The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school on December 14th was shocking and sobering. Collegiettes across the country joined Newtown, CT in mourning, and saw in the victims their own teachers, little siblings, and campers. It wasn’t long before the ramifications of this dark event became political—in the form of a debate on gun control.
The second amendment to the Constitution, most commonly referred to as “the right to bear arms,” has become increasingly embattled in recent years. According to The Washington Post, “of the 12 deadliest shootings in U.S. history, six have taken place since 2007.” They include two shootings this past summer: at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and a movie theater in
“Since I’ve been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings, fourth time we’ve hugged survivors, the fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims,” said President Barack Obama speaking to the grieving Newtown community.
“Surely we can do better than this,” the President continued, saying that he would use his Executive power to explore new preventative gun policy.
The Second Amendment
The second amendment states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Bee, a junior at Princeton, studies Constitution Law. She believes that the intent of the second amendment is to empower the people: “if you rid people of any way to defend themselves there is no way they can fight a corrupt government.”
Living on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, Bee has seen the usefulness guns as a means of self-defense—whether it be a neighbor shooting into the air to scare off a robber in their isolated neighborhood, or her father protecting the family’s dog from a rabid coyote.
“Having a gun is self-protection from people who would break the law and get guns anyway,” says Bee, “If you deny people the ability to protect themselves you’re making crime more possible.”
Her argument, that new laws won’t stop criminals already intent on breaking the law, is shared by the National Rifle Association.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) is the most public supporter of “the right to bear arms.” The NRA is known for giving politicians report card grades based on their votes for or against the right to own and use a gun. They’ve also conducted programs to educate young people about gun safety, and trained hunters and law enforcement shooters alike.
After the shooting on December 14th, the NRA stayed silent for a week before the group’s executive vice president restated their pro-gun position in a press conference where, according to The Washington Post, Wayne LaPierre advocated putting an armed officer in every school.
LaPierre’s statement, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” pretty much sums up the mindset of the pro-gun political lobby.
Assault Weapons Ban
But, according to The Wall Street Journal, critics of guns have a direct response to that. Like Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, who compared safety measures that don’t include restricting guns to "like trying to prevent lung cancer without talking about cigarettes.”
There are a few options that have been proposed to restrict gun access. The first is an assault weapons ban, like the one enacted in 1994. The ten year ban expired in 2004.
When people say “assault weapons” they are typically referring to automatic and semi-automatic weapons. The distinction between automatic, semi-automatic, and other types of firearms is important to understand when following the gun control debate.
Although these definitions are actually part of the debate, David Koppel’s simple explanation in The Wall Street Journal is that what people consider “normal firearms” fire one bullet for every time the trigger is pressed. Semi-automatic guns load each bullet automatically after one is shot, and automatic weapons—like a machine gun—fire multiple rounds for every time the trigger is pressed.
NRA president David Keene told CBS News that the organization “will continue to oppose a ban on semiautomatic weapons.” He distinguished a gun that automatically loads from one that automatically fires.
“No civilian needs a semi, that’s not self-defense,” says Bee. She defends the “reasonable desire to have guns,” but laments that the NRA is the loudest voice out there.
Like Bee, Molly—a senior at Bowdoin—grew up around guns. “I was raised around guns and instilled with strong values about gun safety as well as gun rights…But the Newtown shooting and other shootings have naturally challenged my beliefs.”
She’ll be the first to admit, like many baffled Americans, “I don't have the answers to how to keep semi-automatic weapons off of the streets and out of the hands of the mentally unstable.”
However, having watched her brothers hunt quail and use the meat to feed “dozens of hungry families” she is upset at the irony that a government disseminating firearms overseas—where they take other innocent lives--would then ban them from American citizens “who use them safely and responsibly.”
Another proposed way to restrict gun access has to do with guns that are already out there. According to The Christian Science Monitor, there is a model to reduce the number of guns already in circulation—to buy them back.
In 1996 a gunmen opened fire at a popular tourist destination in Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia. The shooting deaths of 35 people spurred the passage of legislation in Australia to restrict access to automatic and semi-automatic weapons. 650,000 such firearms were bought back and destroyed, and supporters of the program point out that there has not been a mass shooting in Australia in the 16 years since.
“Labor Member of Parliament Kelvin Thomson wrote in an open letter to US Congress that he also posted on his official website. ‘As the number of guns in Australia reduced, so too did gun violence. It is simply not true that owning a gun makes you safer,’” The Christian Science Monitor reports.
But, in Bee’s opinion, because she’s seen the value of owning a "normal firearm", “guns need to be more highly regulated, they do not need to be banned.”
Mental Health and Background Checks
There is another issue that comes up in debates about gun access: that of proper mental health care. Both the NRA and gun control advocates agree on the importance of background checks to ensure that guns do not fall into irresponsible hands. Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, told PBS that “40 percent of all gun sales in our nation aren't subject to background checks,” meaning that a gun could be purchased by someone who isn’t mentally equipped to use it safely. Gross cited a study where 74% Of NRA members said they’d agree with a better background check system.
On the same PBS show, Dr. Katherine Nordal of the American Psychological Association said that people at risk for a mental health disorder need to be identified long before they approach the counter to buy a gun: “We need better-funded university counseling centers. And we need just better access to mental health treatment.”
Tia, a junior at Emory University, thinks that mental health care may be part of the solution—but just a part. “I don't think the focus on Mental Health is the right way to go. Sure, that's a small component but that's not the issue. The issue is that people have been conditioned to think things like these are common place.”
And in some areas of the country, they are common place—daily urban tragedies that don’t make national news.
“Every license that is given out should be supported by a mental health evaluation,” agrees Bee, but the fact that the Sandy Hook shooter had access to his mother’s guns—despite his own mental state--leads some people back to the solution of a ban.
Dahiana, a junior at Tufts, favors reinstituting the assault weapons ban, saying that sometimes even a mental health evaluation isn’t enough to ensure someone will be safe with a firearm. “While mental health issues mattered in the recent shootings and should be addressed, we should be careful of the rhetoric surrounding the issue,” says Dahiana, “You don’t need a diagnosis to have a breakdown.”
“Anything that doesn't go about bringing correct gun education is going to fail and things will keep happening,” says Tia. And if there is one thing that all parties in the gun control debate agree on, it is that gun violence in America needs to end.