Gun control

The headlines could not be believed: two teenage boys had opened fire in their Colorado high school, killing 12 fellow students and a teacher. That incident at Columbine, on April 20, 1999, following a number of other shootings inschools and workplaces, has led to an increase in the number of people calling for strict gun control legislation.

Gun control is a term that describes the use of law to limit people's accessto handguns, shotguns, rifles, and other firearms, through passing statutes that require, for example, gun purchasers to undergo background checks for criminal records, for guns to be registered, or a number of other methods. In the United States, gun control is a hotly contested political issue that can make or break the careers of politicians. The use of firearms is also a healthissue, because more than 35,000 people die each year after being shot.


The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, keeps track of injuries and fatalities resulting from firearms. The NCIPC reported that in 1994, there were 38,505 firearm-related deaths. These included:

  • more than 17,800 homicides
  • more than 18,700 suicides
  • more than 1,300 unintentional, firearms-related deaths related to firearms.

Nationwide, approximately 70 percent of people who commit suicide do so witha firearm.

Among young people, the impact of guns is huge. According to the Centers forDisease Control and Prevention, each day in the United States, fourteen people under the age of 19 die in gun-related incidents. The rate of firearm-related deaths for Americans age 14 and younger is twelve times that of children in other industrialized nations combined.

In addition, the NCIPC estimates that there were approximately three gun-related injuries for every death--a rough figure of 115,515 injuries for the year.

Also according to the NCIPC, in 1990, firearm injuries cost over $20.4 billion--directly, for hospital and other medical care, as well as indirectly, forlong-term disability and premature death, and at least 80% of the economic costs of treating firearm injuries are paid for by taxpayers.

How the U.S. Compares to the Rest of the World

The United States is home to a tremendous number of guns. Current estimates place the number of guns in the United States at between 200 million and 250 million. In the period between 1968 and 1992, gun ownership in the U.S. increased 135 percent--and during that same period, handgun ownership increase 300percent. The 17 million residents of Texas alone own 68 million guns.

The United States has one of the highest murder rates in the world, and leadswestern nations in homicides. More Americans are shot in one day than Japanese are shot in an entire year.

Whereas other nations, such as Great Britain, have moved to ban handguns andassault rifles after shooting incidents, the United States has not done so. In Australia, just two weeks after a shooting at Port Arthur that killed 35 people, the nation's various levels of government agreed to ban weapons like those used in the attack. Similarly, Great Britain banned handguns after a manbroke into a Scottish school and opened fire, killing 16 children.

Other nations treat gun control as a public health issue, Robert Spitzer of the State University of New York at Cortland, told ABC News. "There is generalagreement in other nations that the government has the right to engage in regulation that is good public policy protecting the health and safety of the populace," he said.

However, in the United States, strong political interest groups such as the National Rifle Association oppose gun control and say that the Second Amendment guarantees the rights of Americans to own weapons.

History of the Issue

Americans are fiercely protective of their right to own guns. The founders ofthis country believed that this "right to bear arms" was so important that they made it the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. "A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the rightof the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed," the founders wrote.

Today there is considerable argument over just what the founders intended bytheir words. Did they mean to provide only for armed units, such as the Armyand National Guard, to protect us from invasion, or did they mean that each individual has a right to a gun? Both gun-control supporters and gun-rights advocates have their legal arguments to support their side, but the federal courts have upheld all laws regulating gun ownership when the laws have been challenged on the basis of violating the second amendment.

In the early days of the American colonies, nearly every settler owned a gun;guns were a more obvious necessity for members of an expanding nation. However, as the European population became more settled here, as the frontier wasdriven westward and the native populations driven out, fewer people owned guns. As historian Michael Bellesiles notes, during the time between the American Revolution and the Civil War, no more than one-tenth of the American population owned guns. They became more a part of American culture due to the marketing efforts of gun manufacturer Samuel Colt, who played on the fears of themiddle-class to sell weapons for "self-defense"; the end of the Civil War also played a role in the increase of gun ownership, as many soldiers returned home with their weapons in hand.

In 1876, the Supreme Court ruled, in United States v. Cruikshank, thatneither the Constitution nor the Second Amendment grant the right to bear arms; rather, the Second Amendment restricts the power of the federal government to control firearms. Several other Supreme Court cases (notably U.S. v.Miller, 1939) spoke to gun control during the late 1800s and first half of the 1900s; but overall, gun control was not a major issue or concern.

However, that all changed in the 1960s. After the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Congress passed the 1968 Gun Control Act, which banned mail-order gun sales and instituted more stringent licensing requirements for dealers.

After John Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981,gun control became the hot issue it is today. Congress passed several laws concerning armor-piercing bullets and automatic weapons. In 1993, President William J. Clinton signed the Brady bill, which requires a five-day waiting period for all handgun purchases. The following year, Congress and President Clinton passed a ban on assault-style weapons and a number of semiautomatic weapons.

The Arguments For and Against Gun Control

Advocates of gun control maintain that by making firearms--especially handguns--more difficult to obtain, the number of shootings (both accidental and deliberate) will be reduced. They also support licensing all persons who own firearms and registering each gun as well.

However, just because a gun is registered does not mean that it won't be usedin an illegal act. For example, Buford O. Furrow, the man who opened fire ata Los Angeles Jewish community center in 1999, was armed with seven guns, including a Glock 9mm automatic handgun and a custom-made assault rifle--and every one of his guns was registered.

Similarly, Bryan Uyesugi, the man who shot and killed seven employees of theXerox Corporation in Hawaii on November 2, 1999, had 17 firearms registered.Between June 18, 1990 and November 3, 1999, workplace shootings caused the deaths of 116 people.

Just registering a gun does not guarantee that its owner will not use it to commit a crime. Advocates of gun registrations say that by having to registertheir weapons with the federal government, gun owners will be more careful inmaking sure that their guns do not become stolen, or that they do not sell or trade their guns to a criminal. Opponents fear that one day the federal government may use gun registrations against gun owners and confiscate all registered weapons.

As mentioned previously, Americans vary widely in their attitudes toward guncontrol. According to various polls and studies, residents of New England andthe mid-Atlantic states tend to be strongly in favor of gun control; they are far less likely to have ever owned a gun than are other Americans. While two out of five Southerners and one out of three Westerners have owned guns, fewer than one in seven residents of the Northeast have. Meanwhile, Southernersare more likely to have a gun at home and elsewhere (such as in the car), and they are more likely to shoot to kill. Westerners are most likely to hear gunshots. As a group, residents of the mountain states are the most certain that guns deter crime. Midwesterners are most concerned about crime.

As might be expected given these regional variables, gun control laws vary from state to state. For example, Arizona residents are not required to register their weapons, and they may carry concealed weapons. (A concealed weapon isone that is hidden from view, such as under a shirt or in an ankle holster.)In Massachusetts, it is illegal to carry a concealed weapon, and gun ownersmust be licensed and their weapons registered, even if the gun is used solelyfor target shooting.

There is great debate as to whether allowing concealed weapons decreases or increases crime. Some supporters of concealed weapons reason that people are less likely to attempt to commit a crime when they face the possibility that the potential victim may be armed. Detractors say that carrying a weapon makesa person more likely to use it--particularly in anger, such as after being cut off in traffic.

Currently, there is no nationwide law that requires gun owners to be licensed. The federal government has left that up to the individual states.

Self-Defense or Self-Destruction?

Supporters of guns maintain the need for the weapons as a means of self-defense. Through surveys of jailed criminals, sociologists have found that 40 percent of criminals say they would not commit a crime they were considering if they thought the potential victim was armed. In addition, criminals who attempted break-ins of occupied homes succeeded only 14 percent of the time when the homeowner was armed--compared to 33 percent of the time when the homeownerwas not armed.

Researcher Gary Kleck of Florida State University has done a number of surveys regarding the successful use of guns in self-defense, and he estimates thatAmerican use guns for self-defense between 800,000 and 2.45 million times each year. They fire less than one-quarter of the time.

However, figures from the Census Bureau maintain that the numbers of Americans defending themselves with guns is much lower--closer to 80,000 times per year.

And while having a gun in the house may make the gun owner feel more secure and safe, the problem with having guns in the home, argue gun control supporters, is that they are a temptation both for children and adults.

Children die every year by being accidentally shot while playing with guns, or by being nearby when someone else is playing with them. Such tragedies canoccur when the parents keep a loaded gun in the house--particularly in a night-table drawer--for self-defense. The child finds the gun, and tragedy follows.

In such cases, it is important that the gun be stored unloaded, with a trigger lock, and with its ammunition stored separately from it.

Guns are also often used in domestic squabbles. Prompted by the 1984 shootingdeath of singer Marvin Gaye (who was killed by his father after a family argument), researcher Arthur Kellermann began studying the role of the firearm in domestic incidents. His results, which appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that for each homicide that was committed in self-defense in the home, there were 37 suicides, 1.3 accidental deaths, and 4.6 criminal homicides. Another of his studies, which tracked domestic homicides inthree cities over a five-year period, found that a home that contained gunswere three times more likely to be the site of a homicide than a home withoutguns.

Under the influence of strong emotions, alcohol, or drugs, people often do things they might not normally do otherwise--including drawing a gun on a family member and pulling the trigger. Experts note that it's important to recognize the social influences that may drive people to gun violence. For example,Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two teens who opened fire at Columbine High School, were described as outsiders. Michael Carneal, who opened fire on aprayer group at his West Paducah, Kentucky, high school, killing three and wounding five in 1997, was similarly described. In cases like these, or those of Buford Furrow or Bryan Uyesugi, there is rarely a single cause. It would benaive to say that Harris and Klebold and Carneal shot 16 people in their separate rampages solely because they had guns; they shot those people because something inside them that would normally have prevented such an occurrence, broke down.

Experts on both sides of the gun control issue urge people to consider theirpersonal situation when thinking about bringing a gun into the home. Are there children or young people in residence who may find the gun a temptation? Isthere someone living in the house who has problems controlling his or her temper? Someone who has been depressed and may be suicidal? In any of these cases, experts urge potential gun owners to think twice before introducing a weapon into the equation.

Controversial Measures for Control

Numerous laws and regulations have been passed in an effort to control guns.In June 1999, Connecticut legislators passed a bill that allows police to seize the weapons of anyone whom they believe presents a threat to him- or herself and others. The law went into effect October 1, and on November 1, policein Greenwich, Connecticut, made the first seizure under the new law, raisinga house and taking 11 guns--six handguns, two rifles, a shotgun, an assault rifle, and a submachine gun--from a 45-year-old man. The man, Thompson Bosee,told the Hartford Courant newspaper that he would challenge the seizure and the law's constitutionality.

Part of controlling where guns go is controlling the people who sell them. Massachusetts recently enacted a law that requires gun dealers to maintain their businesses in separate buildings from their homes--no longer allowing "kitchen table" gun sales.

Possible Solutions

It seems unlikely that the United States will ever ban firearms. However, there are measures that both gun supporters and gun detractors do agree on thatmay help cut down on gun violence.

  • Trigger locks. Trigger locks are small, inexpensive devices that fit over a gun's trigger and make it impossibleto fire. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, "Mandating lockingdevices for each firearm owned is a logical first step in controlling guns bylimiting who has access to firing them."
  • Education. Just as people aren't allowed on the road until they have been taught to drive a car, so people should not be allowed to own a gun until they successfully complete a guneducation course, say supporters. Besides courses that teach adults the rulesof handling and storing guns, so too are there courses that teach children that guns are not toys. Gun education programs are taught by such diverse groups as the National Rifle Association and the Boy Scouts of America, and morethan 10 million children have completed the NRA's Eddie Eagle safety course.By teaching kids a healthy respect for guns and the damage they can do, perhaps the number of accidental shootings that claim so many young lives can be reduced.
  • Background checks. The Brady bill, the national gun-control legislation named for James Brady, the presidential assistant wounded in the attack on President Reagan, requires instant background checks on all purchasers. To date, this system has prevented more than 200,000 gun purchases by people who had been in mental institutions, been dishonorably discharged from military service, were fugitives, or had a history of domestic abuse.

The main drawback to this system is that all police records are not yet available in a nationwide database, making it possible that someone will fall through the cracks. It also does not cover the "secondary" market of private sales at gun shows and flea markets, where guns can be bought without a mandatorywaiting period or a background check.

Legislation controlling guns bought by legitimate people--hunters or enthusiasts--does not reach such private-deal gun sales. Nor does it control stolen guns, or guns purchased by licensed owners for resale to anyone--including criminals. How can this aspect of the gun issue be dealt with?

Some have suggested that tougher enforcement of existing weapons laws is needed. For example, it is illegal to possess drugs and a weapon. For years, authorities did not enforce this law. But Richmond, Virginia, started using theselaws to crack down of people apt to be involved in criminal acts. The apparent result has been that the homicide rate fell by nearly a third; 215 violators are in jail, and 512 guns have been seized.

Technology may be able to help, too. Scientists are working on developing a so-called "smart gun." This gun would be able to be fired only by its owner. Two means of recognition are currently being tested. One method uses biometrictechnology to recognize the fingerprints of the authorized user. The gun would recognize the fingerprints of the person holding it, and if the prints didnot match the ones in its memory, it would not go off. The other uses a device called a radio transponder that allows the gun to be fired only within a given distance of the device; if a criminal should wrest a police officer's gun away and try to fire it, the smart gun would not go off because it was toofar from the device. A prototype model had the radio transponder in a wristband; plans are to make it small enough to be worn as a ring. Research on smartguns began in the early 1990s, and the weapons may be available in 2001.

For the time being, however, it looks as if the debate over gun control willcontinue. America may never become an unarmed nation, but with stronger enforcement of criminal laws, education of new gun owners, and responsible care and storage of their weapons by gun owners, perhaps the current death toll of almost 100 Americans a day will one day fall.

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