by Ralph Scharnau
The gun-control debate has emerged as one of the most contentious in American politics, pitting proponents of regulation against gun-rights advocates. Behind all of this is the Second Amendment.
Ten years ago, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion in a sharply divided (4-3) decision on a Second Amendment case. Although the Amendment was written in the context of “a well-regulated militia,” Scalia’s landmark opinion upheld an individual right to possess a firearm.
The right, he wrote, “is not an unlimited right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” Scalia affirmed the appropriateness of prohibiting firearms in schools and government buildings.
Firearms in the United States number about 310 million, roughly equal to the nation’s population. Our country’s privately held weapons per capita far exceeds that of any other country. More American civilians have died by gunfire in the last decade than all of the American combat deaths during the Second World War.
These statistics reveal a gun culture in the United States where people usually direct gunfire at each other, not the state. Thus violence becomes a matter of cultural conflict rather than political conflict. American history provides many examples of violent domestic behavior directed at immigrants, workers, and non-Europeans as well as Catholics, Muslims, and certain non-Christians.
Acquiring guns in America is often easier than buying certain over-the-counter pain medicines. Most of the injuries and deaths come when people turn weapons on people they know, relatives and friends who often live in the same household.
Crime is less a concern now as the murder rate has fallen sharply since the sixties. But mass shootings have become frighteningly common. Anyone, or anyone’s child, could be a victim, at a school, a concert, a church, a movie theatre, or a nightclub.
The National Rifle Association uses its enormous lobbying power to stymie legislative debate and block most constructive gun legislation. Thus even very moderate provisions fail to pass or even get out of committee.
Over the last several years, the spate of horrific murders and mass killings have resulted in the formation of multiracial and inclusive youth-led groups, like Black Lives Matter and Never Again, that want gun-control legislation. Today the gun control movement draws its energy from these young people who organize meetings, demonstrations, pickets, and engage in other forms of activism at the local, county, district, region, state and federal levels.
According to a new CNN poll, seven in ten favor tighter gun laws. This includes 57% of gun owners as well as majorities across gender, race and age categories. Stricter laws garner varying support among political parties: Democrats (93%), Independents (64%), and Republicans (49%).
The leadership of the groups addressing endemic gun violence have pushed a variety of gun-control measures. These include background checks on all gun sales and transfers, including those sold by dealers, on the internet, and at gun shows. Other regulations include registration of all firearms and licensing of gun owners, limiting magazine capacity and reinstating the congressional ban on assault weapons, and adopting age limitations for gun use.
Easy access to firearms results in accidents, suicides, and murders. The appalling frequency of gun violence poses a public health crisis. Yet, Congress has failed to fund research into the causes of gun violence.
Passage of meaningful gun control measures remains largely unfulfilled. Perhaps the new youth-led movement will convince Congress of the need to enact gun safety legislation and thereby save lives.