Gun control is hardly a new issue in America, much less in American politics. Ownership of guns is extraordinarily widespread in the United States, and has been for some time. Since the late 1950s, the share of American households reporting at least one firearm has remained fairly constant at just under 50 percent (Gun Control Debate 959). This shift in the character of ownership has taken place against a complicated legal backdrop, the basic feature of which at the federal level is the Gun Control Act of 1968 and the Brady Crime Prevention Act passed in 1994 (Cohen). Far outnumbering federal regulations are the various local and state laws that have long been the principal source of firearm control in the United States. People for gun control think that the best way to fix the current gun control situation is to focus on the design and manufacturing aspect, to close the “gun show loophole”, and to start a National System of Registration and Licensing.
For proponents of gun control, any solution to America’s gun problem must be national in scope. One broad set of remedies proposed in recent years, and pursued both on Capitol Hill and through lawsuits against the firearms industry, has focused on design and manufacturer. Under these supply side measures, gun makers would be required, among other things, to stop producing cheap, smaller handguns, typical known as “Saturday Night Specials” and to add various safety features to their other handguns, from trigger locks meant for the protection of children to “smart” technology that when fully developed, would allow a weapon to be fired only by an authorized user (“Gun Control Debate” 958). Anti-gun control activists believe that it would be easier to control the manufacturers and what they produce than to try to control the people buying the guns. Manufacturers may become more motivated as they start losing lawsuits that find the manufacturers negligent, causing them to pay millions of dollars in damages. Judges are concluding that the manufacturers “knew or should have known that their guns can operate in a reckless or incompetent manner (“Do Guns Mean Crime?”).”
As for the demand side of the equation, gun-control groups have called for new laws that would place further barriers in the path of criminals and other people prohibited from buying firearms. At the top of this list, particularly after investigators discovered where the weapons used in the Columbine massacre were obtained, has been closing the “gun show loophole” (Williams). As it stands now, there are more than 4,000 such events held each year where private collectors and hobbyists do not have to run background checks on potential buyers and as a result, they have become a key source from criminals and the illegal gun trade (“Gun Control Debate” 962). Those opposed to the notion point with some justice to its arbitrariness, since it would not affect the private sale of firearms at any other venue: to skirt the new law, private sellers could arrange to complete their transactions elsewhere. The “gun show loophole” illustrates the need to extend the terms of the Brady Act to every private transfer of a firearm, whether at a gun show or not (“Tried and Trusted”). Although gun owners might oppose such a system, the requirement would not be especially burdensome. It would merely mean having to use a licensed dealer as a broker for private firearms transactions.
A much more ambitious, and less political, is the idea of a “National System of Registration and Licensing.” The most fully articulated plan of this sort is a bill that was introduced in the Senate to coincide with the Million Mom March, would require anyone selling a handgun or semiautomatic firearm, whether a dealer or a private citizen, to provide the government with a record of sale, including the serial number. In addition, anyone wishing to buy such guns or, anyone owning older versions of them, would have to obtain a background check, a written safety test, and a thumbprint. Such a system, a spokesman for Handgun Control Inc., (HCI) said, “would make sure that the wrong people don’t get a hold of guns; make sure that people know how to use them properly; and make it easier for police to trace crime guns and detect gun traffickers (Cusack).” It’s not difficult to see the historical benefits of the current background checks system in place. In 1999, according to the Justice Department, more than 200,000 gun-sale applications were rejected because the buyer was disqualified in some way, overwhelmingly for a felony conviction or indictment. Since the Brady bill went into effect in 1994, such rejections have numbered well over a half-million (Lott).
Those who are urging the adoption of these laws would present them as a simple expression of “common sense” is understandable. There is no denying the large number of American killed by gunfire each year. More to the point, there seems to be something obvious, even self-evident, in the idea that the general availability of guns goes a long way toward explaining the country’s high rates of violence, or that placing further limits on manufacturers, dealers, and owners would help to save lives.
“Common sense,” in short, should indeed be our guide in devising gun laws but its dictates are not as clear as the advocates of further regulation would have us believe. Banning whole categories of firearms amounts at most to the reassuring gesture, as with “assault” weapons, but it can also interfere with the legitimate right of self-defense, as with “Saturday-night specials”. Safety measures like trigger locks may save a few lives, but allowing law-abiding citizens to carry handguns may do even more in this regard. Background checks are a helpful tool, but they are only that, not a solution for the gun problem. On either side of this consensus is the NRA playing its part to defend a nearly unconditional right “to keep and bear arms.” On the other side are the HCI, the “Million Moms,” and other proponents declaring if only there had been a law.
Cohen, Philip and Andy Coghlan. “American Tales of Guns and Ignorance: We know next to nothing about the links between gun culture and violence. So how do we stop the killing?” New Scientist 25 Dec. 2004: 4.
Cusack, Bob and Elizabeth Fulk. “The Last Nail in Gun Control.” The Hill. 3 Feb. 2005: 1.
“Gun Control Debate” QC Researcher 12 Nov. 2004: Vol. 14 Issue 40.
“Do Guns Mean Crime?” Economist. 13 Jan. 2001.
Lott, John R., “Gun Laws Can Be Dangerous, Too.” Wall Street Journal 12 May 1999: A42.
Lott, John R. “More Guns Controls? They Haven’t Worked in the Past.” Wall Street Journal 25 Sept. 1999: A41.
“Tried and Trusted.” Editorial. New Scientist 25 Dec. 2004: 3.
Williams, Rick Andrews. “Guns: It’s About Self-Defense.” Nationwide New Pty limited PNG Post-Courier 11 Jan. 2005: 11.