America has a long history of gun use, going back to colonial times, when the war of independence was fought by the people of the country. As the expansion towards the west began in the early 19th century, pioneers faced multiple threats in the form of marauding Native American tribes, grizzly bears and other carnivorous animals. This led to the emergence of a deeply entrenched gun culture in the western and southern parts of the country, where everyone, children and women included, were required to operate a firearm and protect one another.
Also, as farming and hunting were initially the only means of subsistence, using a gun was like using an ax, a necessity rather than recreation. Famous frontiersmen like Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and Wild Bill Hickok were famous for their prowess with guns, and their legends. Even several fabricated accounts for dime novels and penny dreadfuls, grew to extraordinary heights.
Over the past 200 years, the need for weapons, especially firearms for the express purpose of self defense from nature has drastically reduced. However, the gun has become a part of the national identity of America, a fact that is supported by evidence. The subject of gun control has always generated a social and political debate concerning the availability and restriction of firearms within the United States. In American politics, gun control has been an intractable and one of the most controversial issues.
Understanding Gun Control
According to a Small Arms Survey poll, there are 88 guns for every 100 people in the United States, an alarming figure for a first world country, when the corresponding figure is 6 per 100 individuals in the United Kingdom. The figures are even lower for developing economies across the world. A UNODC report stated that 67% of all homicides in the US are related to gun violence.
Unlike other countries where various stringent criteria must be satisfied before one can legally own a gun, Americans can simply say 'Yes I have a permit, it is the Second Amendment to the Constitution.'The Second Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights specifically states 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'. The arguments for and against gun laws would never have reached such fervent heights if not for the ghastly spate of mass shootings that have enveloped the nation in recent years.
The law that is used to decide the owning of a gun is termed as gun control law, which determines whether ordinary citizens can own a gun or not. A control or restriction is required to ensure that guns are owned by people who intend to use them only in the express need of self-defense and not for crimes. The dilemma of the law is that it can be used both ways. It can render victims helpless and make criminals out of ordinary individuals.
A popular argument often raises the question about why guns are used to protect the President, Congress members and other important people whereas the law prohibits commoners from protecting themselves against criminals. Some critics even term gun control as a form of people-control wherein you surrender everything you possess when you are a victim of a criminal act. According to the National Rifle Association (NRA), 25 states have adopted "your home is your castle" laws that give homeowners the liberty to shoot people on their property without the fear of prosecution, and only 10 states severely restrict or prohibit the carrying of firearms in public.
According to FBI's crime statistics, in 2010, there were 11,078 murders in the US using firearms.
According to the Pew Research Center's 2013 survey, 58% Americans think that a strict law against gun use would spell a risk to the safety of their families. 54% are of the opinion that gun control can reduce mass shootings.
Pros of Gun Control
Let's take a look at some arguments that favor gun control and their rationale in terms of the surplus weapons in the United States.
The Self Defense Argument
One often hears anti-gun-control activists argue that if guns were banned or severely regulated, only the criminals would have access to them and law-abiding citizens would be helpless. This is the eye-for-an-eye logic. America already has more guns than it has people. Has this resulted in the lowering of gun crime? The answer is an emphatic no. Criminals will find ways to obtain illegal firearms, like they do in every country. Regulating guns will at least prevent their access from homes and businesses. In fact, if both parties have guns, it will most definitely result in a firefight and unnecessary bloodshed. However, the problem may be the guns themselves and their proliferation in the American way of life.
The Constitutional Right
Gun lobbyists hide behind the 'Second Amendment' saying that it gives them a constitutional right to own and bear arms, however, if we take a closer look at the Second Amendment itself, it talks about 'militia', an army or a fighting force that will protect the 'state' and has rights to bear arms for this specific purpose, not individuals claiming their own defense from imagined enemies. The text reads - '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'. That's true. However, having gun control laws is intended to restrict the number of guns floating around in the system, ready to be used on innocents.
Sporting and Hunting
Using guns for recreation has become a popular sport in the US over the years. A gun-ban or stricter laws on sale and ownership will make sure this 'harmless' activity remains so. To take the point further, why does recreation require the use of high-caliber hollow point bullets that mushroom after striking flesh, creating horrible wounds? Or a machine gun that can fire hundreds of rounds per minute? Target-shooting is an Olympic sport, but we don't see the sportsmen armed with Kalashnikovs or M4 carbines. Bolt-action hunting rifles are made for a specific purpose, to hunt, they do not have high-capacity magazines or an 800-round-per-minute rate of fire.
Legal Possession and Why it's Not Working
The Columbine killers obtained their weapons from a friend who purchased them at a gun fair.
The mentally ill perpetrator in the Virginia Tech massacre exploited a loophole in the documentation requirements for purchasing guns, which enabled him to avoid the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The laws were changed after he had murdered 32 people.
After the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, where an armed man shot 27 people to death, 20 of them first-graders at the Sandy Hook Elementary school, the subject of gun control was once more thrown into the national spotlight. The 20-year old was a shy lonely individual, without a history of violence but possible behavioral issues. He lived with his mother in a decent neighborhood in Newtown and used her arsenal of guns to go on a bloody rampage.
The investigation into this tragedy raised several questions, there was widespread public opinion that the murderer couldn't have been so destructive if he lacked access to guns. The point many gun control activists make is that each one of those weapons was a legally owned firearm, under the supervision of a rational independent human being, yet, the murders could not be prevented. Pro-gun lobbyists blame the tragedy on the mental condition of the young man and not the fact that he had a deadly weapon such as the Bushmaster XM15 assault rifle within arm's reach.
The bottom line is that a gun is a lethal weapon and its only function is to kill; the fewer people have it, the better it is. If firearms were less prevalent in society, criminals would have greater difficulty laying hands on them. There would thus be a lower possibility of firearms falling in the hands of teenagers or children, preventing a tragedy like the Columbine High School massacre.
Sport shooting, or hunting, or a gun culture that glamorizes and legitimizes unnecessary gun ownership can desensitize ordinary people to the fatal effects of guns and firearms in general. Retail firearms traders or individual gun owners can be given compensation if a ban is implemented.
Gun control will ensure that there will be a stringent check on the ownership of all firearms and the number of manufactured firearms. The immediate result would be a reduction in violent crime. There will indeed be incidences of shoplifting or house theft, but the involvement of guns would be minimal, resulting in less human suffering.
Is the argument that a tyrannical government needs to be fought with guns, even valid in the 21st century? Do people need to arm themselves to the teeth and hope to make last stands fighting against Big Brother? The Second Amendment was required when America was a young country trying to consolidate its boundaries, and the citizens needed arms to defend themselves against foreign aggression, but today when the US has the 2nd largest army in the world and bills $700 billion a year in defense budgets, it does seem a bit extreme.
Cons of Gun Control
Banning guns or prohibition will not make them disappear, or make them any less dangerous. In order to protect themselves, their family, and their property, it is a legitimate right of citizens to own weapons.
Society will not become safer by restricting gun ownership as guns don't kill people, people kill people. Also, in the majority of cases involving guns or firearms, the weapon used is not legally bought or registered; it is either smuggled or stolen from registered owners.
While a segment of the law guarantees individuals the right to own guns, another amendment makes owning a handgun difficult, and many people feel that their constitutional rights are being denied.
It is also observed that if law-abiding citizens have guns, they are better equipped to handle situations where they might find themselves face-to-face with criminals, thus bringing the crime rate down.
The Role of Law Enforcers
The federal law establishes strict registration requirements for procuring a gun, in addition to a transfer tax on machine guns and short-barreled long guns. The mail-order sales and the interstate sales of firearms have also been addressed and prohibited. The government has banned the transfer of arms to minors and thus, limited access to assault weapons. There are penalties in place and stringent licensing requirements for manufacturers and dealers that are maintained to check on illegal transfers. Effective gun control measures are a boon to law-abiding citizens and reinforce the constitutional rights. Even though there are many advocates of the thought that widespread gun ownership is the way to keep crime at bay, it is essential to understand that it is not the gun that is being questioned, it is the hand that pulls the trigger.
The debate of gun control has made no headway at the Federal level despite nation-wide attention and coverage of recent incidences of mass killings like those at Tucson, Virginia Tech, and Columbine. President Obama too has carefully avoided the topic and has even signed two laws that included provisions expanding gun access. The harsh reality is that it's not a rosy pretty world out there and being utterly defenseless in a criminal situation is never a good idea. Criminals will still find a way to gain illegal possession of guns or firearms as they do not respect the law. The solution lies with effectively upholding the law and helping the law makers to curb illegal procurement of arms. It is the responsibility of every citizen to determine for himself or herself whether or not the procurement of arms is good for society at large. It is natural to not agree entirely with the pros or the cons of gun control, but a constant update on statistics should be reviewed and analyzed.