HNN Teacher's Edition: Gun Control (Grades 9-12)

tags: Second Amendment, gun control




Worth Reading

  • New York Times backgrounder on gun control
  • HNN Hot Topics: Gun Control
  • Do Guns Cause Crime?
  • Background

    One of the three major social issues that divides along predictable ideological lines -- the others are gay rights and abortion -- gun control triggers strong emotional responses whenever it's debated. Between episodes of dramatic gun violence the debates largely take place off the front pages. Then, they suddenly materialize as people try to absorb and analyze the latest headline-grabbing horror. This happened after the Kennedy assassination, the attempt on Reagan's life, and of course all the recent mass shootings, which have taken the lives of moviegoers, voters, and of course, students.

    The most recent mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT attracted a particularly strong response with the deaths of twenty small children. That shook so many people up that some longtime gun rights supporters themselves called for action.

    The problem is always what action to take. University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, author of the Freakonomics books, argues that it is impossible to take any meaningful action given the abundance of guns. He notes there are some 300 million guns in existence in the US and that they can be expected to remain in good working order for decades. No plan likely to pass Congress, he argues, will do anything about those guns.

    Like the two other major social issues of abortion and gay rights, gun control has become a major bell of contention for the courts as well as the public. In 2008 the Supreme Court ruled that American citizens possess a personal right to a firearm. The Court did not rule out the regulation of all firearms.

    Liberal politicians inclined to call for gun control have been wary of the issue since 1993 when Bill Clinton pushed Congress to back a ban on assault weapons. Many Democrats attributed their defeat in the 1994 elections to the passage of the ban. When it expired in 2004 few Democrats pushed for its reenactment.

    Democrats from Red states fear the power of the National Rifle Association (NRA), which counts more than 4 million members.

    What do the polls say? According to Forbes:

    Looked at over a period of time, Americans view on gun control remains rather stagnant. In fact, opinions on gun control from 1993 to 2012 show that it’s nearly a dead heat between those who want to control gun ownership, and those who want to protect it.

    At the start of the Bill Clinton administration in 1993, 57 percent of Americans polled by the Pew Research Center said it was very important to control gun ownership. That rose to a whopping 66 percent in favor of stricter gun control by the time he left office in 2000. It remained relatively stable even throughout the eight years of President George W. Bush.

    Only when Obama took over did the mood start to change. It went from 60 percent in favor of gun control to just 49 percent. In 2012, it was a minority of 47 percent in favor of stricter gun laws and 46 percent in favor of the status quo.

    Recent gun violence have had little impact in swaying the public, despite the outrage at the time of their occurrence.

    What the Left Says

    In his State of the Union address President Obama called on Congress to pass gun control legislation immediately. From the New York Times:

    Mr. Obama asked Congress to reinstate and strengthen a ban on the sale and production of assault weapons that passed in 1994 and expired in 2004. He also called for a ban on the sale and production of magazines with more than 10 rounds, like those used in Newtown and other mass shootings. Mr. Obama’s plan would require criminal background checks for all gun sales, closing the longstanding loophole that allows buyers to avoid screening by purchasing weapons from unlicensed sellers at gun shows or in private sales. Nearly 40 percent of all gun sales are exempt from the system.

    He also proposed legislation banning the possession or transfer of armor-piercing bullets and cracking down on “straw purchasers,” those who pass background checks and then forward guns to criminals or others forbidden from purchasing them.

    What the Right Says

    After the school shooting in Connecticut, the national gun group indicated support for doing something about illegal gun violence: “The N.R.A. is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to make sure this never happens again.” At a press conference the head of the organization called for placing armed bodyguards in every school in the nation.

    Most conservatives believe in the slippery slope theory. They fear that measures to curb the sale of guns will lead to outright confiscation. After each recent incident gun sales have climbed as people raced to make purchases before new laws were enacted restricting the sale of guns.

    Conservatives argue that we would be safer if we possessed more guns. Criminals would hesitate to pull a gun on people if they believed people were armed.

    Historical Background

    [This summary is from an article published on HNN by Robert Spitzer, a political scientist. It has been edited to fit the needs of teachers; dated references have been dropped.]

    The issue of gun control has been with America for many decades. Most would date the modern gun control controversy to the 1960s, when assassinations and civil disorder promoted enactment of the first modern gun control law, the Gun Control Act of 1968. From that point forward, pressures to enact stronger gun laws escalated, as did resistance to these efforts. The powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) spearheaded the resistance.

    Yet, the story of gun control in America predates the 1960s. As Alexander DeConde,the late emeritus professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, describes in his account of the gun issue in America, strict gun laws existed even in colonial America. Also, they were quickly enacted in newly established frontier towns during the nineteenth century, and they were widely debated in the 1920s and 1930s. One of the many ironies of the gun issue is that the gun control proposals debated in the 1920s and 1930s were more far-reaching than the modest proposals that have drawn so much political blood in the last two decades. As Franklin D. Roosevelt's attorney general, Homer Cummings, said in 1937,"Show me the man who does not want his gun registered, and I will show you a man who should not have a gun." It is difficult to imagine any attorney general of either party uttering such a statement today.

    DeConde begins his 2001 book, Gun Violence in America: The Struggle for Control, with European antecedents, picks up in colonial America, incorporates the federal period, follows escalating gun manufacturing and use in the nineteenth century, and then describes more familiar gun developments in the twentieth century. Most of the contemporary discussion will be familiar to readers with even a passing knowledge of the gun issue. However, in addition to providing a single, complete narrative of the gun issue, DeConde's primary contribution is an integration of every important element of the debate. That is, he includes not only social behavior, practices, and changes, but the important court cases, legal enactments, and political debates that frame the issue.

    DeConde notes that guns were indeed present in colonial America from its earliest days but that the number of guns was far less than legend would have it. Further,"English colonists did bring firearms with them for self-defense as well as for offense," but they "also brought the practice of restricting gun keeping, usually to selected upper-class males" The relative rarity of firearms in America was attributable to some obvious facts, including that they were expensive (guns were either made by hand in America, or imported from abroad), were made of materials that deteriorated rapidly, meaning that they had to be constantly serviced and maintained; required considerable skill to master; required maintenance after relatively few firings; and required firing materials that were also difficult to come by and that had short shelf lives. During the Revolutionary War, 80 percent of all firearms and 90 percent of the needed powder had to be imported from France and Holland. In the early 1790s, Secretary of War Henry Knox concluded that only about 20 percent of the nation's 450,000 militiamen possessed firearms. Of the government-owned stock of 44,000 muskets, half were inoperable.

    The most interesting elements of the book include DeConde's careful discussion of social connections to guns and gun use in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The actual role of the gun in the settling of the rural American frontier was little, and strict gun controls emerged as soon as settlements were incorporated. As one cowboy noted,"this business of gunfights" was"nearly all exaggeration." Instead, the West was settled by"a lot of hard work on the range but very little shooting." (p. 86) In contrast, gun use and gun carrying became a major issue in urban areas, ultimately spurring progressive-era reformers to demand strict laws on gun carrying and possession. George Templeton Strong noted with dismay on the eve of the Civil War"An epidemic of crime" in New York City, which prompted many of his upper-class friends to purchase and carry revolvers as they walked the streets,"though it's a very bad practice," Strong added.

    By the end of the nineteenth century, two social pathologies came to dominate the gun issue, as would be true from that day to this: assassinations, and crime. So, too, emerged the primary counter-argument--the need for self-defense. Ironically, the Second Amendment would only enter the gun debate as an argument against more gun control in the 1980s. (Even during congressional hearings on what became the National Firearms Act of 1934, two representatives of the NRA, including its president, offered extended testimony in opposition to the bill before Congress, but in all of their arguments, they never even mentioned the Second Amendment.)

    Topics for Discussion

  • Can anything be done to stop gun violence?
  • Have you worried about becoming a victim of gun violence?
  • Do you think guns keep us safe or not?


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