Gun control has long been among the chief sources of debate in the United States. Being granted by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, the right to keep and bear firearms remains among the most recognizable national liberties and is strongly embedded in the public perception as a demonstration of national freedom. At the same time, the availability of firearms has led to numerous social issues, including criminal activity, accidents, and the phenomenon known as the school shootings. These aspects have led to the emergence of the movement opposing the free circulation of guns, advocating gun control among other precautionary measures. Despite the strong opposition to strict gun control policies, which will supposedly violate the basic human rights without achieving an observable positive result, the modification of gun control laws is required to address the situation, with certain proposed decisions showing the possibility of positive outcomes without adverse effects on civil rights when properly applied.
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Being a polarizing topic as it is, the gun control debate understandably presents a powerful political tool and is extensively used by both Democrats and Republicans. This adds an extra layer of complexity to the already complicated matter, as every proposed alteration is now judged not only on grounds of common sense and resulting benefit but also as a potential perspective of either gaining or losing the upper hand in the political stand-off. Such effect is vividly demonstrated every time the gun control policy amendments are proposed, with either the Republicans raising concerns over the supposed negligence of the Constitution in case the additional control is implied or the Democrats describing the prospects of skyrocketing violence and crime rate after some control is sacrificed. The recent executive actions proposed by President Barack Obama is not an exception and have triggered the same reaction, despite addressing the most common concerns and critiques of the opponents.
The proposed strategy unveiled by Obama in his recent January 5th speech focuses primarily on expanding background check requirements for buyers and providing the means to commence such checks by sellers of the firearms. Other amendments are directed at maximizing the efficiency of National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) by increasing the funding and expanding its staff, reforming the structure to allow better data processing, investing into mental health care projects dealing with the related issues, and removing legal barriers that hamper the processing of data relevant for NICS (Frederick par. 2).
The expansion of background checks is, without a doubt, the centerpiece of the proposed executive actions. In essence, it gives the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) the authority to require licensing from any seller of firearms, regardless of the volume or frequency of the sales. The failure of obtaining such a license will result in criminal penalties. This will supposedly close the so-called gun law loophole, allowing multiple small-scale firearm sellers to operate without the license and, as a result, without neither the requirement nor the possibility of checking the buyer’s permission for possessing a firearm.
The strategy was instantly met with the resistance by the Republicans, with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan describing it as “the form of intimidation that undermines liberty” and adding that “everything the president has done can be overturned by a Republican president” (“Obama’s Words and Actions” par. 1). While there is little doubt in the latter, the legitimate reason for this remains questionable. Ryan in his denouncing focuses primarily on appeal to tradition and ethical side of the question. However, the strategy proposed by the President does not have any new restrictions and is aimed instead of improving the already existing, but malfunctioning system.
The NICS is one such system, which was conceived for supplying firearm sellers with the relevant information on the buyer. However, examples abound of NICS inadequate functioning. Among the most publicized is the case of Seung-Hui Cho, the perpetrator of the Virginia Tech mass shooting, which has led to deaths of 32 students and injuries of 17 more. Seung-Hui Cho was declared mentally ill and prohibited from possessing a firearm since 2005, but the gap between the state and federal law resulted in the prohibition not being reported to the NICS. As a result, Cho was able to buy two semi-automatic handguns with which he had later perpetrated the shootings (Luo par. 1). As we can see, the system is both in place and properly conceived, but not functional enough to prevent even the most outrageous violations.
The other concern often pointed out by both the gun rights and gun control advocates is that had the system worked, Cho would still be able to purchase a gun. NICS covers only the licensed market, leaving behind a large segment of private sellers. These sellers do not have either the right or the possibility to perform a background check on the buyer, having to rely instead on their judgment. NICS isn’t even available to them, being accessible only for Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders. Besides, they are not required to register the sale or keep records of it, effectively introducing the second market to the scene. While it is perfectly logical when applied to an individual selling his gun on a secondary market – it would be an overshoot to demand to license for such an occasion – this legal gap allows certain small-scale sellers to trade guns effectively without much control. Such an approach is prominently featured on gun shows, where the only check you need to pass to buy a gun is to notarise the seller’s suspicions. While certainly convenient, it does not contribute to the safety of the population.
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Convenience and the resulting affordability is another concern voiced by the opponents of gun control. There is little doubt that the mandatory licensing and subsequent emergence of additional control measures will eventually complicate the system, making it more difficult to own a gun. This, according to the opposition, will mostly affect the general population while the criminals will hardly have any difficulties adapting to new rules. Besides, these changes will inevitably lead to the increased costs of firearms, compromising their affordability. Both arguments are hard to deny, as any law is more complex than its absence, both bureaucratically and economically. The important point to remember is these amendments are not uncalled for, and the price tag of a gun may prove lesser of two evils when compared to the adverse effects of a poorly controlled field with an already controversial reputation. Besides, the price of guns in the US is far from the verge of unaffordable for the majority of the population, so increasing it should not become such severe blow to liberty as it is sometimes described.
All the information mentioned above should by no means imply that gun rights activists compromise the safety of the population by impeding the precautions. Several approaches have proposed that address the same issues but do it with other means. Some of them are more popular than the others, like the implication that gun control affects the general population more than it does criminals, and thus decreases the safety (Washington Post Editorial Board par. 1). Unfortunately, this implication is not easily measurable and remains largely speculation. The existing statistics even disprove, rather than supports, this notion, showing that less than one percent of violent crime victims have protected themselves with the threat or use of a firearm, making it one of the least effective means of self-defense (Planty and Truman 12).
This, coupled with the fact that only one in thirty-seven homicides is a justifiable one (Planty and Truman 17) suggests that, unfortunately, self-defense is not among the top priorities of many gun users. Other concerns are more formidable, like the controversial gun-free zones, deemed as weak points by many gun-rights advocates. Their point is hard to argue, as it is supplied with the terrifying statistics of school shootings, the mass killings regularly occurring in educational establishments across America. The school is a gun-free zone, which, according to gun rights proponents, deprives the victims of means of protection. Suzanna Hupp, the leading advocate of an individual’s right to carry a concealed weapon, is frequently citing her experience as a proof of concept.
Suzanna, a survivor of Luby shooting, says that had she not left her gun in the car, she could stop the perpetrator from killing her father and other victims. While being of anecdotal and speculative nature, this argument is not easily ignored. Gun-free zones remain vulnerable to criminals, who, after managing to bypass the security, gain the upper hand in the situation, facing virtually no resistance. The important question here, again, is if the authorities should work on improving the functioning of the restrictions or put both the right and the responsibility of the citizens’ safety in their own hands, removing the restrictions.
The idea of having personal freedoms and rights appeals to me as to every American. I appreciate the possibility of protecting myself and respect the right of others to do so. The arguments of the gun rights advocates also sound extremely appealing to anyone who considers himself or herself a free person. They often cite the Constitution and the Second Amendment which makes it our right to bear arms. Another popular trend is to remind that such right keeps the government from usurping or abusing power, and we should respect the founding fathers’ wisdom of conceiving such a great nation. I couldn’t agree more with this. However, we must be sure to always distinguish between freedom violation and precaution, between the freedom and overindulgence. Gun control should not be perceived as a violation of our rights. Instead, it must be aimed at improving the existing and introducing new methods of addressing issues that exist in America today. I like the idea of having a possibility to walk into a store and buy a gun or two, but I am ready to sacrifice some of this ease in exchange for knowing that at least some tragedy can be averted thanks to it. We should remember we all have not only rights, but obligations and that with rights come responsibilities. Again, this may prove a difficult task when dealing with such a heavily politicized topic. But given how important this topic is, I think it deserves an effort of looking into more closely.
Frederick, Susan. President Obama’s 2015 Executive Actions on Gun Control. 2016. Web.
Obama’s Words and Actions are “Intimidation that Undermines Liberty” 2016. Web.
Planty, Michael and Jennifer Truman 2013, Firearm Violence, 1993-2011. PDF file. Web.
Washington Post Editorial Board. The NRA’s Simplistic Response to Newtown: ‘Good Guy with a Gun’. 2012. Web.