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Gun Control vs. Gun Rights

Should it be harder to legally obtain a firearm than it is now?  The debate over gun control vs. gun rights has heated up since 19 people were injured by gunfire, 6 of them fatally (including a 9-year-old girl), at a January political meeting outside a Tucson supermarket. The shooter, a 22-year-old man with a history of mental problems, reportedly opened fire with a 9mm Glock semi-automatic pistol with a 33-round magazine, the ammunition for which he purchased that morning. Although some have blamed lax mental health laws for the incident, others blame loose gun laws. A new survey of Arizona residents shows that 55% think Arizona should have stricter laws concerning who can buy guns.

America’s 307 million civilians own nearly 300 million firearms, of which 100 million are handguns. There are guns in 40-45% of U.S. households. Many Americans were raised with guns for sport and hunting.  Guns are viewed as a security safeguard both against private lawlessness, especially in remote areas with limited police presence, and against the possible rise of a tyrannical government regime. Our national love affair with firearms has profoundly influenced Congress, which allowed the assault weapons ban to expire in 2004. That law would have banned the large capacity ammunition magazine used by the Tucson gunman.

The Second Amendment to the Constitution provides: “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.”  The 2008 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in D.C. v. Heller resolved a long-standing legal and public debate over whether the right is meant to apply to a group – i.e., a “Militia” like the army or National Guard – or to individuals. In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that D.C. residents – private civilians – have a right to handguns for self-defense within their homes.  However, Heller also reaffirmed many federal restrictions on firearms; the Second Amendment protects an individual right but it’s not absolute – the right can be reasonably limited without being “infringed,” just like other Constitutional rights such as free speech.

But what limits are reasonable? Examples given by Justice Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion in Heller, include bans on concealed weapons and on gun possession by felons and the mentally ill. But some gun rights advocates have traditionally opposed any limits claiming that even modest gun control will be a “slippery slope” to a total ban on gun ownership.

Both sides in the gun debate pitch feverishly to support their agenda, and criticize or ignore conflicting evidence.  Gun control proponents don’t announce that although “more guns = more violent crime” sounds like it simply must be true, international studies on gun laws and violence have failed to support the theory. Or that in the past 20 years American gun ownership rose by about 90 million while violent crime decreased 43% to a 35-year low and murder fell 49% to a 45-year low.

On the other hand, gun rights advocates don’t broadcast that some 67% of U.S. murders are by gun.  Or that over half of all U.S. suicides are by gun, and that suicide attempts using drugs succeed only 3% compared to over 90% success using guns. More than 500 American children die annually from accidental gunshots. Often, the parents didn’t think their child knew where the gun was stored.

Reasonable policy requires balancing interests.  The Heller decision has secured individual gun rights for law-abiding Americans.  Moving forward, whether a particular gun control proposal is reasonable should be determined by factual analysis and common sense, not by “slippery slope” concerns.  We can only speculate as to whether a ban on large-capacity magazines would have saved lives in Tucson, but note that large-capacity magazines were involved in the mass shootings at Virginia Tech (32 killed, 17 wounded); Fort Hood (13 killed, 34 wounded); and Columbine (13 killed, 23 wounded).

The controversy will rage on, but a final thought: upholding the Constitution is essential to liberty, but there’s a difference between being guaranteed an individual right and choosing individually to act on it.  Having a right to a firearm doesn’t necessarily mean everyone with that right should have one.  Many households with children might have been better off without any guns.  If you do choose to keep a firearm, protect your children not only with it, but from it.

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