With origins dating prior to the official founding of the United States of America (prior to the Declaration of Independence), the right to personal ownership of firearms has been a contested subject for the people that live in the modern day United States. With un-abating gun violence, mass shootings, suicides, accidents, and menacing acts, many Americans are arguing it’s not necessary to own firearms and many others are working to convince those in the middle why they are.
While it’s possible to state facts and statistics comparing US gun violence (and violence in general) to other industrialized countries, this approach only serves to enhance liberal vs. conservative debates by failing to lower the temperature on emotional sticking points. This essay will consider a few arguments within the issue through a practical lens.
Bill of Rights
The document of greatest importance in this debate is of course the Bill of Rights and the second amendment to the Constitution stating that citizens have the right to bear arms. It’s important to note that any bills passed limiting gun ownership would be subject to this amendment standing in court. The actual and possible legal proceedings could have their own volumes of work and this article is intended to focus on non-legal aspects of the debate.
The purpose of mentioning the Bill of Rights is that the founding fathers thought it necessary to include — why is that? During the American Revolution that ultimately established our fledgling country, the British forces took control of citizens’ firearms, as they couldn’t tell the difference between patriots fighting and peaceful citizens. The biggest objective of drafters of the constitution was to limit power with checks and balances — if citizens cannot fight back, there is no check on the government; they did not want a repeat of the gun revocation and so included it in the amendments to the constitution.
While civilians with firearms could theoretically overthrow the government, it’s an extremely far fetched scenario given the levels of security and far superior resources the federal US government enjoys compared to what a civilian militia could muster. In reality, the check on government is the collective will of the people — regardless of what weaponry is available, civilians could only form a new government if a large consensus called for it.
Argument — Firearms are for Protection
A central tenant of the firearms debate in today’s world is the argument that they are for protection. This debate can splinter into two realms: domestic and foreign.
The domestic debate states that firearms are necessary for personal protection and public protection. Personal protection is understandable if not completely necessary. While the thought pattern of security is innately human, one firearm (and possibly a pistol or shotgun) should be sufficient for any possible threats you could encounter from a possible burglary, unless you’re Tony Montana... No argument against personal protection is practical, even if burglars were assumed to be unable to access firearms themselves.
But it’s public protection that poses the lesser strength of argument. In the time of the newly minted United States, public protection from the British forces, marauders, and Native Americans was often a serious need (although the morality of which is yet another debate). But in today’s world, with ample police forces, stories of public saviors using their personal firearms to dispatch evildoers are few and far between. Further, these vigilantes do not allow police officers to properly do their job. With law enforcement typically coming from offsite locations and little information to work off of, a civilian with a gun is a threat — it may be difficult to distinguish between the actual evildoer and someone who happened to be onsite with a personal firearm defending the public. At the very least, it would further complicate an already complicated situation and enhance the danger for all involved. (An interesting sub-point: an armed public could theoretically eliminate the need for a police force which offers clashing benefits for both conservatives — who promote 2nd amendment rights and high police funding — and liberals — who promote gun control and limited police funding)
The position of maintaining a civilian population equipped with and proficient with firearms as a means of national defense is outdated and quite ridiculous. While this argument is partial reason for the inclusion in the Bill of Rights, it doesn’t make sense in the modern world. The USA has the most powerful and heavily funded military forces in the world. Two truths would need to be present for the public to be in a position to have to defend itself against foreign invaders: 1) the invaders used their might to overpower the most powerful army in the world and 2) the means by which the invaders used to overpower the most powerful army in the world are surely outside the scope of what a public militia could muster with hunting rifles. The weapons and vehicles used in today’s wars are far superior to what a civilian militia could legally purchase. This theory may delay invading forces, but ultimately it would be an “Alamo situation”.
Argument — Gun Restrictions
Hunting and recreational shooting have a place in society just as every other activity does with the implied right to pursue happiness. A potential cure for gun control to maintain hunting is to adopt restrictions that are (largely) limited to hunting and rifle clubs. This practice would serve several benefits: 1) Firearms would only be held at safe locations where thieves and those contemplating suicide could not access them, 2) Wildlife officials would be able to better monitor and control populations, 3) Firearms would not be accessible to those wishing ill will on others.
The negative impact on this is of course is the case for home / personal protection. The firearm needs to be at the home in order to protect it! There could be limits though, such as permitting certain categories of firearms to be possessed by the citizen and other categories only allowed at permitted gun clubs. An additional potential negative of the “gun club”, the cache of firearms could become a target for thieves and then lead to further / greater acts of violence.
Requiring licenses specifically for gun ownership (ie. You cannot legally own one without a license) would function as a control on firearms. The pros of this approach are also the cons: the government would explicitly know who does and does not own firearms. When considered in the context of crime prevention/investigation, the government would directly influence who is capable of owning firearms and it would become much more apparent by whom a crime was committed (in those events). When considered in the context of balance of power (as per the US Bill of Rights, see above), it would reduce if not outright remove any check on government total power as firearm ownership was intended — in the event of a government takeover, those seeking absolute power would have a registrar of potential threats and would therefore know who to target.
Argument — Firearms are just one method for murder
Some may say: if guns are not accessible, people will use other methods to commit murder. Maybe true, but another weak argument… that logic wouldn’t apply in any other situation. Would you leave the windows unlocked because a determined thief would break them anyway? Would you forego a seatbelt because a bad accident would kill you anyway? Would you continue smoking because if cancer doesn’t kill you something else will?
To counter this argument, the prospect of gun control at this point (considering the sheer number and pervasive nature of firearm ownership within the country) would involve a decades long crusade to effectively reach the level of desired control many speak of. It simply isn’t practical to remove firearms from the general public and would require voluntary forfeiture that many individuals would ignore, or literally fight! Further, bipartisan consensus would have to support these efforts to avoid a change of power stalling or reversing any progress made.
In addition, the bigger problem in the firearm arena is among those trafficked illegally (as opposed to purchased legally). Limiting gun ownership wouldn’t directly address this aspect of the problem and would potentially serve to only amplify the “business opportunity” these traffickers could participate in. It could be reasonably argued that without private ownership, the black market would not have a source. However, if this were true, it would not eliminate sources but increase prices; it would reduce access and therefore prevalence, but would not unilaterally remove illegal firearms.
The True Debate
While the argument for protection has a point of purpose for home defense, it is largely overblown outside of that and given more importance than it deserves. Public and national defense are not better off because of private firearm ownership. Oftentimes, the second amendment is invoked to spread fear and menacing behavior rather than used for true protection. The most practical use for firearms today are hobbyists which should be given the opportunity to exercise their desires as long as it doesn’t negatively affect other citizens.
At the heart of this, the debate on gun control isn’t about guns at all — it’s about personal freedoms. On one side, you have the entrenched liberties of America and on the other you have the greater public good. The classic center of every American debate lies here and each side fears that the other winning would mean a waterfall precedence for everything else — but it doesn’t have to be that way. Ultimately, our society will have to decide, or continue to decide, which is more important — the personal freedoms of the individual or the good of the impacted public (who has no say in who owns a firearm)?