The cyclical debate of gun control
We know the story: news of a mass shooting breaks; politicians and public figures extend condolences and prayers to the victims and their families; elected officials and the media call for gun control; and members of congress introduce a bill that is almost certainly voted down. And then the noise wanes, until another mass shooting happens.
Arguments for gun control are founded commonly in the specific language of the second amendment and gun violence statistics. The second amendment is worded unspecifically and is somewhat open to interpretation. To be clear, it 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.” One reading of this language implies (as was argued by Former Justice John Paul Stevens) that this right only applies in the context of state militias, and does not imply any sort of inalienable right for private citizens to own guns.
The statistics on gun violence prove to be more persuasive than this argument, as numbers do not leave as much room for interpretation as eighteenth century syntax. To list a few such statistics: Robert Preidt of CBS News reported that “Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other developed countries;” Kara Fox of CNN identified that “Americans own nearly half (48%) of civilian-owned guns worldwide;” and German Lopez of Vox pointed out that America’s firearm homicide rate, which was 29.7 per every million people in 2012, is far higher than any other advanced country. Switzerland came in second with a firearm homicide rate of 7.7 per million. Statistics, to be sure, can vary depending on a number of factors, but it is undeniable that the U.S. is experiencing a very high, seemingly unnecessary, and apparently preventable amount of gun violence.
These arguments, though, don’t seem to effectively counter the position of gun rights advocates. If gun ownership is a basic, inalienable right, as a different reading of the second amendment than presented earlier could imply, then it is understandable why any attempt by the government to restrict access to guns is seen as an infringement of rights and therefore intolerable, as the popular, hard-line position would argue.
So, to have a productive discussion on this topic, to break the maddening cycle of noisy inaction, gun control advocates would have to create a convincing, understandable argument proving that guns are not a basic, inalienable right. This would make gun control legislation seem reasonable and even necessary, and would therefore move the debate forward. Such an argument, it turns out, exists.
Most of our rights, it is important to note, are not absolute. They can be overridden or waived; they are limited in scope. Our right to speak freely, for example, does not cover speech that leads to illegal activity, obscenity, defamation or libel. Our right to freely practice religion doesn’t excuse violence in the name of faith. And we even give up our right to life when we unsolicitedly physically assault someone – the victim gains the right to kill out of self-defense. Rights, then, have a degree of fluidity, and they do not hold when they begin to infringe on other rights.
The same holds true for the right to gun ownership. If it were a natural-born, truly inalienable right, we would have to argue that convicted felons, children and terrorists should have access to guns. If this seems wrong, we would agree that gun ownership is not an absolute right (if it is a right at all), and that there are circumstances which would curb that right.
What remains is the conclusion of what those circumstances are and how that right is waived. The government, as the body that ideally establishes and upholds justice, would be the ones to enforce and regulate these restrictions. From this reasoning, government enforced gun control is not an infringement of rights, but rather a protection and specification of them.
George Washington University professor of philosophy David DeGrazia suggests that to make the laws reflect this reasoning, citizens should be required “to pass a rigorous gun safety course.” Because statistics on suicide, homicide and accidental death show how easy it is to abuse or misuse guns, DeGrazia suggests that gun ownership is often self-defeating, and “on the whole, having guns at home increases the risk of household members’ suffering a violent death.” He makes this claim by appealing to statistics on suicide, homicide and accidental death. A rigorous gun safety course as a prerequisite for gun ownership doesn’t seem absurd; cars have a similar potential for lethality, and we require education and tests before citizens can legally operate them. Another common proposal for gun control is background checks — from the earlier reasoning, a fair and even necessary measure, so that guns aren’t in the hands of those who don’t have the right to them.
The debate around gun control now seems to center around whether or not the government should regulate gun access. There are a few major reasons why it is so stagnant, but one of the major obstacles is that this fails to address the more basic debate of whether or not humans do or should have the right to guns, as our constitution says. Those advocating for gun control seem to start from the place that either it isn’t a right, or if it is, it isn’t inalienable. Those who are pro-gun seem to assume that it is an absolute, or very nearly absolute, right. Without addressing this issue, compromise isn’t possible, and noise is just that.
Another major obstacle to the progression of the gun control debate is the National Rifle Association, unsurprisingly. The NRA is a powerful, well-organized and active organization. It has a singular message, it has become the icon for an entire side of the gun control debate and it has passionate members who vote. Since the 1970s, the NRA has slated the right to own a gun as “sacrosanct,” James Surowiecki of The New Yorker writes. Thus, any attempt to limit that right is an assault on personal liberty. This messaging and the use of fear tactics has created about 5 million devoted members, and though the NRA Political Action Committee is powerful in electing pro-gun candidates, their “average donation is around $35,” according to CNN. And while the PAC can’t receive donations from corporations, the nonprofit NRA Institute for Legislative Action can, and it uses that money to lobby for new laws and to run issue-based campaign ads of its own.
The NRA is impressively expansive and its messaging is comprehensible and popular. But the statistics argument and the constitutional linguistics argument, as discussed earlier, are ineffective rebuttals of the NRA messaging because they don’t address the NRA’s central message: that gun ownership is an inalienable right which needs to be protected. Those hoping to break the cycle of inaction should, therefore, consider this more foundational question and should work to prove that gun ownership is, morally, either not a right or that it is not an absolute right.
And it is true that there will continue to be dissent on this topic — some will still argue that the right to own guns, as an extension of the right to self-defense, is inalienable. But if the mainstream debate centers around and starts with what an orderly society’s relationship to firearms should be, the road forward would be more easily and agreeably paved. When we start on the same page, we can follow the other side’s logic and demonizing or dismissing the other side is not as easy. This, of course, requires that we listen, but listening is easier if we’re discussing the same principles.
The politics of this cycle requires that a unified body opposes and acts as an alternative to the NRA. Groups like Everytown for Gun Safety, Americans for Responsible Solutions, and the Violence Policy Center are all political groups which advocate for gun control, but none have achieved NRA status. At the political level, the unification and cooperation of these and other groups would seems a necessary step for legislative success of gun control groups.
Changing the argument and then unifying the voices and groups involved sounds like a tall order. But it is necessary for the advancement of the cause, and the alternative is the continuation of the unproductive cycle that we are currently caught in.
Isabelle Brooke is a third year Philosophy-Religion and Politics major who is tired of hearing about mass shootings every month. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To sign a petition in favor of gun control go to petitions.moveon.org/sign/gun-control-now-1.