With the Sandy Hook shooting painfully heavy on our minds, the American public and policymakers are in a frenzy over guns.
Record-sized crowds are attending gun shows, firearms manufacturers can’t produce inventory fast enough to keep up with demand, and gun sellers are sold out of everything from rifles to handguns.
Meanwhile, politicians are in a tizzy, too. Bill Clinton, invited to speak by Samsung at the prestigious tech conference CES, turned a speech on bridging the tech gap between the rich and the poor into a rant against 30-round gun clips. Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor and a presumed aspirant for the Democratic nomination for president, after musing about gun confiscation earlier in the week, said he would “(e)nact the toughest assault weapon ban in the nation, period!” To cap it all, Vice President Joe Biden is hinting that President Barack Obama will use an executive order to impose new gun controls. “There are executive orders,” the vice president said, “executive action that can be taken.”
On one side of the debate are a lot of Americans concerned that agents of the government will show up at their door to confiscate their rightfully owned guns. On the other side are politicians who are eager to be seen doing something, anything, to show their voters, or perhaps just each other, that they will keep mass shootings from happening again. To keep Sandy Hook from happening again. Or Aurora. Or Virginia Tech. Or Columbine.
It’s a legitimate concern. Not even the most hardened soul can watch a tragedy like Sandy Hook unfold and not wonder why and wish that something could be done.
But does more gun regulation actually diminish gun violence? In a speech where he called for the toughest gun laws in the country, Gov. Cuomo seemed to think that tough laws would protect the public, even while allowing hunters to retain firearms for hunting.
Just to remind everyone what we are talking about here, it’s the Second Amendment, not some out-of-date federal regulation, and the Second Amendment was not designed for hunters.
The second in the Bill of Rights, it says that “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.”
Arguments for limiting the extent of the Second Amendment — or infringement — are often made by referencing how many bullets are necessary for hunting. “No one hunts with an assault rifle,” said Mr. Cuomo. “We respect hunters and sportsmen. This is not taking away peoples’ guns. I own a gun. I own a Remington shotgun. I’ve hunted. I’ve shot. That’s not what this is about.”
While the Second Amendment is often closely tied to hunting and self-defense in our minds, the Second Amendment is not about hunting, and maybe not even self-defense, for that matter. At least not self-defense from criminals.
In United States v. Miller, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that the Second Amendment protected an individual's right to own guns that could be used for the “common defense.” Specifically, the Supreme Court said that “ordinarily when called for service (men in the militia) were expected to appear bearing arms supplied by themselves and of the kind in common use at the time.”
Common for infantry at the time were muskets. Common for infantry in our time is the AR-15, a civilian version of the Army’s M-16.
Later references to the case — there are seven, according to Mitch Felling, who provides a more thorough history of the Second Amendment at Publius Online — have upheld the right of the people to possess guns that would be used by infantrymen to provide for the “common defense.” District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008 provided the first thorough review of the Second Amendment since Miller and protected the right of individuals to keep guns for self-defense, too.
But does anyone really need to have an assault rifle? Do we need rifles that can fire 30 rounds without reloading?
Perhaps we should ask the question a different way. Would taking away the right to own assault rifles stop or diminish gun violence?
The researchers at PoliticIt compared murder by firearm rates across the country with the strictness of state gun regulations. Their ranking of states by the strictness of gun regulations gives California the strictest gun laws, while Utah ranks 50th because it has the least-restrictive regulations on gun ownership.
A graph by PoliticIt shows the correlation between gun regulations in each state with the reduction of homicide by firearms. The correlation is so low, they said, that it can reasonably be concluded that gun laws have “little to no effect on the reduction of murders by firearms.”
In other words, gun laws don’t have a measurable effect on gun violence.
In contrast, graphics from zachmortensen.net seem to show a negative correlation between gun ownership and homicide rates. Based on a 2001 survey of 201,881 households by the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, the correlation seems to indicate that gun ownership accounts for 35 percent of the variance in the homicide rate, while other factors (high poverty rates, high unemployment, poor public education) accounts for the other 65 percent of the variability.
In other words, having more gun ownership may actually encourage greater security, but a greater impact on homicide rates could be made by decreasing poverty, increasing employment, and strengthening education.
Politicians may moderate their rhetoric by saying they want to leave guns for hunters, or even for self-defense. But the Second Amendment wasn’t designed for hunters — like the other amendments in the Bill of Rights, it was designed as a check on the power of the power of the federal government. It was written and ratified by a people with recent memories of an oppressive, overbearing central government fresh on their minds. It was a central government that taxed without representation, quartered troops in their homes, denied them the rights of association and speech, and had denied them representation in the constitutional government that they, as Englishmen, felt was their right.
It’s easy to see that time as a different age, but the fact remains: the Second Amendment’s original purpose was to provide for states a protection against the threat of invasion, by foreign power or by the federal government. I hope that such a time never arrives that we need, as everyday citizens, to take up arms to defend our homes and our states against such a threat, but the examples of history have shown that when the people are armed, government is more measured and respectful.
Changing the number of rounds legally held in a gun clip, though, is a moot point. It won’t reduce crime, decrease homicides, or end gun violence, in my opinion. All it does it let certain politicians look tough on crime and responsive to grieving families, while at the same time infringing the Second Amendment, one of the first checks on the power of the federal government.
If politicians are serious about ending violence, perhaps it is time for a frank conversation about the root causes of violence and what, beyond the use of a firearm, mass shooters have in common. We cannot prevent evil people from trying to do evil, but our response to evil should not perpetuate a greater threat.