and America is "apples and oranges", and will then point out that crimes increased in the time following the restrictions (however, correlation does not imply causality; if this is just a continuation of a trend that existed before the restriction, it is certainly irrelevant). The UK, Australia, and New Zealand have the highest rates of crime victimization in the world despite their nearly absolute gun bans, with about every 1 in 3 Australians being a victim of crime in the past year, 28% of New Zealanders being victimized in the past year and about a quarter of UK residents having been victimized in the past year. Also, countries vary wildly in perception of safety. In UK, Australia, and New Zealand, a third of the citizenry does not feel safe walking in the dark, versus more than 4/5 Americans feeling safe. Also, in Australia, the majority of the population does not feel that they are safe from burglary and nearly half of the British feel unsafe in their homes. However, 78% of Americans feel secure against burglary. It is likely that the ability of civilians to buy guns gives them peace of mind and potentially real protection.
- ↑ There's also concern about the extent of self-defense laws, which state that you can defend yourself with an appropriate level of force; the wonk here is "appropriate": if someone approaches with a knife and murderous intent, can you shoot them? If there's a burglar in your house who may or may not be armed, is deadly force allowed?
- ↑ Note that the instruction of law enforcement agencies can supercede the law: if the Secret Service says that you cannot carry a gun when the President is in the building, regardless of whether or not it's allowed in that particular state, you will be arrested for failing to comply
- ↑ Note that Switzerland requires adult males to have a firearm in their house as part of their army reserve. Said firearm is not to be used for any other purpose and is almost a holy object never to be touched except for official duty.