In 1776, a small group of men met in secret to craft a document that would spark a revolution against Great Britain due to “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States” (Declaration of Independence) A revolution that would ultimately lead to the creation of a constitution that would shape a nation for over 200 years. This constitution, “the oldest written national constitution,” (Paulsen and Paulsen 3) establishes the structure of our government, separates powers among three interconnected branches, lists the rights of the governed, and grants powers to the states that make up this union but over 200 years after its creation has the spirit of the constitution not kept up with the needs of the people that it is supposed to protect. According to statistics from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) the United States averaged 10,730 homicides by firearm from 2007 – 2010, which is third to only Brazil and Columbia, which averaged 34,412* and 13,015 respectively during the same period. (Table 1 of Appendix *data for Brazil only accounts for 2007 and 2008.) A special investigation conducted by Mother Jones, the nonprofit news outlet, there have been 72 mass shootings, defined as a shooting that kills four or more people, between 1982 and October 15, 2015. “Since 1982, there have been at least 72 public mass shootings across the country, with the killings unfolding in 31 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii. Thirty-five of these mass shootings have occurred since 2006. Seven of them took place in 2012 alone.” (MotherJones.com) Where does this type of violence come from and why hasn’t the constitution protected the people of the United States?
With 72 mass shootings and thousands of people murdered every year by firearms why does America have such an affinity for guns. One doesn’t have to look far to understand the connection between America and the gun. The U.S Constitution in the second amendment of the bill of rights states “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.” (United States Constitution. Amend II.) This “right” to keep and bear arms is only considered a universal right in very few nations; the only 1st world nation that constitutionally guarantees a right to possess firearms is the United States. (Gunpolicy.org) If you look to the settling of America you can see the beginnings of our affinity for firearms.
America’s embrace of the firearm can be traced all the way back to the exploration and settling of this nation as a weapon that could defend the settlers and colonists from the indigenous groups that had settled this land before them. “ The New World was a testing ground for these rapidly developing Old World firearms. Explorers brought guns to America for protection, for hunting and to demonstrate techno-superiority…Some historians, including Keith and John J. Browne Ayes, believe Juan Ponce de Leon – who sailed to the Americas with Columbus, then led his own expeditions to the Florida peninsula in 1513 and 1521 – was accompanied by arquebusiers, explorers who carried firearms.” (Weeks. NPR.com) The gun played another crucial role in the history of America as the tool that could grant them freedom from the control of the British Empire. “Often helpful in American history — and often harmful — the portable gun has been inarguably influential in the national direction. The American Revolution would not have been won without guns.” (Weeks. NPR.com) The gun bolstered the expansion of the U.S out of the 13 original colonies and into the west. “The Colt revolver was a godsend to Western settlers — and the ultimate threat to Plains Indians…a weapon that was said to have “won the West.”” (PBS.org)
Even the film indusry in America is filled with heroes that wield guns, from the spaghetti westerns and adventure films of Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen to the non–stop action movies of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
researchers analyzed the 30 top-grossing films every year from 1950 to 2012. They identified violent sequences in each movie and noted whether the scenes included a character carrying a gun with the intention of harming or killing a living target.
Since 1950, violence in films has more than doubled, the study authors concluded. Perhaps more surprising is that gun violence in PG-13 films has tripled since 1985, even exceeding the amount found in R-rated films in more recent years. (Wilson and Hudson)
With thousands of movies released every year and the abundance of television shows and internet, Americans are exposed to gun violence multiple times a day, every day. “94% of the most popular movies since 1985 contain at least one violent scene, and half of those involve a gun.” (Wilson and Hudson)
The right of Americans to bear arms was firmly established by the United States Supreme Court in two landmark cases both of which happened in the last 10 years. Let us first look to the case of District of Columbia v. Heller. In June of 1976 the District of Columbia council voted almost unanimously “in favor of a bill restricting city residents from acquiring handguns. The law exempts guards, police officers and owners who had registered their handguns before it took effect. Under the bill, all firearms (including rifles and shotguns, which were not restricted by the law) must be kept unloaded and disassembled, except those in business establishments.” (washingtonpost.com) This law was a result of years of high levels of violent crime in the District of Columbia (D.C), where each year there were over 200 murders. (Table 2 of Appendix)
Following the passing of what some consider to be one of the strictest gun laws in the nation, the number of murders decreased for a number of years and then began to increase again to levels above and beyond that which D.C. had seen before the passing of the gun law. During that long time period, the law was challenged and upheld by the court system multiple times in cases such as Parker v District of Columbia and Seegars v Ashcroft. The Supreme Court, in a split decision, decided that
The handgun ban and the trigger-lock requirement (as applied to self-defense) violate the Second Amendment. The District’s total ban on handgun possession in the home amounts to a prohibition on an entire class of “arms” that Americans overwhelmingly choose for the lawful purpose of self-defense. Under any of the standards of scrutiny the Court has applied to enumerated constitutional rights, this prohibition—in the place where the importance of the lawful defense of self, family, and property is most acute—would fail constitutional muster. Similarly, the requirement that any lawful firearm in the home be disassembled or bound by a trigger lock makes it impossible for citizens to use arms for the core lawful purpose of self-defense and is hence unconstitutional. (District of Columbia v Heller 1)
The dissenting four Justices wanted to uphold the precedents that had been set in cases like United States v Miller and disagreed with the re-interpretation of the meaning of the 2nd amendment that was happening in this case.
Guns are used to hunt, for self-defense, to commit crimes, for sporting activities, and to perform military duties. The Second Amendment plainly does not protect the right to use a gun to rob a bank; it is equally clear that it does encompass the right to use weapons for certain military purposes. The Second Amendment was adopted to protect the right of the people of each of the several States to maintain a well-regulated militia. It was a response to concerns raised during the ratification of the Constitution that the power of Congress to disarm the state militias and create a national standing army posed an intolerable threat to the sovereignty of the several States. (District of Columbia v Heller 68)
The dissenting Supreme Court Justices do not believe that the 2nd amendment prohibits congress from enacting laws to regulate the firearms of individuals. The justices continued to argue that
The view of the Amendment we took in Miller—that it protects the right to keep and bear arms for certain military purposes, but that it does not curtail the Legislature’s power to regulate the nonmilitary use and ownership of weapons—is both the most natural reading of the Amendment’s text and the interpretation most faithful to the history of its adoption. (District of Columbia v Heller 69)
The United States v Miller case that was continuously referenced to had to do with a law passed by congress in 1934 that prohibited the possession and use of shotguns with barrels of less than 18 inches, commonly referred to as “sawed-off shotguns” The decision by the court in District of Columbia v. Heller did not in any way reverse the decision made in the United States v Miller case. Following the landmark decision in the Heller case the Supreme Court followed up with another decision that cemented the individual ownership of guns in the case Mcdonald et al. v City of Chicago, Illinois, et al.
Like the District of Columbia, the City of Chicago, enacted a law that virtually outlawed handgun possession. The court decided in this case that the 14th amendment allows for amendments stated in the bill of rights to not only apply to the federal government but also to the individual states. “The Fourteenth Amendment makes the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms fully applicable to the States. “ (Mcdonald et al. v City of Chicago, Illinois, et al) These interpretations of the constitution made by the Supreme court that changed centuries of constitutional understanding was a fear that was voiced when the constitution was being ratified. Some believed that the judiciary branch of the federal government could become too powerful and change the interpretation of the constitution based upon their political leanings or allow the executive and legislative branches to infringe upon the rights of the people. A study of federal Supreme court Justice appointments, voting and political leanings done by William Landes and Richard Posner of University of Chicago Law School determined that there is a strong correlation between the presidential appointment of Justices, political ideology, and the Justices decisions in the cases during the time when they sat on the bench.
The fraction of conservative votes cast by Justices appointed by a Republican President is greater than that cast by Justices appointed by a Democratic President… This finding, which is consistent with a large empirical literature in political science, supports the hypothesis of a self- expression argument in the judicial utility function. Justices tend to have political views similar to those of the President who appoints them. The freedom of federal judges from the usual sticks and carrots of an employment situation enables them to express those views, even though it may make them unfaithful agents of Congress (when they are interpreting federal statutes) or the framers and ratifiers of constitutional provisions (when they are interpreting the Constitution). (Landes and Posner 9)
Based on the research done by Landes and Posner it is easy to understand why many of the courts decisions on gun rights have been in favor of less control and less restrictions on guns. The National Rifle Association (NRA) spends millions of dollars every year lobbying the government and elected public officials to either loosen restriction and regulation of gun ownership or defeat bills that would close background check loopholes and make it harder to purchase or sell a gun. According to research done by the Center for Responsive Politics, over the last 5 years over 50 million dollars has been spent on lobbying for gun rights.
| Annual Lobbying on Gun Rights
|*All lobbying expenditures com from the analysis of the Senate Office of Public Records done by the Center for Responsive Politics. Data for the most recent year was downloaded on July 21, 2015.
The majority of the 50 million dollars spent on gun rights goes to the Republican Party, who had the opportunity to select many of the Justices on the U.S Supreme Court. Analysis of the political leanings of the Justices of the Supreme Court done by Landes and Posner shows that the current Supreme Court has some of the most conservative Justices to serve on the Supreme Court since 1937. By looking at their voting on cases, Justices Thomas, Scalia, Alito and Roberts are considered to be 4 of the 5 most conservative justices to serve on the court between 1937 and 2013. This glaring political leaning rekindles the arguments of many in the ratification of the constitution and the devastating potential that the Supreme Court can have on the people. Paulsen and Paulsen in the Constitution bring up the Anti-federalist position that the establishment of the Supreme Court was dangerous.
The power to interpret the Constitution, they feared, was uncheckable by anyone; the courts could thus mold the constitution into whatever they wished it to be, in effect rewriting it at will…No one would be able to stop the judges, and the judges would hold their offices for life… No errors they may commit can be corrected by any power above them, if any such power there be. They would not “confine themselves to any fixed or established rules.” (Paulsen and Paulsen 69)
With an incredible amount of money being spent to protect gun owners what can be done to protect the people of this nation from gun violence, which has been rampant in the United States for so long. No large industrialized nation has as many murders by use of firearm as the United States.
The UNODC compiled startling statistics about the amount of homicides in countries by use of firearm and the United States is among the leaders in number of people killed by firearm. In 2009 alone, the United States had over 10,000 homicides by firearm, which was more than the homicides by firearm in Canada, the U.K., Spain, Germany, Australia, Egypt and Mexico combined. To say that the United States does not have a gun violence issue is to be blind to all the data on the impact that guns are having our society. Following the mass shooting at a community college in Oregon, Washington in October of this year the Washington Post reported “The United States has gone no more than eight days without a mass shooting this year. On six days in September, there were three or more mass shootings. After Thursday’s attack at an Oregon community college, the total number of deaths by mass shooting this year through Friday is 380, with well over 1,000 injured.“ (Ingraham) It is estimated that The United States has over 40% of the worlds’ civilian owned guns but only 5% of the worlds’ population. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms estimated that in 1999 there were over 258 million firearms owned by US citizens, a rate 4.5 times higher than the level of ownership in 1950. By 1999 there was almost 1 gun for ever person in the United States. That level of ownership is the highest in the world; almost double the level of ownership of most other nations.
|Estimated gun ownership in the US
||Firearms per 1000 persons
||Handguns per 1000 persons
|SOURCES: G. KLECK, US BUREAU OF ALCOHOL, TOBACCO & FIREARMS
With the number of mass shootings increasing year after year and becoming increasingly frequent there is one bright spot. Overall the number of murders in the United States has declined over the last 20 years. According to a report by the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Department of Justice
There were 11,101 firearm homicides in 2011, down by 39% from a high of 18,253 in 1993. The majority of the decline in firearm-related homicides occurred between 1993 and 1998. Since 1999, the number of firearm homicides increased from 10,828 to 12,791 in 2006 before declining to 11,101 in 2011… While the number of firearm crimes declined over time, the percentage of all violence that involved a firearm did not change substantively, fluctuating between 6% and 9% over the same period. In 1993, 9% of all violence was committed with a firearm, compared to 8% in 2011. (Planty and Truman. 1)
With such a divisive issue as gun control and gun rights in America how can we find a way to reduce the number of death by firearm in this country, protect the people of the nation and continue to be a free and just society. Gun reform that is logical, comprehensive and considerate, is necessary for the future of this nation and its people but how do you regulate firearms when millions of dollars are spent ever year preventing just that. The courts and the people are the only options. There is legal precedence that can allow for gun reform that won’t violate the 2nd amendment, and might even result in the reinterpretation of the 2nd amendment to what it was before the decision in Heller v District of Columbia.
The Preamble of the United States Constitution clearly states that “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. “(United States Constitution. Preamble.) The ideas and spirit of the constitution are being violated if our representatives sit idle while the domestic tranquility, general welfare and liberty of the people is threatened by the lack of proper gun regulation. There is precedence that would allow for regulation of something that many people feel is a right.
Many states, cities, and universities have banned smoking indoors, in public spaces, etc without violating the Constitution’s right to liberty and privacy because “Ultimately, local and state laws banning or restricting smoking will pass constitutional muster if they are rationally
related to a legitimate government interest, such as promoting the public health.” (Schueler 129) While the states have the power to regulate public health the federal government plays a huge role and have massive influence on the public health of the nation. “when public health is thought to be at grave risk, the greater resources of the federal government are expected to be used either alone or, more often, in conjunction with the states. “ (Parmet 202) The federal government can work with the states through the Commerce Clause to regulate firearms in the U.S to close the loopholes and require extensive background checks, licensing and training. The federal government can approach firearm possession and use as a public health issue just as they have done with smoking and vaccinations. Through extensive legislation cigarettes are required to have warning labels and are heavily taxed. States require the vaccination of children to attend public schools and the federal government in an effort to assist with the implementation of the vaccinations passed the National Childhood Vaccine injury Act and granted the Department of Health and Human Services the ability to “coordinate and oversee all activities within the U.S. government related to vaccine research and development, vaccine-safety monitoring, and vaccination activities.” (Malone and Hinman 267) There are many hurdles to comprehensive gun reform. The two main political parties are as divided as they have been at any time in U.S history. Political action groups have more influence on legislation than at any point and the people are the ones who suffer.
For national gun reform to work it can’t just be on the federal government to make it work. Each State has to take a responsibility for the health and safety of the people who reside within the state by looking to close loopholes that allow criminals and the mentally ill to get firearms. The Constitution handcuffs the federal government when it comes to public health policy and allows the states to make those policies. The tranquility, welfare, and liberty promised by the Constitution is not being achieved when thousands of people are murdered in this country every year. When the actions of the few affects the Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness of the many then it is time to do the work that will help to create sustainable change for the common good. Smoking has been heavily regulated because it not only affects the health of the smoker but it also affects everyone that comes into contact with them. Vaccinations are mandated around the country because it also not only affects the person that wasn’t vaccinated but peoples the health of everyone around them in jeopardy. Guns are no different; they are commonly used in suicides and affect the lives of Americans all over the country. Freedom, one of the founding principles of America, is threatened when you are afraid to send you children to school, go to a movie theatre, or just leave your home at night to go to the store. The first step is providing funding for studies on gun violence and what policies might help to stem the tide of mass shootings and gun violence overall. The hardest step is always the first one but if we don’t take that step we’ve lost the meaning of freedom.
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