Gun control part 4: the futureon January 26, 2013 at 5:10 am
The gun control debate is by no means straightforward. When I first began researching the issue, I thought I had a clear view that gun control was the rational way to proceed. After talking to some informed gun advocates on different forums, I have come to appreciate the complexity of the issue. This is what RationalExaminer.com is all about – working through an issue and seeing the merits of different viewpoints and arguments.
So where are we then in terms of making sense of the gun debate? With the lack of research that has been undertaken on the impacts of guns and violence (partly due to past Congressional bans on federally funded research, and also the fact that gun bans have been too limited to properly assess their effects), the issue has become mostly speculative rather than fact-driven.
What can be said with some reasonable sense of confidence is that a ban on semi-automatic weapons and widespread confiscation (through buy back schemes, etc) should make it more difficult for mass shooters to obtain weapons that maximise the loss of life, although not impossible. It can be said with some confidence that a ban on semi-automatic weapons will not decrease the overall gun-related homicide rate, but a comprehensive ban supported by confiscations would. It is plausible that a total ban will reduce the overall amount of homicides, but not violent assaults in general, and therefore it is likely to increase a sense vulnerability amongst those who feel guns are important for self-defense, although decrease the sense of vulnerability among those who feel threatened by gun violence. It is plausible that a comprehensive gun ban would significantly reduce the number of gun-related suicides, which make up the majority of gun-related deaths, simply because self-directed gun shots are a rather convenient and straightforward way to suicide compared to other measures.
On balance, a rational approach would favour gun control, particularly total gun bans. But any talk of gun bans raises problems with respect to the Constitution. It was established in part 1 that it is uncertain whether semi-automatic bans constitute a violation of the 2nd amendment, and that would require a legal interpretation by the Supreme Court that has never been explicitly made. Certainly, to introduce a full gun ban would violate the 2nd amendment.
However, despite the tendency of many Americans to treat the Constitution as a sacred document written by the forefathers that cannot be challenged, the fact is that the Constitution is a legal document – and an evolving one at that – which is subject to reinterpretation and modification through the law making process.
The 2nd Amendment was originally intended to allow a standing militia for the purpose of preserving freedoms if the government became tyrannical. This was a country that, in the late 18th century when the Amendment was introduced, had fought hard to achieve independence from English sovereignty and was fiercely protective of individual freedoms.
In modern America, the purpose of the 2nd Amendment has become irrelevant in light of the ‘arms’ that have been made legally available to citizens. There is little chance that citizens armed with pistols and rifles could resist the modern US military armed with its sophisticated weaponry, so the meaning of the 2nd Amendment has been mostly re-interpreted to refer to self-defense. In Part 1, it was shown that the Supreme Court itself has shown considerable confusion over how to interpret the 2nd Amendment, with the Miller judgement referring to militia defense, and the Heller judgement referring to self-defense.
In light of this, questions need to be asked about the enduring relevance of the 2nd Amendment. Would even the legislators who introduced it in the 18th century have felt it would apply to a society where mass shootings and gun-related homicides existed on a scale that we see in America today? Does the right to bear arms guarantee freedoms in modern America, or has it become its own form of tyranny?
I think it is would be interesting if, in the future, the US Constitution is altered to allow States to introduce bans based on referendums. The 2nd Amendment as it is currently written in fact imposes gun ownership on States that in some cases is not supported by the majority of people living in those States.
But if gun ownership became a State matter, and inevitably in that scenario some States ban gun ownership, the ability to gather informative data comparing gun-free States with gun-owning States would be made possible, and the matter could then be settled through an evidence-based approach, as it should be. Until then, we are unlikely to see much traction on the issue of gun control, with researchers unable to assess the benefits of gun bans and politicians favouring the status quo, despite the continuation of mass shootings and gun-related violence in general.
Ultimately people will feel less in need of owning guns if there is a general reduction in violent assaults that lead people to fear being attacked. The reduction of violent assaults has already been occurring in the United States, but it may require further reductions before people feel sufficiently safe to support gun bans in greater numbers. For those who argue that gun ownership is the reason for this reduction, any further reduction will actually reinforce their opposition to gun control.
The reduction of violence is something that societies in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and elsewhere need to address regardless of the issue of gun control. In fact the issue of gun control is a red herring in many senses, and arguably introduces an emotional aspect to the debate which is not altogether productive. It also is arguably racially biased, given that it places emphasis on a tiny percentage of incidents (that is, mass shootings) affecting white middle class areas, and not the overwhelming number of gun-related homicides that mostly affect impoverished black and Latino areas.
We need to focus efforts on building a culture where violence against others is not acceptable, not just in law, but socially. Young men bragging about getting in fights, for example, should be shunned by their friends rather than celebrated. Films should treat those who commit violence as shameful fools rather than heroes.
Sure, such forms of demonising violent behaviour rely on coercion through shaming rather than appealing to people’s rational faculties, but individuals do not always act rationally, and further, violence can actually be rational for some individuals (e.g., to maintain a ‘reputation’ that acts as a form of deterrence and means for building status). It’s about promoting certain types of ‘values’. Although values are not necessarily rational (particularly if they are never questioned), they are a starting point for people to frame their actions. People then need to subject their values to rational scrutiny.
Another thing that needs to be emphasised is the effect of poverty and lack of socio-economic opportunities in increasing crime rates, particularly robbery and also illegal activities like drug dealing that lend themselves to violence as a means of protecting this sort of illegal trading in the absence of legal protections. The phenomena of gangs in America, which historically emerged in Chicago and New York as means for minority groups to protect themselves in hostile neighborhoods (and still has this function), also needs to be dealt with by providing better opportunities and social support to young people and their families.
Changing the culture of violence and the factors underlying violence (such as poverty) should have the effect of reducing gun related violence as one of its outcomes. When violence in general is dealt with, the elimination of guns will be a more straightforward matter. It won’t eliminate all concerns, such as those who feel they need guns to defend against potential tyranny, but it will certainly go some way to tackling one of the major reasons for gun ownership – the felt need for citizens to protect themselves from violent assaults from fellow citizens.