Gun Control

Gun control is any law, policy, practice, or proposal designed to restrict or limit the possession, production, importation, shipment, sale, and/or use of guns or other firearms by private citizens among others. Gun control laws and policy vary greatly around the world. Some countries, such as the United Kingdom and Austrailia, have very strict limits on gun possession while others, such as the United States, have relatively modest limits. In some countries, the topic remains a source of intense debate with proponents generally arguing the dangers of widespread gun ownership, and opponents generally arguing individual rights of self-protection as well as individual liberties in general.

High rates of gun mortality and injury are often cited as a primary impetus for gun control policies. There is general agreement that gun violence is a serious public health and economic concern. Yet, society remains deeply divided over whether more restrictive gun control policies would save lives and prevent injuries. Scholars agree the rate of gun violence in the United States is disproportionately high relative to other wealthy countries. Nevertheless, strong disagreement remains among academics on the question of whether a causal relationship between gun availability and violence exists, and which, if any, gun controls would effectively stem the violence.

The question of whether gun control policies increase, decrease or have no effect on rates of gun violence turns out to be a difficult question. While a variety of disparate data sources on rates of firearm-related injuries and deaths, firearms markets, and the relationships between rates of gun ownership and violence exist, research into the efficacy of various gun controls has been largely inadequate. A 2004 National Research Council critical review found that while some strong conclusions are warranted from current research, the state of our knowledge is generally poor.

This stems in part from successful efforts to suppress research by Congress and the National Rifle Association and in part from complex methodological research concerns that have not been sufficiently considered. However, the National Research Council did conclude that, ‘higher rates of household firearms ownership are associated with higher rates of gun suicide, that illegal diversions from legitimate commerce are important sources of crime guns and guns used in suicide, that firearms are used defensively many times per day, and that some types of targeted police interventions may effectively lower gun crime and violence.’

Some scholars have reported that the rate of gun availability is either neutral or associated with less gun violence. For example, a 2002 review of international gun control policies and gun ownership rates as these relate to crime rates by Kates and Mauser, published in the ‘Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy’ (a student run journal devoted to conservative and libertarian legal scholarship) argues that, ‘International evidence and comparisons have long been offered as proof of the mantra that more guns mean more deaths and that fewer guns, therefore, mean fewer deaths. Unfortunately, such discussions are all too often been [sic] afflicted by misconceptions and factual error and focus on comparisons that are unrepresentative.’ Kates and Mauser point out in Europe, there is no correlation whatsoever between gun ownership rates and homicide rates. Joyce Malcolm reviewed the crime and homicides rates in England and found that, ‘data on firearms ownership by constabulary area,’ like data from the United States, show, ‘a negative correlation…[that is], where firearms are most dense violent crime rates are lowest, and where guns are least dense violent crime rates are highest.’

In 2011, economists Richard Florida and Charlotta Mellander investigated a variety of factors associated with firearm mortality other than gun availability. They found no association with the proportion of mental illness or neurotic personalities, stress levels, illegal drug use, prevalence of unemployment or higher levels of economic inequality. They did find significant associations between gun deaths and poverty, economies dominated by working class jobs and the frequency of gun-carrying high school students. They further found a positive association between gun deaths and states that voted Republican and a negative association in states that voted Democratic. Gun deaths were found to be less likely in states with a higher frequency of college graduates, more creative class jobs, higher levels of economic development, higher levels of happiness and well-being, and larger immigrant populations. The study also found that states that have banned assault weapons, require trigger locks, and mandate safe storage of firearms are all significantly lower in gun-related mortality.

Opponents of gun control often state that past totalitarian regimes passed gun control legislation, which was later followed by confiscation, with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany during World War II, as well as some communist states being cited as examples. They often cite the example of the Nazi regime, claiming that once the Nazis had taken and consolidated their power, they proceeded to implement gun control laws to disarm the population and wipe out the opposition, and the genocide of disarmed Jews, gypsies, and other ‘undesirables’ followed. Historians have pointed out, however, that the preceding democratic Weimar Republic already had restrictive gun laws, which were actually liberalized by the Nazis when they came to power.

Under the 1928 ‘Law on Firearms & Ammunition,’ firearms acquisition or carrying permits were ‘only to be granted to persons of undoubted reliability, and—in the case of a firearms carry permit—only if a demonstration of need is set forth.’ The Nazis replaced this law in 1938 with one relaxing gun control requirements for the general population. This relaxation included the exemption from regulation of all weapons and ammunition except handguns, the extension of the range of persons exempt from the permit requirement, and the lowering of the age for acquisition of firearms from 20 to 18. It did, however, prohibit manufacturing of firearms and ammunition by Jews.

In Tzarist Russia personal gun ownership was legal, allowing Bolsheviks and other revolutionaries to import a great number of guns for the purpose of overthrowing the Tzar. For example, in 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War, a ship delivered to Russian revolutionaries 8,500 rifles paid by the government of Japan. After Bolshevik sailors and militia overthrew the legitimate government in 1917, the Bolsheviks came to power. In 1918, they made it a crime for all citizens except Bolshevik party members to own guns. Bolsheviks were allowed to own 1 rifle and 1 revolver.

Kopel has claimed that the Battles of Lexington and Concord, sometimes known as the ‘Shot heard ’round the world,’ in 1775, were started in part because General Gage sought to carry out an order by the British government to disarm the populace. According to Harvey, this was not gun control but an act of war: the rebels had already formed a shadow government, were training militias, and tensions between them and the British colonial government were at the breaking point. In either case, Gage sent his troops to Concord to seize and destroy the rebel militia’s military weapons depot, and to Lexington to capture two of the rebel leaders, Samuel Adams and John Hancock.

The economist John Lott in his book ‘More Guns, Less Crime’ claims that laws which make it easier for law-abiding citizens to get a permit to carry a gun in public places, cause reductions in crime. Lott’s results suggest that allowing law-abiding citizens to carry concealed firearms deters crime because potential criminals do not know who may or may not be carrying a firearm. Lott’s data came from the FBI’s crime statistics from all 3,054 US counties. Following the Sandy Hook Newtown killing of 20 young children, Wayne LaPierre, vice-president of the National Rifle Association argued at an NRA conference that the solution to such tragedies is more guns in schools and society in general: ‘The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.’ That conference was disrupted twice by hecklers carrying banners that said ‘NRA: Killing Our Kids’ and ‘NRA: Blood On Its Hands.’

Some of the earliest gun-control legislation at the state level, in the United States, were the ‘black codes’ that replaced the ‘slave codes’ after the Civil War, attempting to prevent blacks’ having access to the full rights of citizens, including whatever rights were guaranteed to them under the Second Amendment. Laws of this type later used racially neutral language to survive legal challenge, but were expected to be enforced against blacks rather than whites.

One target of gun control has been so-called ‘junk guns,’ which are generally cheaper and therefore more accessible to the poor. However, some civil rights organizations favor tighter gun regulations. In 2004, the NAACP filed suit against 45 gun manufacturers for creating what it called a ‘public nuisance’ through the ‘negligent marketing’ of handguns, which included models commonly described as ‘Saturday night specials.’ The suit alleged that handgun manufacturers and distributors were guilty of marketing guns in a way that encouraged violence in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. ‘The gun industry has refused to take even basic measures to keep criminals and prohibited persons from obtaining firearms,’ NAACP President/CEO Kweisi Mfume said. ‘The industry must be as responsible as any other and it must stop dumping firearms in over-saturated markets. The obvious result of dumping guns is that they will increasingly find their way into the hands of criminals.’

The NAACP lawsuit was dismissed in 2003. It, and several similar suits—some brought by municipalities seeking re-imbursement for medical costs associated with criminal shootings—were portrayed by gun-rights groups, most notably the National Rifle Association, as ‘nuisance suits,’ aimed at driving gun manufacturers (especially smaller firms) out of business through court costs alone, as damage awards were not expected. These suits prompted the passage of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) in 2005, which has been criticized as providing protection from litigation for the arms industry that most other industries do not have, for stifling innovation in making firearms safer to use, and for not allowing victims of firearm violence compensation for actual negligence on the part of gun manufacturers and sellers.

In several countries, such as Switzerland, firearm politics and gun control are partially linked with armed forces’ reserves and reservist training. Switzerland practices universal conscription, which requires that all able-bodied male citizens keep fully automatic firearms at home in case of a call-up. Every male between the ages of 20 and 34 is considered a candidate for conscription into the military, and following a brief period of active duty will commonly be enrolled in the militia until age or an inability to serve ends his service obligation. During their enrollment in the armed forces, these men are required to keep their government-issued selective fire combat rifles and semi-automatic handguns in their homes. They are not allowed to keep ammunition for these firearms in their homes, however; ammunition is stored at government arsenals. Owners are legally responsible for third party access and usage of their weapons.

Evanston, Illinois, a Chicago suburb of 75,000 residents, became the largest town to ban handgun ownership in 1982 but experienced no change in violent crime. It has subsequently ended its ban as a result of the ‘District of Columbia v. Heller’ Supreme Court case, upon a federal lawsuit by the National Rifle Association being filed the day after Heller was entered. In Britain, the private ownership of most handguns was banned in 1997 following a gun massacre at a school in Dunblane and a 1987 gun massacre in Hungerford in which the combined deaths was 35 and injured 30. Gun ownership and gun crime was already at a low level, which made these slaughters particularly concerning. Only an estimated 57,000 people —0.1% of the population owned such weapons prior to the ban. In 2008 the number of deaths from firearms in Britain was 42, a 20-year low, with vast parts of the country recording no homicides, suicides or accidental deaths from firearms.

Many opponents of gun control consider self-defense to be a fundamental and unalienable human right and believe that firearms are an important tool in the exercise of this right. They consider the prohibition of an effective means of self-defense to be unethical. For instance, in Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Commonplace Book,’ a quote from Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria reads, ‘laws that forbid the carrying of arms … disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes … Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man.’

After the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1868, most states turned to ‘facially neutral’ business or transaction taxes on handgun purchases. However, the intention of these laws was not neutral. An article in Virginia’s official university law review called for a ‘prohibitive tax…on the privilege’ of selling handguns as a way of disarming ‘the son of Ham,’ whose ‘cowardly practice of ‘toting’ guns has been one of the most fruitful sources of crime…. Let a Negro board a railroad train with a quart of mean whiskey and a pistol in his grip and the chances are that there will be a murder, or at least a row, before he alights.’ Thus, many Southern states imposed high taxes or banned inexpensive guns in order to price destitute individuals out of the gun market.

In response to the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 in Australia the National Firearms Agreement banned all semi-automatic rifles and all semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns, and created a tightly restrictive system of licensing and ownership controls. Because the Australian Constitution prevents the taking of property without just compensation the Federal Government introduced the ‘Medicare Levy Amendment Act’ 1996 that provided the revenue for the National Firearms Program through a one-off 0.2% increase in the Medicare levy. Known as the gun buy-back scheme, they intended to purchase and destroy all semi-automatic rifles including .22 rimfires, semi-automatic shotguns and pump-action shotguns. The buyback was predicted to cost A$500 million and had wide community support.

There is contention over the effects of the gun control laws in Australia, with some researchers reporting significant drops in gun-related crime, and others reporting no significant effect in gun related or overall crime rates. The primary source of the controversy is that, while the incidence of firearm deaths has decreased considerably since the 1996 restrictions went into effect, the rates had already been falling for the past two decades prior to the new gun laws. An article by David Hemenway argues that these studies were designed to find nothing. Hemenway writes that the authors of these studies carefully chose the period of study to reflect their desired negative results without giving rationale for the time period they choose to show a supposed decline in Australian gun violence.

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