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Is gun control out of control?

Posted on 02.06.2013

In the aftermath of  the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, a passionate debate has reemerged about the issue of gun control. President Barack Obama has made gun policy a priority for this legislative session and drawn both support and criticism from high-ranking officials.

Notably, the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have come out in support of banning semi-automatic weapons for the general public.

However, there is much opposition to Obama’s proposals. The most visible critic has been National Rifle Association Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre. According to The Washington Post, LaPierre said, “We believe in our right to defend ourselves and our families with semi-automatic firearms technology. We believe that if neither the criminal nor the political class and their bodyguards and their security people are limited by magazine capacity, we should not be limited in our capacity either.” According to a Washington Times article, the NRA conducted a survey in which 72 percent of responding members said that Obama’s “ultimate goal is the confiscation of many firearms that are currently legal.”

Assistant Professor of History and Political Science Chad Martin described an experience at a 2008 gun show that shows why NRA members may have negative feelings toward Obama’s gun policy.

“There were regular announcements over the PA saying things like ‘this is your last chance [to buy guns] before America changes,’” Martin said.“The fear that Obama is going to do something about guns has been a big fundraising and recruiting tool for the NRA.”

Assistant Professor of History and Political Science Maryam Stevenson said NRA members should know there is a constitutional guarantee that prevents the government from legally taking away firearms that people may already own.

“There are constitutional limits on ex post facto laws, which means that Congress cannot make a law that retroactively makes an act illegal,” Stevenson said.

Another part of the NRA survey found that 79 percent of responding members said that Obama was “trying to take away their Second Amendment rights.”

Stevenson said that an often overlooked nuance of the Second Amendment is that it, like other parts of the intentionally vague Constitution, is up for interpretation.

“It [The Constitution] is vague so it will be a lasting document, and [it] will be up to the Congress, the President and the Supreme Court to determine in the future how the provisions will be interpreted,” Stevenson said. “Over time, we have seen the Constitution interpreted in various ways, and we have seen change in interpretation. So this is nothing new.”

Stevenson said that Congress is within its constitutional rights to limit the reach of the Second Amendment and can regulate the gun trade under the authority of the Commerce Clause. She also said that many people misunderstand the intention of the  Second Amendment, and believe that it entitles them to own any and all types of guns

“I think the biggest misconception is that people think that the Second Amendment gives them carte blanche ability to own and possess firearms in any and all capacity,” Stevenson said. “But we have already seen that Congress has already placed limits on that, and those limits are constitutional.”

Today, gun control advocates see a difference between the power of civilian versus military weapons that did not exist when the Second Amendment was ratified in 1789. They argue that the Founding Fathers could not have known how much that military power would grow and may have wanted the Constitution to grow and change as weaponry did. Martin said that the issue did not arise until later in American history, but also said that some restrictions existed then.

“There was no difference between the weapons people had and [the] weapons the military had. When you walked into Ye Olde Musket Shop, you could buy the same weapon as the military had. It was not until the 20th century that you get that differentiation between civilian and military weapons,” Martin said. “You could not walk into Ye Olde Cannon Shop and buy a cannon. But when you get to the 20th century, with automatic weapons and things like that, the differentiation begins.”

In light of this differentiation and several recent shootings that involved  semi-automatic weapons, President Obama has outlined policies that he would like Congress to turn into law. Some of those include requiring criminal background checks for private sales, reinstating and strengthening the 1994 weapons ban, limiting magazines to ten rounds, increasing penalties for so called “straw purchasers,” providing funds to help schools plan emergency response plans and several other proposals.

Obama also has outlined executive orders that he intends to authorize. Some have accused Obama of acting outside of his authority in pursuing executive orders, but Stevenson clarified what an executive order is and how it can be used.

“The purpose of an executive order is to essentially further define or outline existing acts of Congress or existing law,” Stevenson said. “The power of the order allows the president to either explain how he is going to enforce acts of Congress or expound on them, but the president cannot make legislation through the executive order.”

Obama’s proposed executive orders include nominating an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Director, starting a national safe and responsible gun ownership dialogue and asking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research gun violence, amid other proposals.

Although semi-automatic weapons have been under scrutiny recently, they are not the only cause of the problem of American gun violence.    According to a 2011 Department of Justice report, handguns were the most used weapon in homicides in the United States in 2008 and had been the most widely used weapon for many years prior. Handguns far surpassed violence from all other guns, contributing to around 8,000 deaths versus all other gun deaths, which numbered about 3,000.

Associate Professor of History and Political Science Doug Woodwell questioned the effects that an assault weapons ban could have and pointed out the handgun issue.

“Even if the legislation does pass, what effect would it really have? You might have fewer mass shootings or maybe not have a mass shooting someplace, and maybe it is worth it to save some lives,” Woodwell said. “But by and large the majority of the [shooting] deaths in this country are from handguns, one shooting at time, not from semi-automatics at a mass shooting.”

Woodwell said letting state or city governments handle gun laws is not a good solution because not all states and cities have the same ideas about gun control, and guns can still be easily accessed. For example, guns sold in Indiana have been linked to crimes in Chicago, according to an article from the Chicago Sun Times. Woodwell said he saw similar problems while living in Washington D.C. where guns are tightly regulated.

“In a situation like that, it really is kind of unfair because criminals are the ones with guns and law abiding citizens will not necessarily have one,” Woodwell said. “So if you are going to do anything about gun regulation, it needs to be at the national level.”

The debate continues with questions on the right, such as “What if we need to overthrow the government one day?” and the assertion that “Guns do not kill people, people kill people.” Meanwhile, advocates on the left ask “Why do you need a gun with that many rounds?”

Sophomore history and political science major Ben Keller said that no matter what legislation is ultimately passed, people will always find a way around the law.

“Mentally disturbed people are always going to find a way to kill people, no matter what you do. On the same day as the Sandy Hook shooting, in China there was a person who went to an elementary school and stabbed people,” Keller said. “He found a way to kill people without a gun. So why punish law abiding citizens?”


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