Few topics in the realm of U.S. justice and politics elicit a more polarizing response than that of gun control. Issues in gun policy range from the moral to the practical, with implications for law, economics, public health, and a host of other disciplines. At the center of the debate is the fundamental question of whether firearms, specifically those owned and wielded by private citizens, do more harm than good in deterring violent crime. Despite intense scrutiny from so many fields, however, scholars have reached few solid conclusions to date. The answers to even basic questions (who is victimized, how many are victimized, and at what cost are they victimized) are fiercely disputed, resulting in a nebulous yet hotly contested understanding of the interplay between guns and crime.
U.S. gun policy is a complex and difficult issue characterized roughly by its two diametrical sides: the pro-gun (or gun rights) camp, which argues that guns are a constitutionally protected social necessity, and the anti-gun (or gun control) camp, which asserts that guns are a fundamentally unsafe and extremely costly means to facilitate a variety of social ills. Data exist to support both sides; the difficulty lies in separating partisanship and underlying attitudes from empirical observation and objective analysis. In truth, the isolation of such objectivity may be a logical impossibility.
II. Legal Developments
III. Important Perspectives
Outside the United States, guns are sometimes a contentious issue, but rarely at the level witnessed here. Many Westernized nations feature tighter controls on private firearm ownership, particularly for certain types of weapons that could, in the view of their governments, be more readily used to facilitate crime. Australia, for example, experienced a period with relatively little gun regulation prior to the 1980s and 1990s, when a series of high-profile shooting incidents incited progressively harsher reform. Now, guns in Australia are tightly controlled, with restrictions on ownership based on the category of firearm and the evaluation of so-called genuine need on the part of the possessor. Although some low-level debate remains over gun control policies in other countries, there is a veritable firestorm of political, academic, and litigious action on all sides of the gun control issue in the United States.
This issue begins with the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment. Broadly, the amendment is concerned with security through self-defense; the key difference between the gun rights and gun control perspectives lies with precisely who is entitled to self- defense and how that defense is to be manifested.
Supporters of gun rights believe that the Second Amendment applies to individual-level possession of firearms, whereas supporters of gun control argue that the intent was to provide for the formation and readiness of peacekeeping forces such as the army or state militias. (Since the federal Militia Act of 1903, individual state militias have been organized into the National Guard and have been tasked with supplementing army units overseas and providing domestic support in relief of natural disasters.) In the former perspective, the right and responsibility of self-defense carries an individualistic connotation. In the latter, self-defense is provided for generally by the state, through publicly governed mechanisms such as police, who are entrusted with powers of arrest and tasked with maintaining order. Additional points concerning the amendment have also been debated and promoted, including the right to rebel against government tyranny.
At present, the prevailing attitude in the United States asserts the gun rights perspective—that the Second Amendment protects and guarantees individual possession. Gun rights supporters, particularly the National Rifle Association (NRA), endorse the interpretation that a “well regulated militia,” as quoted in the amendment, refers to an armed populace and not only to governmental bodies such as the U.S. Army or National Guard. The NRA, founded in 1871, is the oldest continuously operating civil liberties organization in the United States. It is also, perhaps more significantly, one of the largest and best-funded lobbying organizations in the United States today. Beginning with a more conservative shift in the late 1970s, the NRA has championed laws that promote gun rights and emphasize gun safety for millions of shooting enthusiasts. The opinion about gun rights and the Second Amendment is consistently reflected in public opinion polls on gun ownership. For example, a Gallup poll conducted in 2008 demonstrated that 73 percent of respondents believed that the wording of the Second Amendment indicates a guarantee of private ownership as well as the formation of state militias (Gallup 2008).
Legal opinion on the gun control issue seems divided, with both sides claiming victory. In some instances, both pro- and anti-gun advocates claim victory in the very same case. The case of United States v. Miller (1930), for example, is cited by the Brady Campaign (2007) as evidence of the courts’ interpretation in favor of gun possession by militia members only, whereas the same case is cited by the NRA (Tahmassebi 2000) as evidence of support for the constitutional guarantee of individual ownership. Dozens of other contradictory instances may be found in federal and circuit court opinions dating back more than a century.
The use and control of firearms in the United States has traditionally been approached from a fundamentally permissive position, with individual ownership largely unregulated. Notable exceptions to this position exist for the nature and type of firearm, the characteristics of its owner, and the provisions of its transfer—all factors that are monitored by the government. A series of federal laws have provided the framework for this means of gun control in the United States since the Prohibition era. The first and perhaps most influential of these laws was the National Firearms Act of 1934, which placed severe limitations on individuals who wished to own small arms and accessories that were generally assumed to facilitate violent crime. Among the regulated items covered in the act were sound suppressors (or silencers), destructive devices such as hand grenades, short-barreled rifl es and shotguns, and fully automatic machine guns. The act makes the unlicensed possession or transfer of such items a criminal offense punishable by up to 10 years in federal prison and/or a substantial monetary fine plus forfeiture of all items that violate the act. The National Firearms Act has remained in effect, largely unaltered, and has enjoyed bipartisan support for more than 70 years—a remarkable feat, given the frequency of legal challenges to legislative gun control.
Specific forms of gun control in the United States have also been enacted through laws intended to supplement the National Firearms Act of 1934. One such provision, the Gun Control Act of 1968 (Chapter 44 of Title 18, U.S. Code), was established following the high-profile assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. This act provided tighter regulation of interstate commerce dealing with firearms, established the Federal Firearms License program to prevent individuals from purchasing guns through direct mail order or from out-of-state dealers, and mandated that all firearms produced in or imported into the United States bear a serial number for identification purposes.
Certain provisions of the Gun Control Act of 1968 were later clarified and amended in the Gun Owners Protection Act of 1986 (18 U.S.C. § 921 et seq.). This legislation featured several key decisions favoring gun rights supporters. First, it included a formal prohibition of governmental registries linking private guns to individuals. Second, it offered protection for federal firearms licensees from “abusive” inspections on the part of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Th ird, it established a “safe passage” clause for gun owners traveling to and from legal shooting-related sporting events, effectively immunizing them from prosecution for possession or transportation of firearms outside their home jurisdictions. Finally and most critically, the act also clarified the list of persons denied private firearm ownership on public safety grounds, such as individuals who are fugitives from justice or those who have been adjudicated to be mentally ill. An amendment was added in 1996 (the Lautenberg Amendment) to prevent ownership for those who have been convicted of domestic violence and those subject to court-issued restraining orders.
Additional restrictions on gun ownership have been imposed since the Gun Owners Protection Act of 1986. In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act (18 U.S.C. § 921 et seq.) into law. The act was named for former Ronald Reagan Press Secretary James Brady, who was wounded in an assassination attempt by John Hinckley Jr. in 1981. It established a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases involving a federal firearms licensee (dealer) and a private individual (customer). The waiting period was intended to provide an opportunity for criminal background checks on the purchaser, but this system was replaced in 1998 with the establishment of the computerized National Instant Check System (NICS). NICS provides the same functionality but takes only minutes instead of days, thus preserving the original intent of the Brady Act while streamlining its implementation.
Nevertheless, gaps were found in the system in the wake of a deadly mass shooting carried out by Seung-Hui Cho, a Korean American student, on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, in April 2007. Cho was known to have a history of serious mental illness and, as such, should have been prevented from purchasing firearms. After the shooting (in which 32 people died), Congress acted to strengthen NICS by ensuring that any prohibiting information regarding the status of a person with a psychiatric condition be made available during the background check process. The NICS Improvement Act was signed into law in January 2008.
For its part, the U.S. Supreme Court, until its 2010 McDonald v. Chicago decision, had never ruled on whether the Second Amendment addresses a fundamental individual right to possess firearms at the state level. The closest the Court had come to judgment on this issue was in a 2008 case, District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), which centered on the right of an individual to bear arms inside the U.S. federal district (Washington, DC). In that case, a District of Columbia law that banned persons from owning handguns (pistols) and automatic and semiautomatic weapons, and that required any firearms (rifles) held inside the home to have trigger locks was declared unconstitutional. Gun rights proponents proclaimed the ruling a major victory, while gun control advocates lamented it even while observing that it was narrowly worded.
Hence the importance of Mcdonald (2010) in clarifying matters. In that case, Chicago firearms restrictions similar to those previously put in place in Washington, DC, were put to the test by gun rights advocates. A Court of Appeals had upheld the restrictions, and when the case came to the Supreme Court it was initially expected that the justices might limit the scope of their ruling to the Chicago ban and its constitutionality. However, the conservative majority on the Court used the McDonald case to address the deeper issue of Second Amendment rights and their applicability to the states. In its 5–4 decision, the Court stated that the Second Amendment is to be regarded (under the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause guaranteeing individual freedoms and protections) as ensuring the individual’s right to bear arms. The opinion noted that certain firearms restrictions mentioned in the Heller case, such as those “prohibit[ing] . . . the possession of firearms by felons or mentally ill” as well as “laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms,” remain valid and are not affected by the McDonald ruling (McDonald v. Chicago 2010). But wholesale bans on guns in cities or other localities and burdensome restrictions on their access and use by individuals are prohibited under McDonald.
Groups and individuals who espouse a gun rights outlook are quick to highlight the apparent positive value of gun possession through the use of statistics on defensive gun use. In 1991, criminologist Gary Kleck argued that defensive use is widely successful: individuals with guns are more likely to prevent the completion of the attempted crime and are less likely to become injured during the event. However, the nature and extent of defensive use is hotly contested. Kleck and colleague Marc Gertz claim that defensive use is underreported, estimating as many as 2.5 million overall defensive gun uses per year (1995), whereas critics claim that the actual number is much smaller (owing to sampling and methodological biases), perhaps around 100,000 overall defensive gun uses per year (Cook, Ludwig, and Hemenway 1997). This disagreement is typical of competing research on gun policy.
Proponents of a strict gun control model point to evidence of the various gun-related costs borne by society. One of those costs may include an increased risk of victimization that accompanies gun possession. The use of firearms accounts for the second highest total of nonnatural deaths in the United States (behind motor vehicle accidents), and the overall homicide rate in the United States is significantly greater than that in other industrialized nations (McClurg, Kopel, and Denning 2002). The exact magnitude of the inequity is a matter of which set of statistics one chooses to use. Given the high prevalence of firearm-related homicide, one might presume that gun possession could pose a direct victimization risk if legal guns were used against their owners during the commission of a crime. The number and availability of stolen guns, which are frequently instrumental in the commission of violent crime, may also indirectly influence victimization risk for the rest of the population.
Costs may also be economic in nature. For groups concerned primarily about the costs rather than the benefits of guns, the debate over gun control has spilled over into disciplines such as public health, which has a unique perspective and responsibility as typical first responders to gun violence. The financial burden for emergency response, hospital care, and opportunity costs from lost wages due to gunshot injuries is enormous—around $2 billion by some estimates (Cook and Ludwig 2000, 65). Some researchers have begun to regard gun violence as analogous to a public health epidemic, best visualized with epidemiological models showing patterns of spatial distribution (Fagan, Zimring, and Kim 1998), similar to the spread of diseases such as influenza and requiring a similar mobilization of public resources to combat. Self-inflicted injuries carry a cost as well; gun-control advocates note that the prevalence of self-inflicted gunshots in the United States drives the overall trend in gun deaths, with more than 50 percent of gun-related deaths attributable to suicide (Cook and Ludwig 2000, 16–18).
In the 1990s, a well-organized movement, backed financially and philosophically by the NRA, began to generate grassroots support for “concealed carry” legislation. These laws require government officials to issue licenses to people who wish to carry concealed weapons, absent compelling reasons for denial (e.g., a history of mental illness, substance abuse problems, outstanding warrants, etc.); that is, such a license would be issued to anyone who applied and met minimum state-imposed criteria. Notably missing from the application process is an evaluation of the individual’s need to carry a weapon, a controversial part of the concealed-carry debate. Proponents of these laws believe that the mechanism for private citizens to obtain licenses to carry concealed firearms would translate into a general deterrence of violent crime. In other words, more guns on the street would equal more opportunity for self-defense.
An interesting resource for the concealed-carry movement was John Lott Jr.’s book More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun-Control Laws (Lott 1998). The book provides complex statistical analyses of the impact of shall-issue permitting laws on violent crime using 15 years of crime rate data for all counties in the United States. Lott reaches the conclusion that the adoption of shall-issue permitting laws results in a decrease for key violent crime rates such as homicide and rape, whereas the laws apparently cause small increases in less serious crime such as larceny and auto theft. He surmises that criminals behave in a manner consistent with rational motives, and increases in general deterrence (leading to the more widespread use of legally concealed weapons) trigger a change in specialization for career criminals. Lott also concludes that suicide and accident rates related to firearms are unaffected by shall-issue laws.
Despite the complex methodology and expansive data used in the analysis, Lott’s conclusions in More Guns, Less Crime failed to convince some academics. A series of critical reviews of Lott’s book appeared almost immediately in scholarly journals and the popular press. For example, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University reanalyzed Lott’s original data in an effort to identify trends that could skew his results (Black and Nagin 1998). This reanalysis omitted a single state, Florida, which was hypothesized to bias Lott’s original conclusions owing to a period of high violence from the international drug trade and instability regarding intensive legislative actions to control guns. The effect of removing Florida from the analysis was dramatic: nearly all effects of shall-issue laws on violent crime rates became nonsignificant.
The issue of gun ownership is unlikely to become less controversial in the near term. Indeed, the debates about the true benefits and costs of guns may continue for generations. The future of private gun possession in the United States is, to this point, a matter of constitutional entitlement. On a positive note, many key issues dealing with gun control that work on a nonpartisan basis (e.g., possession bans for the mentally ill) seem to enjoy a popular consensus in the United States and elsewhere. This may prove to be a philosophical common ground if comprehensive and balanced gun control reform is ever attempted.
On a more practical level, the issue of whether gun control has an effect on crime is largely unsettled. Evidence suggests that there may be a positive benefit of gun ownership in terms of lawful self-defense and deterrent value under certain circumstances and when the analyses are conducted using certain types of data. Contradictory evidence suggests that violent victimization rates increase with gun ownership and that guns carry a heavy societal price tag. Accelerated population growth, the rising cost of health care, and the expansion of certain political agendas suggest that the societal cost of guns may rise in the near future. Although violent crime may be generally in decline, gun crime may rise in certain segments of the population that are most at risk, including minorities and young males. The precise nature of the increase and the appropriate policy response will be fiercely contentious issues.
- Black D., and D. Nagin, “Do Right-to-Carry Laws Deter Violent Crime?” Journal of Legal Studies 27, no. 1 (1998): 209–219.
- Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, http://www.bradycampaign.org/
- Burbick, Joan, Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy. New York: New Press, 2006.
- Cook, Philip J., and Jens Ludwig, Gun Violence: The Real Costs. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Cook, Philip J., Jens Ludwig, Jens and David Hemenway, “The Gun Debate’s New Mythical Number: How Many Defensive Uses per Year?” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 16, no. 3 (1997): 463–469.
- Crooker, Constance E., Gun Control and Gun Rights. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003. District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. (2008).
- Doherty, Brian, Gun Control on Trial: Inside the Supreme Court Battle over the Second Amendment. Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2009.
- Fagan, J., F. Zimring, and J. Kim, “Declining Homicide in New York City: A Tale of Two Trends.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 88, no. 4 (1998): 1277–1307.
- Gallup, “Public Believes Americans Have Right to Own Guns.” March 27, 2008. http://www.gallup.com/poll/105721/public-believes-americans-right-own-guns.aspx.
- Hemenway, David, Private Guns, Public Health. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006.
- Kleck, Gary, and M. Gertz, “Armed Resistance to Crime: The Prevalence and Nature of Self- Defense with a Gun.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 86, no. 1 (1995): 150–182.
- Kleck, Gary, Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America. New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1991.
- Lautenberg Amendment, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(8).
- Lott, John R., Jr., More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun-Control Laws, 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
- Ludwig, Jens, and Philip J. Cook, Evaluating Gun Policy: Effects on Crime and Violence. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2003.
- McClurg, Andrew, David B. Kopel, and Brannon Denning, eds., Gun Control and Gun Rights: A Reader and Guide. New York: New York University Press, 2002.
- McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U.S. ___ (2010).
- Melzer, Scott, Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
- National Rifl e Association Institute for Legislative Action, “The Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Firearms Ownership in America” (2006). http://www.nraila.org/news-issues/articles/2009/the-constitution,-bill-of-rights,-and-f.aspx.
- Spitzer, Robert J., Gun Control: A Documentary and Reference Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2009.