American Society and Gun Control
by Thomas C. Giordano
In recent years, Americans have been murdered in mass shootings at an alarming and increasing rate. While mass shootings are always devastating, regrettably, they are nothing new to Americans. Gun violence actually seems to be an accepted part of American culture.
In the wake of a mass shooting, there is sadness. Following this sadness is outrage and almost always a call for reform. Unfortunately, nothing ever actually happens. The horrific event is over, and the news picks up the next compelling story that grips the nation. People move on. That is, everybody except the victims’ loved ones.
There has been some federal legislation over the last century aimed at restricting access to guns, but not much. One reason for this is that gun legislation is often passed in response to shooting tragedies, which occur sporadically and do not affect entire groups of people on a daily basis. Therefore, it is difficult to apply sustained political pressure for change. Another challenge is the Supreme Court’s Second Amendment jurisprudence. The Supreme Court’s broad interpretation of the Second Amendment has made it almost impossible to tighten gun laws.
However, as illustrated by the Civil Rights movement, the American people possess great power in influencing the law. Supreme Court decisions and jurisprudence can change when society demands that change. The legal system will rarely act without the support of the people. Thus, persistence in a grassroots gun control movement will eventually provide enough support to effectuate legal change.
Recent History of Gun Violence in America
Since 2000, mass shootings have increasingly occurred with more frequency. This is illustrated by the FBI Active Shooter List—an FBI investigation authorized by President Obama in 2012 and completed by 2013 that studied violent acts and mass shootings in public places in America.
The List shows that from 2000-2013, the number of mass shootings per year nearly tripled. In the fourteen years studied, there were 160 active shooter incidents, resulting in the deaths of 486 people and the wounding of another 557. These types of shootings are actually on the rise. In the first seven years studied, there was an average of 6.4 incidents per year. However, in the last seven years, this annual average nearly tripled to 16.4 incidents per year.
Although there are many law-abiding citizens who use guns responsibly, there are plenty who use this freedom against us. American citizens are usually the perpetrators of these shooting rampages, often times using legally obtained firearms. And it is inaccurate to suggest that armed citizens make us safer. Of the 160 incidents studied in the FBI Active Shooter List, only five (3.1%) ended when an armed individual outside of law enforcement intervened. Furthermore, all five of these armed citizens were actually some sort of security personnel at the location where the shooting occurred. These heroes should be celebrated for their bravery, but these instances of heroism should not be mischaracterized to advance an argument they clearly do not support.
Since the 1930’s there have been only two significant federal laws restricting access to guns: The National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Gun Control Act of 1968. They were both in response to events. The National Firearms Act was passed in response to the rise in crime during prohibition. Then, the Gun Control Act of 1968 was enacted after the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
And even recently, legislation has been proposed in response to shootings. After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, President Obama created a task force on gun violence that resulted in a plan to protect children by reducing gun violence. The plan included eighteen legislative proposals and twenty-three executive actions, most notably, the call for universal background checks. None of the laws proposed were enacted.
Supreme Court Jurisprudence
Other obstacles to gun control legislation have come from the judicial branch. In 2008, the Supreme Court issued a landmark Second Amendment decision, District of Columbia v. Heller. In Heller, the court considered a law that banned the possession of handguns and restricted the accessibility of firearms in one’s home by requiring such firearms to be disassembled or locked.
The Supreme Court held that this law was unconstitutional because it violated the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. Specifically, the Court decided that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm, unconnected with service in the militia, and to use that firearm for traditionally lawful purposes. This meant that the right to keep a functioning firearm in the home was protected by the Constitution. The holding was reached through a broad individual right interpretation of the Amendment. Under Heller, an individual can possess a gun for the sole purpose of self-defense.
How Supreme Court Jurisprudence Has Changed Before
The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment can change. But for that to happen, society needs to advocate for a change in the law. The greatest example of this is the Civil Rights movement. It was not until this movement began gaining traction that the Supreme Court finally changed its jurisprudence about laws with racially discriminatory impact. This change came in the overruling of the infamous “separate-but-equal” case, Plessy v. Ferguson.
In Plessy, the Supreme Court endorsed segregation when it determined that a Louisiana law providing for separate railway carriages for whites and blacks was constitutional. The Court stated that a law that merely distinguishes between whites and blacks based on color has no tendency to destroy the equality of the two races. It also stated that laws requiring separation based on race do not necessarily imply that one race is inferior.
Conversely, nearly sixty years later in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court determined that segregation in public schools violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In almost complete contrast to its decision in Plessy, the Court stated that, “the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group.”
How could the Court come to such contradictory conclusions? The Court overturned Plessy because in the time period between Plessy and Brown, a major movement for equality had begun. In 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was formed. The NAACP began lobbying for equal public education and then eventually moved its focus to the courts and pushed for changes in the law. With strong participation in the movement, black voices were finally heard. Once enough members of society supported the change, the Supreme Court finally decided the time had come for the law to reflect the change in the social landscape. The Court could no longer hide behind policy and precedent.
The Power of the American People
The gun control story can be similar to that of the Civil Rights movement and other grassroots movements. The gun control movement should follow the same model of persistence. Fortunately, the first steps have already been taken. In April 2013, following the Sandy Hook shooting, Michael Bloomberg started a grassroots interest group called Everytown for Gun Safety. The organization promotes a common sense approach to gun control that focuses on background checks, keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, education about preventable deaths by gunfire, and gun trafficking. The primary focus of the group is safety, but at the same time it raises awareness. The organization seeks to stop preventable deaths, but to do so, it needs to educate Americans on how to stop them. Through this education, Americans learn just how often preventable deaths occur and why stopping them is such a necessary objective. The goal is for Everytown to rival the National Rifle Association.
This is just a start though. We cannot stand behind the money of a Michael Bloomberg and hope that his movement pays off. We need to make this movement our own. By making it our own, it becomes something more than just a political campaign. It becomes powerful and sustainable. We need to educate ourselves on why this is an important issue and why this is a good idea. Restricting, as opposed to expanding, a right can be worrisome, but this is not a call for the prohibition of guns. We are just striving to make America safer based on a common sense approach to an obvious problem.