Gun Control or Not? A Case for Gun Ownership – Religious Studies Contemporary Ethical Issues

The gun culture prevalent in the United States emanates from colonialism, revolutionary tendency and expansion to new frontiers. It is also captured in the Second Amendment that 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” (Cook and Goss, 2014).

Guns are important for self-defense. A person with a gun protects themselves, family and country from local criminals and any invaders.  Guns discourage criminals from crime.

Guns in America’s History

In the American colonies, guns were used for hunting, self-defense and later during the American Revolutionary War. In several colonies, all able-bodied men were supposed to be in the militia and to carry firearms. Heads of households, including women, were required to own guns in other states. One adult male from each household was required to carry a gun to church or other public gatherings in the laws of at least six colonies including Connecticut. This was to protect against Native Americans attacks, stealing of firearms from unattended homes and “insurrections…of Negroes” in such places as South Carolina (Loesch, 2014). In laws of some colonies, immigrants had to have a gun to travel or own land.

Ratified on December 15, 1791, the Second Amendment does not expressly mention individual right to own a gun, but rather as part of a militia. But for the individual to fulfil the collective will of the militia and colony, by implication there is the individual right to have a gun (Spitzer, 2015). Further, a federal law enacted in 1792 required that every man who qualified for militia to own a suitable gun and ammunition. The guns were supposed to be registered and inspected frequently. However, this law was not strictly implemented with most people having hunting rifles and pistols rather than military guns.

There were also gun control laws. This targeted Native Americans, servants, slaves and such professionals as school masters, doctors and lawyers. This included enactment of the notorious “slave codes”, “black codes” and “Jim Crow” laws that targeted black people (Cook and Goss, 2014).

The frontier cities also had gun control laws. This included checking guns with the sheriff on entering town, requiring mayor’s consent to fire a gun in Deadwood and outright prohibition to carry a gun in Dodge City (Cook and Goss, 2014).

Developing federal laws

The federal National Firearms Act (NFA) that came into effect in 1934 was mainly a result of mafia crimes and internal wars. NFA requires registration and levies tax on such guns as shotguns, short-barreled rifles and machine guns. However, most guns are excluded from NFA (ProCon.org, 2016).

A federal act enacted in 1938 that targeted firearm licensees by making it illegal to sell guns to certain people and to keep customer records was overturned by the Gun Control Act (GCA) of 1968. The GCA was a result of constitutional concerns about gun registration brought up by Haynes v. US (1968), the 1966 mass shooting at University of Texas and the assassination of important people in the 1960s that included John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jnr and Robert F. Kennedy (ProCon.org, 2016). GCA regulates selling and transfer of guns between states.

In 1986, the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act that revised some prior gun laws was enacted. The act allowed dealers to sell guns to addresses not registered on licenses and curtailed the number of inspections without a warrant that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives can perform. The act also prohibited the federal government from keeping gun dealer records and the dealers did not have to keep records of ammunition sales (Loesch, 2014).

The 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act that applied to states without alternate background check systems required licensed sellers to wait for five days before handing over a gun to unlicensed persons. This was not only for background check but to ensure there were no crimes of passion. Now there is instant background check system that takes a maximum of three days if there are problems, with gun owners that have federal firearms licenses or state-issued permits being exempt from the waiting period (Spitzer, 2015).

The NRA successfully lobbied for non-renewal of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban that President Bill Clinton signed into law on September 13, 1994 and expired in September 13, 2004.  The ban had outlawed 19 models and makes of semi-automatic assault weapons and large-capacity magazines (Cook and Goss, 2014).

Modern laws

President George W. Bush signed into law on October 26, 2005 the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act and Child Safety Lock Act. This gives firearms manufacturers immunity in a range of civil liability, with responsibility for safety being shifted to individuals and families. All handguns must have a “secure gun storage or safety device” according to the Child Safety Lock Act (Loesch, 2014).

In 2007, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Improvement Amendments Act was enacted to incentivize states to provide NICS with information, including information about firearms purchase prohibitions. Following the 2007 Virginia Technical University shooting , the NCIS Act was amended on January 8, 2008 to enable the Attorney General easily and quickly important background check information (ProCon.org, 2016).

To make gun ownership safer, President Barack Obama signed new executive actions on January 5, 2016 that took effect immediately. These included expansion of background checks, more human and financial resources  to various gun control and safety programs and enhanced tracking of gun trafficking and theft (Cook and Goss, 2014).

Each state has its own gun laws with 43 of the 50 states having the “right to bear arms” in their constitutions, with California having the strictest gun laws while Arizona has the most lenient (Cook and Goss, 2014). Most state gun laws are concerned with background checks, waiting periods and licensee and buyer registration. Most states prohibit carrying of guns in certain areas (e.g. schools, campuses and parks) while some have banned assault weapons.   The “shoot first” law applies in many states.

The Supreme Court

The US Supreme Court repeatedly upheld the collective right to own rights as enshrined in the Second Amendment, hence by implication allowing states to form militia and to regulate gun use. However, in 2008, the Supreme Court upheld the individual right to own a gun in the DC versus Heller ruling, noting limitations such as “the right of citizens to carry arms for any sort of confrontation” (Loesch, 2014). Further, the Supreme Court extended the provisions of the individual rights in the Second Amendment to the states via the Due Process Clause contained in the Fourteenth Amendment, via the 2010 ruling of McDonald versus Chicago.  In the Voisine versus United States ruling of 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that someone can be disqualified from owning a gun because of “garden-variety assault or battery misdemeanors” (ProCon.org, 2016).

The National Rifle Association (NRA)

The National Rifle Association was founded by Colonel William C. Church and General George Wingate on November 17, 1871 to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis” with the aim of improving marksmanship among Civil War Union troops (Spitzer, 2015). In 1977, after the “Revolt at Cincinnati,” NRA bylaws were changed to focus on protection of the Second Amendment.  NRA successfully lobbied against the Gun Control Act of 1968 leading to the Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986.

When the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) funded a study that found that having a gun at home increased homicide risk, NRA accused CDC of “promoting the idea that gun ownership was a disease that needed to be eradicated”. It successfully lobbied against politically motivated studies leading to the Dickey Amendment that deducted from the budget of CDC the exact amount ($2.6 billion) of the gun research program (Spitzer, 2015). All federal gun research was henceforth stopped.

NRA actively lobbies for self-defense or the “stand your ground” laws and against gun checks and registration, magazine and weapon bans and gun ownership prohibition even for those on terrorist lists. It also lobbies against firearms tracing, ballistic fingerprinting and smart features on guns. With an approximate membership of 3 million, its spending budget in 2013 was $290.6 million. In 2014, it spent $3.36 million to lobby the Congress, Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, National Park Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (ProCon.org, 2016).

Gun control lobby

There are also gun control lobby groups that can be traced to the founding of the National Center to Control Handguns (NCCH) by Professor Mark Borinsky in 1974. A victim of armed robbery, Borinsky grew NCCH with help from N T Shields whose son had been shot and killed in 1975 as well as a retired CIA officer, Edward O Welles (Cook and Goss, 2014). NCCH became the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence with a similar organization, the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, became the Brady Center to Prevent Handgun Violence. The two organizations are collectively referred to as the Brady Campaign, named after Jim Brady, President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary who was shot and disabled in an attempt to assassinate the President on March 30, 1981.

Read also Explaining Gun Violence Using Durkheim’s Social Facts

Other gun control lobby groups include Americans for Responsible Solutions, Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Everytown for Gun Safety, Sandy Hook Promise, and Violence Policy Center. These groups lobby the Congress, Department of Justice, the Executive, the Vice Presidency, the White House and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Their spending budget in 2013 was $13.7 million, less than 5% of NRA’s budget (ProCon.org, 2016).

The Gun Debate

Apart from during the election period, the gun debate becomes heated after a major mass shooting with gun opponents wanting more laws to curb mass shootings, enhance background checks and stricter registration requirements. Gun proponents however accuse gun opponents of utilizing a tragedy for a lost cause. They point out that more laws will not prevent the shootings. A Pew Research Center survey published on December 10, 2014 found that 52% of Americans wanted protection of the right to own guns with 46% wanting gun ownership control, a shift from 1993 when 34% wanted protection of gun rights with 57% wanting gun ownership control (ProCon.org, 2016). This is a trend I support for the following reasons.

Guns and the law

The US Constitution is the supreme governing law in the land. Individual and collective gun ownership is protected in the Second Amendment of the US Constitution that 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” (Cook and Goss, 2014).

Owning guns in America has existed even before formation of the country. Gun control laws would infringe on the right to bear firearms as enshrined in the constitution. The Second Amendment, especially with regard to individual rights to own guns, is bolstered by the Supreme Court ruling of June 26, 2008 in District of Columbia et al. versus Heller where Justice Antonin Scalia stated the majority opinion that “The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home” and in The McDonald versus City of Chicago ruling that asserted the Second Amendment bestows individual gun ownership rights (Loesch, 2014).

To maintain liberty, freedoms are enshrined in the Bill of Rights. These include freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom to own and bear arms. The government should not encroach on these freedoms.

Guns and crime

To deter crime, governments should encourage gun ownership rather than gun control. Gun ownership doubled in the twentieth century yet murder rates decreased. Assault weapon bans in various states between 1980 and 2009 “did not significantly affect murder rates” and “states with restrictions on the carrying of concealed weapons had higher gun-related murders” according to a study published on November 26, 2013 (Spitzer, 2015).

Gun control does not prevent criminals from getting guns or breaking the law. Criminals ignore gun control laws, just as they ignore other laws. Omar Mateen, the alleged Orlando attacker, and Mainak Sarkar, the UCLA gunman had both passed gun background checks. 49 shooters in 62 mass shootings between 1982 and 2012 used guns that were obtained legally whether by themselves, family or friends. A May 2013 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics stated that 37.4% of state prison inmates who “used, carried, or possessed a firearm when they committed the crime for which they were serving a prison sentence” got the gun from family or friend (Spitzer, 2015). Yet gun control laws affect the law-abiding citizens who abide by them.

Professor John R. Lott, Jr stated that, “states with the largest increases in gun ownership also have the largest drops in violent crimes…When states passed these laws, the number of multiple-victim shootings declined by 84%. Deaths from these shootings plummeted on average by 90% and injuries by 82%” (ProCon.org, 2016).

Moreover 57% people in a 2014 Pew survey believe having a gun protects them from victimization (Spitzer, 2015). Criminals with weapons fear retaliation from victims with weapons. Guns cannot be the preserve of outlaws.

In countries with strict gun control it has been observed that robbery and assault cases go up. For example, robbery in England, Denmark Finland, Poland, Scotland and Sweden has been consistently higher than in the United States (Blocher, 2013). The BBC noted that in the decade after all private possession of handguns was banned, the number of gun crimes actually rose sharply.

Guns and self-defense

“Stand your ground” instils a sense of safety among people. Protection cannot be left to the police alone; everybody has a responsibility to protect themselves, families and fellow citizens. With gun control laws, there is no sense of safety since the right to self-defense is infringed. Yet guns are used in the country for self-defense 2.5 million times a year according to the NRA (Spitzer, 2015).

Professor Nelson Lund at George Mason University School of Law avers that “The right to self-defense and to the means of defending oneself is a basic natural right that grows out of the right to life” and “many (gun control laws) interfere with the ability of law-abiding citizens to defend themselves against violent criminals” (ProCon.org, 2016). 37 states have the right to have arms for self-defense in their constitutions.

A May 9, 2013 survey found out that 48% of convicted felons avoided committing crimes if they were aware the victim had a gun. 80% of gun owners and 64% of people living with gun owners felt safer (Cook and Goss, 2014).

Guns and sport

Banning “assault weapons,” infringes on the right to own guns for sport and hunting. This is an industry of about 14 million hunters who spent $7.7 billion in 2011 on sights, guns and other hunting equipment.  32% of gun owners in 2013 had them for hunting and 8% owned them for target or sport shooting, according to a Pew Research (Loesch, 2014). The National Shooting Sports Foundation notes that the “assault weapons” are likely to be less powerful than other more common hunting rifles such as high-powered semiautomatic rifles and shotguns. For example, the Colt AR-15 and Springfield M1A rifles that are the most common in marksman competition have standard hunting caliber cartridges.

Guns and government

Federal and state governments can become tyrannical by imposing gun control laws. This is by the government having too much power over the people by taking away their guns. Having lived under the tyranny of King George, America’s founding fathers must have wanted to guarantee that future citizens would never experience a tyrannical government (Loesch, 2014).

Government action in gun control is evident in such states as California, New Jersey and New York. These states started with modest gun control measures before graduating to enacting stricter laws. This is despite surveys showing oscillation in opinions about gun ownership and control. Such governments gradually interfere will all individual and communal freedoms, becoming tyrannical in nature.

Guns and privacy

Gun background checks and micro-stamping invade on an individual’s privacy through maintenance of government databases with people’s details such as names, addresses, medical records, criminal records, gun codes, etc. The information could then be used for unintended purposes such as government surveillance (Cook and Goss, 2014).

Guns and death rates

CDC’s “Leading Causes of Death Reports” covering the period 1999 to 2013, relatively few people are killed by guns compared to other causes of death. 9.7 million Americans died from heart diseases (21.5 times), 8.5 of malignant tumors (18.7 times) and over 1 million of diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease (2.3 times). Other deadlier killers than firearms include flu and related pneumonia, traffic accidents and poisoning. Firearms were used in 464,033 deaths (1.3% of deaths), ranking twelfth on the list. Despite Americans owning the most guns internationally, the United States was ranked twenty eighth internationally in 2012 homicide rates with 2.97 murders per 100,000 people (Loesch, 2014).

And there have been terrible mass shootings too in countries that have strict gun control laws. These multiple deaths have occurred in such places as Switzerland, Germany, France and Norway. 

Guns and suicide

Suicides are not prevented by reduced gun ownership. The country with the highest suicide data in 1999 from available data is Lithuania (45.06 per 100,000 people), yet it has the lowest gun ownership. Japan (18.41 per 100,000) and South Korea (12.63 per 100,000) also have high suicide rates and low gun ownership rates. Despite having the highest gun ownership rate, United States ranked twenty sixth in terms of suicide rates (12.3 per 100,000 people) (Loesch, 2014). Hence the idea that having more gun control laws would reduce the suicide rate is a fallacy.

Guns and education

As oft cited, guns do not kill people, people kill people. What is needed is not more gun control but more education about guns and their safety. Education and illness screening will curb mass shooting. As the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute, Inc (SAAMI) notes, “Whether in the field, at the range or in the home, a responsible and knowledgeable gun owner is rarely involved in a firearms accident of any kind” (Cook and Goss, 2014).

NRA’s Eddie Eagle program “promote(s) the protection and safety of children… (with guns) treated simply as a fact of everyday life” (ProCon.org, 2016). Kyle Wintersteen, managing editor of Guns and Ammo, observed that studies show that “children taught about firearms and their legitimate uses by family members have much lower rates of delinquency than children in households without guns” and “children introduced to guns associate them with freedom, security, and recreation – not violence” (ProCon.org, 2016).

Guns and invaders

Gun ownership ensures the citizenry can protect themselves from foreign invaders, with gun control laws diminishing this ability. As noted by the Libertarian Party “A responsible, well-armed and trained citizenry is the best protection against domestic crime and the threat of foreign invasion” (ProCon.org, 2016). This is averred by politicians with Marco Rubio, a 2016 Republican presidential candidate stating that “If God forbid, ISIS visits our life, our neighborhood, our school, any part of us, the last thing standing, the last line of defense could very well be our ability to protect ourselves” (ProCon.org, 2016).

Guns  and sales

Gun control laws cannot curb sales of guns. People, especially criminals, will still be able to acquire the weapons despite the strictest laws. Despite some of the strictest gun control laws in the world, Mexico had a higher homicide rate in 2012 of 9.97 gun homicides per 100,000 people than the US that had 2.97 gun homicides per 100,000. This is regardless of the fact that Mexico has one legal gun store known as the Directorate of Arms and Munitions Sales that is located on a secure military base with the strict laws requiring a customer approved after tough background checks to buy only one gun that is lower or equal in power to a .38 caliber pistol and one box of ammunition. This is as compared to the nearly 64,000 gun stores and pawn shops in the US as of February 2014. Yet Mexicans own about 15 million guns (Loesch, 2014).

This proves that strict gun control laws do not translate to less gun ownership. Tougher controls could lead to stealing or borrowing of guns. Other guns would be got through straw purchases. Dangerous people cannot be prevented from getting guns by enhanced background checks and or waiting-period laws.

Guns and racism

Laws that control guns are racist by tradition and current application. Traditionally the laws targeted Native Americans, indentured servants and slaves. Prior to the Civil War, blacks could not carry guns. Following Virginia’s Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831 where slaves killed about 60 people, a law that prohibited free black people “to keep or carry any firelock of any kind, any military weapon, or any powder or lead” was passed (Blocher, 2013). After the Civil War, the KKK was founded later to enforce gun control so as to check revolt among blacks. Further, the gun laws enacted in the late 1960s targeted the militant, gun-carrying Black Panthers. Currently the laws target the perceived dangerous people living in inner cities who include poor black and Latino communities (Blocher, 2013). Such discriminatory laws should not have a place in modern America.

Guns and militia

All able-bodied men between 17 and 45 years in the United States and women in the National Guard are supposed to have guns so that they can participate in a militia to keep the peace and defend the country. Hence these adult men and women should not have their rights to own a firearm infringed, as granted by the 1792 federal law and the Second Amendment (Cook and Goss, 2014).

Daniel J. Schultz, a lawyer, observed that, “‘well-regulated’ militias, that is, armed citizens, ready to form militias that would be well trained, self-regulated and disciplined would pose no threat to their fellow citizens, but would, indeed, help to ‘insure domestic tranquility’ and ‘provide for the common defense'” (Loesch, 2014).

Guns and law inefficacy

Efforts to control gun ownership are not effective, with there being no correlation between waiting periods and robbery or murder rates. Selling of high-capacity magazines does not necessarily increase the murder rates since small guns can effectively do the same damage. Commercial gun dealers who sell most of their guns at shows are bound by federal laws and hence there is no “gun show loophole”. A Lancet study published on March 10, 2016 found out that “state-level gun control laws do not reduce firearm death rates, and, of 25 state laws, nine were associated with higher gun death rates” (ProCon.org, 2016).

Guns and location

If guns are bad, most mass shootings would occur in places where guns are allowed. Yet many mass shootings have occurred in gun-free zones. This include the Orlando attack where about fifty people died, the Umpqua Community College attack that left nine dead, the Chattanooga military offices attack with five fatalities, the DC Navy Yard attack with twelve fatalities, two Fort Hood attacks that left sixteen dead, the Sandy Hook Elementary attack that killed twenty six, the Aurora movie theater attack that killed twelve people and the Virginia Tech campus attack that killed thirty two people (Web search, 2017).

Yet, in a Mississippi high school, an armed school administrator stopped a shooter at the school. There is an armed merchant who prevented more deaths in a high school in Pennsylvania. It is not unlikely that many lives would have been saved if the attacks were not at gun-free zones. Responsible armed people would have deterred the attackers before the fatalities escalated.

Conclusion

Gun control laws are of no benefit to individuals or communities. They disarm the “good guy” (law-abiding citizen) and empower the “bad guy” (criminal). Guns are useful as a deterrent and for self-defense. Moreover, guns are historical and cultural in the American psyche with guns having been totted in these lands before formation of the country. There are ways guns can be made safer. One way is education of the populace about gun handling and safety. That guns are used a lot in domestic disputes and are leading causes of homicide and suicide cases mean there is need for more awareness about importance of guns for both men and women.

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