GUN VIOLENCE IN AMERICA: IT’S TIME TO TAKE ACTION
Of the 27 amendments to the United States Constitution, none can claim the title of “Most Divisive” quite like the Second Amendment can. Those oh-so ambiguous words — “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”— have spurred passionate debate fueled by personal experience over gun control for decades (U.S. Const. amend. II). Those debates are far from over, too, as the tragedies that surround gun violence continue to cause controversy after controversy and mold it into an even more pressing national issue—an issue that, as of the present, does not yet have a solution. Amongst the moral confusion, with numerous activists fighting for and against gun control, one might ask, “What is the path to take?” By taking into account both the unfortunate instances of gun violence that rock the nation on an all-too-frequent basis and the Anabaptist faith’s adherence to nonviolence, however, it becomes clear that legislative action must be taken promptly in order to prevent any further gun-related tragedies.
When discussing gun violence, most fall into one of two camps: those who support stricter gun control, and those who oppose stricter gun control. In hopes of bringing about change in the United States, the conflicting sides have offered up irreconcilable interpretations of the text written over two centuries ago. Advocates for stricter gun control claim that the right to keep and bear arms laid down in the Second Amendment exists only in the context of a citizen-based militia, while proponents of gun ownership, on the other hand, argue that the Second Amendment protects the right of citizens to own firearms without a connection to any sort of militia, for purposes such as self-defense and deterring criminals. In 2008, the national government itself weighed in on the matter and took the latter party’s stance in District of Columbia v. Heller, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment does indeed protect citizens’ right to bear arms regardless of any sort of militia connection (Levinson).
The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the law may currently favor a more gun-heavy society, but the case is far from closed on gun violence. With gun-related incidents killing approximately 38,000 Americans each year — an average of 100 per day — the impact of gun violence in the United States is vast and undeniable (“Fatal Injury Reports”). Though America contains only four percent of the global population, thirty-five percent of all firearm suicides occur in the United States, and Americans are twenty-five times more likely to be murdered by gunshot than citizens of other high-income nations (Grinshteyn and Hemenway; Naghavi). And the consequences of gun violence are much more dire for Americans of color.
Despite making up only 7 percent of the population, 52 percent of all gun homicide victims are men of color (Aufrichtig et al.; “Fatal Injury Reports”). Children are certainly no strangers to gun violence either, as every year three million children are directly exposed to gun violence that leads to injury, death, or trauma that has long-lasting, adverse ramifications for their development (Fowler et al.; Rajan et al.). When it comes to gun-related homicides, America—with citizens possessing more guns than any other nation on earth—has long fared worse than its industrialized counterparts (Karp). According to a report released by Handgun Control Inc., in 1985, handguns were used to murder five people each in Australia and Canada, eight people in Great Britain, eighteen people in Israel, thirty-one people in Switzerland, 46 people in Japan, and 8,092 people in the United States; today, the United States still continues to lead the world in gun-related deaths (Carter-Yamauchi 238). Nationally-publicized mass shootings — including those at Marjory Stone Douglas High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School, and Columbine High School, in which countless youth lost either their lives or innocence — have made Americans more aware of the tragedies that accompany gun violence than ever before. A shooting can happen anywhere — even in remote, lesser-populated areas of the nation. One occurred at my father’s workplace in rural South Dakota in 2015, leaving one victim dead, another injured, and my dad, who wrestled the shooter to the ground, traumatized.
Guns are not used solely for violent purposes, though. They are also used for hunting and recreational shooting sports, among other hobbies. Despite their many and varied uses, however, their primary purpose remains simple: to kill. The Anabaptist view is similarly simple: Violence of any kind — whether it be malicious or for self-defense — is entirely unacceptable, regardless of whether or not it is committed by hand or by gun. As caretakers of creation, Anabaptists must provide for the safety of their communities. Thus, it is the responsibility of each believer to ensure that firearms are not used to perpetrate violence and thereby prevent the destruction that gun violence causes from pervading creation. While it is self-evident that guns themselves are not evil, Americans—both the religious and the non-religious—cannot ignore that time has proved again and again that there exist those who can and will use firearms with malicious intent. From mass shootings to shopliftings, the increasingly frequent misuse of firearms to commit acts of senseless violence has highlighted the need for immediate legislative action to take aim at preventing these devastating incidents from occurring.
When it comes to gun control, there are two primary approaches to take: keeping firearms out of the hands of those deemed most likely to misuse them, or keeping high-risk, military-esque firearms out of the hands of the general public. The first approach is the most nuanced and could be accomplished through a variety of methods. It could involve establishing a mandatory background check that all prospective buyers must go through before purchasing a gun, or the sale of guns to alcoholics, drug addicts, the mentally unbalanced, and those with criminal records could be prohibited. In addition, a waiting period consisting of several days between the time a buyer purchases a handgun and the time he or she receives it could be implemented, and all gun owners could be required to license and register each and every one of the guns they possess. The second approach, in contrast, is much simpler. The sale of machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, semi-automatic assault weapons, and other military-esque weapons could be entirely banned, as such guns are excessive and unnecessary for both self-defense and hunting (Zimring).
When discussing policy changes, there will almost certainly be those who claim that a certain gun control policy is unconstitutional. In response to that inevitable claim, it is worth considering the fact that the Second Amendment itself is not sacred and immutable but instead subject to change as American society dictates. Constitutional amendments can be voided by later amendments. Recall that the 21 Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment, which had banned the sale of alcohol in the United States (U.S. Const. amend. XXI).
Furthermore, Article I, Section 8, Clause 18 of the Constitution, also known as the elastic clause, allows the government “to make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof” (U.S. Const. art. I sec. 8).” In other words, the national government possesses whatever power is needed in order to keep up with the times and rise to meet the challenges that the Founding Fathers did not and could not envision centuries ago, and the issue of gun violence certainly falls under this umbrella. Thus, when it comes to establishing policies meant to combat gun violence, the Second Amendment should not stand in the way.
The notion that stricter gun control might reduce gun violence is not without evidence to back it up. A 1988 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine compared crime rates and handgun restrictions in Seattle, Washington, and Vancouver, British Columbia, which had similar geographical and socioeconomic conditions but wildly different firearm laws. While Seattle’s firearm restrictions were rather relaxed, in Vancouver, carrying concealed weapons was illegal and purchasing firearms required a special permit or certificate. Per 100,000 residents, Seattle had 87.9 aggravated assaults involving the use of firearms; Vancouver had only 11.4. Researchers thus concluded that restricted access to handguns led to the lower homicide rate in Vancouver (Carter-Yamauchi 238-239).
Despite the effectiveness of gun control laws, there is one fatal flaw that pervades such laws meant to combat criminals: criminals, by definition, do not obey laws. Congress should not throw up its arms and believe that all legislative measures would thus be futile, however. Congress need not prevent any and all incidents of gun violence from occurring. If a gun control law deters just one criminal from instigating a school shooting or saves even one life, it can and should be considered to have fulfilled its intended purpose.
With instances of gun violence rocking the nation on an all-too-frequent basis, now, more than ever, legislative action is needed to prevent any further gun-related tragedies. No one wants to impose unnecessary restrictions, but no one wishes to jeopardize the safety of his or her community, either. The issue of gun control straddles this very line between too much and too little freedom, and it is indeed a tough tightrope to walk. Despite this challenge, the Goldilocks-esque “just right” balance between security and liberty must be found, for the well-being of our present-day society and future generations depend upon it.
This essay by Freeman Academy senior Titus Roesler recently won first place in the regional Mennonite Central Committee Public Policy Essay Contest. This will now be judged at the national level; results are expected at the end of the month.