The Gun Control Debate That Went MIA

Newtown, CT schoolbus.jpg

Intellectually -- despite the events in Newtown, Connecticut -- I can appreciate that the “right to bear arms” is a fundamental constitutional guarantee, inherited from both the Glorious (1688) and American revolutions. I still wonder, though, whether it applies to a society in which most people live in suburban condos and tract houses, which are largely absent of Redcoats or the Hole in the Wall gang. Why have guns in our lives? We know the status quo ante of the 18th century Second Amendment isn’t working. The issues surrounding guns failed to make even a cameo appearance in the recent election, and, when they have been raised in the recent past they certainly did not elicit the same tears that they did at the Newtown press conferences.

Americans own 300 million guns, which kill about 30,000 people each year; about half of the deaths are suicides. Teenagers are involved in a disproportionate number of the shootings and deaths in the violent exchanges, and teens and children are at high risk from all gun violence, which in 2007 and 2008 claimed the lives of 5,740 young victims across the United States (that's almost three "Newtowns" a week). What has become of the original intent of gun rights, if in those years firearms wounded 34,387 teens and children?

Ironically, gun legislation is not much of a deterrent to loss of life from gunshot wounds. In 2008, shooting deaths per thousand in Vermont, with few gun laws, were about the same as those in nearby Massachusetts, which has some of the most strict gun-control laws in the country. The gun laws in the District of Columbia do little to prevent criminals from carrying them into the capital from nearby Virginia or Maryland.

On average about 24 Americans are murdered every day with a gun, and since 9/11 some 300,000 have been gunned down. I came to many of these statistics and reflections while reading Craig Whitney’s Living with Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment, which searches for the middle ground between the National Rifle Association “standing its ground,” and those that would wish away the 300 million firearms that are in American hands.

I had turned to the book hoping to find an argument that the gun right of the Second Amendment was tied to militia enlistment, and that without a call to arms at Lexington or Concord few outside of law enforcement officers needed firearms. What I got instead was a well-reasoned argument for gun ownership, provided that the firearms are handled, bought and sold with care.

Whitney, a former New York Times editor, argues that guns are synonymous with the founding of the American republic, and that the only way to reduce gun violence is to see that firearms, like the equally deadly automobile, are only used in safe hands and in a responsible manner. He believes strict laws that prevent ordinary citizens from having guns to ward off intruders and attackers are unproductive and unconstitutional.

Among his suggestions for ways to keep guns out of the hands of those that would open fire in malls and schools are tighter background checks for buyers and sellers, including at gun shows; nationwide standards to teach responsible gun handling and the issuance of permits for owners who complete rigorous courses; better data bases to trace missing or stolen guns; harsher penalties for illegal gun use; and easier methods to trace bullets and handguns discharged in a criminal act.

My own view of guns is that they scare me. Before moving to Europe in 1991, we lived in New York City. One evening, standing on the doorstep of our Flatbush brownstone, I heard the firing from an automatic weapon on a nearby block and decided that maybe there were other places to raise my children.

Living in Brooklyn didn't give me much sympathy for the NRA, given that the borough has more liquor stores than deer, and that most local weapons are used during open seasons on shop owners. I constantly had in mind a newspaper report about teenagers carrying concealed weapons on the subway. A police detective interviewed for the story said, “I can’t say that every fourteen-year-old on the subway is carrying a gun. But I can say that every other kid has one.”

Part of the reason I react so negatively to guns is because I came of age between the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy in, respectively, 1963 and 1968. By chance, I saw each one in person just before he was killed, so the image of their head wounds (from cheap mail-order or pawn shop guns) contrasted vividly with my recent memories of their thick, wavy hair and broad smiles.

Like many, I only think about guns after hearing about shootings like those at Sandy Hook Elementary, or that a madman went berserk at Virginia Tech or at the movies in Colorado, sacrificing dozens of innocent lives on an altar that is later covered with flowering clichés from the Second Amendment (“If only the Batman moviegoers had been armed...”). Does a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs really need nine guns for protection, especially when he is only hunting down his girlfriend?

Despite these negative feelings, I listened carefully to Whitney’s arguments that gun control has little effect on preventing murders or crimes, and that guns are in America to stay, whatever the consequences. I found myself uncomfortably weighing his long interview with a gun advocate who believes that the only deterrence to gun violence is to have everyone packing heat. Could he be right?

Although I can accept hunting rifles over the hearth and even registered handguns for home defense, I have a harder time with “the right to bear arms” when I think how easy it is anywhere in the country for a lunatic to buy an automatic weapon and use it on school kids or postal coworkers. Better registration procedures and tracking of guns might keep them away from the likes of Tucson’s Jared Lee Loughner. But do we really want the dress code at places like Sandy Hook elementary to include full metal jackets?

Flickr photo: Newtown, Connecticut, Bus Arriving by AskJoanne.

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine, is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays. His next book is Whistle-Stopping America.


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useless debate

Just reading the first comment tells me how useless the debate can be and is. It is a political debate and not one of outcomes.

The only difference between an assault weapon and one that can do equal damage as quickly is appearance.

Can't carry a semi-automatic pistol with sixteen rounds. Carry a revolver with six and speed loaders that can reload is less than 5 seconds.

I would argue that the breakdown in our society is caused just as much by ultra violent movies and video games that target young adult males, so ban them and violate the 1st Amendment instead of the 2nd.

Gun violence is almost completely relegated to a violent underclass in America with a few more than unfortunate outlier events like Newtown. Every so often that violent underclass takes the lives of the innocent. My wife was one, gruesome murdered by a carjacker who was out on parole after shooting a toddler in a drive-by. His access to guns was illegal. It did not help.

We would do better eliminating programs that facilitate unwed mother hood.

A shame the gun control

A shame the gun control debate is only topical after a tragedy. Children in the 5 to 14 age group are 13 times more likely to be killed by guns in the U.S than in other developed nations. How can it be argued assault weapons are necessary for self defense in our society?

Gun control shame

Is it your claim that ALL the children, 5 to 14, killed by guns in the U.S. were killed by 'assault weapons'? If so where did you find that information and do you have reliable sources?

More kids killed by alcohol and cars Should we ban them also?

For better or worse, we are

For better or worse, we are going to have to live with guns because they are written into the Constitution. There is small chance that can be changed. Therefore I think the better strategy is to place limitations on when, where, and under what conditions people can carry guns. Pistols, for instance, are not good for anything except target practice and shooting other people (sometimes in self-defense). I personally oppose permits allowing people to carry concealed pistols, which may or may not have Constitutional protection. In any case we should have zero tolerance (with mandatory sentencing for first offense) for people who carry loaded pistols outside the home without a permit, or even in the home without a license. Assault weapons, which are illegal for hunting, are not even good for self-defense inside the home compared to a shotgun with a very small magazine. There is still a case for assault weapons for puposed of self-defense against a coup or other illegal seizure of power at the state level, so assault weapons may have a place in the closet, which is the practice in Switzerland. We might also keep better statistics on the number of unjustified shootings that occur even when the person doing the shooting has a license and a permit to carry, which might indicate the need to further tighten restrictions. With these measures many if not most unjustified shootings might be prevented. Just a few thoughts.

Ironically, the point of the

Ironically, the point of the Second Amendment was completely different at the time of its adoption. It was commonly believed at the time that the primary threat to a nation's liberty was a standing army; and that England had managed to preserve its own freedom while all the other countries of Europe were falling into absolute monarchy because it relied on a navy, not an army, for its defense. The newly formed American republic might reasonably pursue the same strategy, reinforced by its staggering distance from the Powers of Europe. But if there was to be no standing army, there needed to be some way to protect the peace; and local militias were to be the solution. It did not particularly matter whether citizens were armed individually, so long as they could repair to the local arsenal when required.

My how the argument has changed! For over half a century we have had one of the world's greatest standing armies, armed with weapons which the 18th century could hardly conceive; to say that they could if they wished overwhelm any local resistance, however armed, is beyond dispute. Instead, we make fearsome enough weapons available for citizens to use against one another, & pretend we are honoring the framers of the Constitution.

2'nd Amendment and contexts

" . . . My how the argument has changed! For over half a century we have had one of the world's greatest standing armies, armed with weapons which the 18th century could hardly conceive; to say that they could if they wished overwhelm any local resistance, however armed, is beyond dispute. Instead, we make fearsome enough weapons available for citizens to use against one another, & pretend we are honoring the framers of the Constitution."

I'm not as reassured that our nation's armed forces could/would easily 'overwhelm any local resistance'. Perhaps if the 'local resistance' were only a small town or a rural enclave that might be true.

Our well armed public, whether an organized and/or official militia, also just may serve as a significant deterrent to an armed invasion of our country. Who in their right mind would want to invade a country with millions of armed citizens?

Finding Answers

God have mercy on the families of those who lost loved ones at Sandy Hook.

This is a difficult problem to solve. While there will be immediate cries for greater gun controls, the root cause of the problem is likely not the availability of guns. All of these shooters were smart young men who were somehow troubled or disconnected from society. If they were denied access to guns, perhaps they would turn to building pipe bombs. Would we then seek to ban selling lead pipes?

Perhaps we need to find a way to raise the specific risk to the shooter, in the moment. This may support the argument for more, not less guns. Would a troubled man be as willing to shoot up a crowded theater if he thought it likely that twenty of the patrons were armed and trained? Would Mr. Lanza attack the school if he knew there were armed and trained guards?

I am a firm believer in the 2nd Amendment, and I do not believe that it is conceptually obsolete. However, gun ownership and right to carry a concealed weapon are two different things. Right to carry should include demonstration of high proficiency in tactical situations. If you pass the test, you can carry. If not, leave it at home.

Taking away our guns is not the answer. Solving all of America's mental illness will take time. In the interim, let's focus on finding ways to reduce the shooter's odds, and raising his risks.


Automatic weapons are already illegal.
The shooter's mother's handgun being registered would not have prevented anything.

Gun control, especially handguns

Luke Leac

Handguns outside the home are really not much good for anything besides target practice and shooting people (perhaps in self-defense). In light of this we might consider a zero tolerance criminalization with stiff automatic jail time for unauthorized possession of such weapons the same way we do with drunk driving. I would also like to see statistics on unjustified shootings by citizens with state approved license to carry concealed. This could be compared with justified instances of use in cases of self-defense to see what the balance is.

I don't have the exact stat

I don't have the exact stat you're looking for, but a study showed that concealed carry permit holders in Florida got sent to jail at a lower rate than Florida police.