Gun Control: Dissecting the Debate
In this series, Flyby Staff Writer Olivia M. Munk identifies, dissects, and discusses ideas, articles, and opinions found in popular media and popular culture. She's here to inform you and to make you think—about what's out there, what it means to us, and what it might mean for you.
WHAT IT IS
In case you've been living under a rock and you don't already know, gun control laws are a hot topic in the United States right now. Although the Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms, many contend that, in so doing, it facilitates mass murders such as those that occurred in Aurora, Colo. in July of 2012 and Newtown, Conn. in December. Some argue that we should institute laws stipulating that background checks be run before someone buys a gun in order to bar those with a history of violence or mental instability from being sold a firearm. On the flip side, others argue that the government ought to make it easier to buy guns so that people can protect themselves from the other violent people who are also buying guns. Either way, guns exist, and the unfortunate fact is that, as long as they do, people will use guns to hurt each other. So how do we regulate these weapons without violating our inalienable American rights?
WHY IT CAUGHT OUR ATTENTION
If you happened to retreat even further under said rock in the past week, you may have missed the fact that on Thursday morning the Senate rejected a bill proposing expanded background checks prior to firearm purchases. Just hours later, shots were fired on the MIT campus, fatally wounding officer Sean Collier. Across the globe, people watched with rapt attention as the Boston Police Department and other law enforcement teams scoured the city for nearly 24 hours to locate Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings of April 15. His brother Tamerlan, also a suspect, was killed in gunfire during the course of the night. Further shots would be fired, injuring MBTA police officer Richard Donohue, Jr. Though neither of the brothers held a valid license to possess handguns, somehow the two were able to to obtain the firearms they used in the conflict.
The concurrent timing of the Senate's decision and the Tsarnaev brothers' actions begs for intelligent debate on the methods by which firearms are distributed in the United States. According to the National Rifle Association, in the state of Massachusetts, gun laws state that a person with the proper firearm identification may "possess, purchase, or carry only a non large capacity rifle or shotgun and feeding devices and ammunition therefor. The [ID] card 'shall be issued' by the police chief to a person residing or having a place of business within his jurisdiction, unless the applicant has: a disqualifying conviction or juvenile adjudication; been confined for mental illness or confined or treated for drug addiction or drunkenness; is a fugitive; is subject to a domestic protective order; is an alien; is under 15 or is more than 15 and less than 18 and does not have parental or guardian permission."
It is unclear whether or not either Tsarnaev brother was disqualified from purchasing or possessing a handgun based on any of the above criteria. Authorities have not released a complete account of the men's arsenal, and we may never know how they were able to obtain the guns they used in addition to other weaponry; but it appears that they could have very easily gone about purchasing certain handguns legally.
In the case of Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, it has been speculated (but not confirmed or officially diagnosed) that he suffered from a mental illness. Regardless of whether or not this was the case, as an adult, he would likely have been able to purchase guns anyway. (He ultimately used his mother's gun supply to commit his crimes, which included taking her life and his own.) James Holmes, the man who opened fire in an Aurora movie theater this past July, was taking pharmaceutical medications intended to treat mental illness at the time of the shooting. Still, he obtained firearms legally.
Since December, much of the country has expressed outrage at this seemingly unfettered access to guns, prompting lawmakers to propose the Firearms Bill, which would have expanded background checks on prospective gun buyers. The fact that the bill's defeat coincided with the tragic violence perpetrated by the Boston Marathon bombers poses a morbidly intriguing conundrum for Washington: How many gun-related tragedies will it take to curtail the number of guns in legal circulation in the U.S., especially when too many of these guns are ending up in the wrong hands?
In light of the recent incidents of mass gun violence across the United States and the failure of the Firearms Bill in the Senate, many pro-gun control groups have taken to the media to push for tighter restrictions on gun sales. Last week, advocacy group States United to Prevent Gun Violence produced this thought-provoking commercial, just after Canadian group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America came out with print ads depicting two children, one holding a firearm and the other with a comparatively innocuous object that has been banned in public schools. A commercial sponsored by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group backed by scores of mayors across the United States, shows the families of victims of the Newtown shootings speaking about the loss of their children and friends, and implores citizens to support comprehensive background checks, a limit on high capacity magazines, and the institution of an assault weapons ban. In Arizona, the city of Phoenix has decided to remove fifty advertisements from bus shelters proclaiming "Guns Save Lives."
On the other end of the spectrum, some pro-gun advocates have used this week's horrors and political decisions to voice their points of view on the matter. Nate Bell, a Republican lawmaker from Arkansas, tweeted, "I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their homes wishing they had an AR-15 with a hi-capacity magazine? #2A." (He later apologized for the "poor timing" of this tweet.) Interestingly, the value of gun company stock in Massachusetts actually went up following Friday's manhunt.
Guns clearly enabled much of the violence and tragedy that occurred last week in Boston, last year in Newtown and Aurora, and at countless other times and places in Americans' recent collective memory—but does it make sense to fight fire with fire?
It's doubtful that the federal government will ever completely illegalize the trade of guns in the United States. However, given the amount of senseless violence that has happened in the past few months alone, it is clear that something must be done to better regulate who gets guns, and how much ammunition they are given. While everyone deserves to feel safe and protected at all times, several recent polls indicate that a vast majority of Americans believe that background checks are crucial step in the sale of guns and ought to be mandatory. One issue that is sure to arise in further legislative pursuit of mandatory background checks is how to factor mental illness into the gun trade. A study from Duke University concluded that seven percent of people who had a diagnosed serious mental illness exhibited violent behavior, compared to two percent of the general population. This is not a large enough disparity to deny people who have a diagnosed mental illness their Second Amendment rights. However, thorough background checks are a necessary and likely inevitable step in the quest to legally allow only people who truly need a gun for comfort—not criminal activity—to possess one, thus bringing our society one step closer to preventing the further loss of innocent lives. We can only hope it won't take more lockdowns, manhunts, or funerals to acquire the necessary legislation to keep our country safe. On this, most everyone can agree.