Term Paper: Gun Control Debate Aside

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Gun Control Debate

Aside from a very few other problems of contemporary import in American society, gun control ranks as one of the most hotly contested issues. From semantic arguments over the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to statistical analyses of crime rates to philosophical debates about individual vs. collective rights, there seems to be little room for moderate and rational discussion of whether or not gun control is a reasonable social reaction to the existence of guns.

As Amar aptly explains in "Second Thought":

In one corner, gun controllers embrace a narrow, statist reading, insisting that the amendment merely confers a right on state governments to establish professional state militias like the National Guard or local SWAT teams. No ordinary citizen is covered by the amendment in this view. In the other corner, gun owners and their supporters read the amendment in a broad libertarian way, arguing that it protects a right of ever individual to have guns for self-protection, for hunting, and even for sport. (2002: p. 103)

In other words, the gun control debate is being largely defined and framed by groups with diametrically opposing views about the Constitutional guarantees afforded to individuals with regard to the right to own guns. Perhaps, if the Second Amendment was not a central piece of the U.S. Constitution, the issue of gun control would not be as fiercely debated, as is the case in many other nations to varying degrees. However, in the United States, the ambiguity of the state's right to regulate gun ownership -- as well as the ethics of such regulation -- is still very much in play.

For those individuals who take the position that gun control is necessary, the position is often taken that the nation's citizens must be protected from themselves, so to speak. The capacity to responsibly own firearms is called into question, and law-abiding citizens who happen to own guns are potentially made into criminals under new regulations. For those that take the broad libertarian position, "Requiring registration of guns and even licenses with practical and book tests, on the model of licensing drivers, sends some gun lovers up the wall -- the first step toward confiscation, they predict in dire tones" (Amar, 2002: p. 111).

Both positions are somewhat extreme and will be explored in more depth, but interestingly both point towards the same fundamental issue. LaFollette, one prominent gun control advocate correctly states: "our choice is not merely to support or oppose gun control but to decide who can own which guns under what conditions" (quoted in Stell, 2001: p. 29). Ultimately, this is the issue that must be examined when we consider the gun control debate. Whether we take the broad libertarian or statist position -- or take another approach altogether -- we are ultimately attempting to justify an ethical position on the degree to which an individual may be permitted to own a gun in a presumably and otherwise free nation.

The Argument for Gun Control

The arguments for gun control can be roughly divided into just a few different categories. These types of arguments include positive correlations between crime rates and gun ownership, collectivist interpretations of the U.S. Second Amendment, the determination that guns represent an extreme and unjustifiable public hazard, and that the right to own a gun is a derivative (instead of a fundamental) right. Though these may sound quite varied, in fact they are not. Instead, these arguments stem largely from the belief that guns in individual, largely unregulated hand, represent a significant threat to the safety of society as a whole. From this starting position, the only logical conclusion gun control advocates can draw is that guns must be more strictly regulated in order to make society as a whole safer from violence. Ultimately, advocates argue:

only a few types of guns (say, hunting rifles) may be owned by certain citizens (say, mentally competent adults who are not felons) under limited conditions (say, provided the citizen has a license, the weapon is registered, and the citizen is not permitted to conceal the weapon or carry it in certain settings). (Stark, 2001: p. 25)

Taken in this context, the aims of gun control advocates can be considered laudable, especially when we consider some of their primary arguments and supporting evidence. Kwon and Baack (2005) point out, "In 2000, almost 30,000 persons died form firearm injuries in the United States, more than the number of deaths from HIV, alcohol abuse, or drug abuse [...] despite almost 20,000 laws and regulations regulating gun usage to some degree" (p. 534). Such statistics counter intuitively seem to suggest that gun control laws are not working to reduce gun-related fatalities. But Kwon and Baack's (2005) survey of composite legislation on gun control reveals that more stringent gun control laws in states can decrease the fatality rates by 1 to 6 (per 100,000). It is a deterrent, but only a single factor for a complex issue that also includes law enforcement policies and socioeconomic indicators (p. 545). While they admit that legislation is only one factor in a complex issue, they nonetheless argue that gun control legislation can positively reduce gun-related fatalities and thus should be pursued.

Further supporting this position is historical data that links crime rates -- specifically homicide rates -- with the availability of guns in the United States. Zimring (2004) argues that the relationship between guns and violence illustrates that gun use, particularly the availability of handguns, increases the death rate due to violence by a factor of three to five in crimes of violence. While guns are not usually employed in all crimes, not even in all violent crimes, they are used in about 70% of all homicides (p. 34). The conclusion we are meant to draw from this data is that if we could eliminate or severely reduce the availability of guns, or increase the social costs of ownership, we might stand a chance of significantly reducing these crime statistics.

Consequently, it is extremely common for those swayed by this data to argue for increase in gun control legislation and regulations. LaFollette (2001) argues that more stringent regulations, such as requiring all guns to be stored in locked cabinets with criminal penalties for noncompliance, does not interfere with many arguments against gun control and thus should not be construed negatively (p. 34). Rather stricter regulations would simply serve as a means to enhance public safety by limiting the conditions under which guns can be possessed and put to use. The doctrine of strict liability would hold gun owners more responsible for crimes committed with their guns, whatever their responsibility in the crime, because they willingly possessed an item that could be described as particularly hazardous, especially in light of gun-related homicide, suicide, and accident rates (pp. 37-38). In other words, gun regulations could reduce the availability of guns -- and thus their use in crimes -- by increasing the costs and legal risks for all gun owners.

In essence, then, we see that the push for increased gun control is based on some modern and historical data that suggests a relationship between gun-related fatalities, especially homicides, and the availability of guns. The gun control argument follows the logic that more gun will inevitably lead to more crime and more danger. As such, reducing the availability of guns should have the opposite effect.

The Argument Against Gun Control

Of course, we should expect that any good rhetorician against gun control would be able to amply respond to any arguments made by the pro-control lobby. In fact, this is the case. For instance, Stell (2004) largely counters the arguments put forth by Zimring (2004) and argues that homicide rates will not be reduced by restricting the availability of guns (p. 39). Rather than simply accepting that there is a causative correlation between gun availability and violent crimes, Stell examines the historical evidence a bit more closely than Zimring has. Stell (2004) shows that Zimring's 70% rule is not as important as the latter thinks. While homicide rates in the U.S. fluctuated dramatically between 1900 and 2001 -- a low of 1.1 per 100,000 in 1903 to a high of 10.7 in 1980 -- the percentage of these homicides committed with firearms remained remarkably steady over the same century: 71% from 1920-1926, 62% in 1989, 70% in 1993, 67% in 2002 (p. 39-40). The obvious conclusion that must be drawn from this historical evidence is that national homicide rates committed with guns is independent of the overall number of homicides committed. If the homicide rate could fluctuate so dramatically while the use of guns for those homicides remained relatively steady, it is evident that the latter cannot be cited as the cause of the former.

Similar statistical and historical analyses further erode the case that gun ownership represents a significant threat to public safety or that it somehow increase crime rates dramatically. The argument that gun ownership is somehow ultra-hazardous ends up more conceptual than empirical.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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