Since Wednesday of last week (2/14/18), we have been inundated with various thoughts on the issue of gun control from many people. We, as a nation, have been forced to experience yet another horrific reminder of how the United States has the most lenient laws concerning gun control in the world. Unfortunately, the experience has costed us the lives of another 17 people from Majory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
While most recent news reports have focused upon mass shootings since Columbine in 1999, the Washington Post has provided a report that looks at the 150 shootings in which four or more people were killed by one or more shooters dating back to August 1, 1966. Nineteen of these reported shootings happened in school settings ranging from elementary to college levels. Of the 1,077 killed in these 150 shootings, 176 of the victims were children and teenagers and countless others left to deal with the traumatic scars from the incidents. According to the report, at least 292 guns were used in the 150 shootings, of which 49 guns were obtained illegally and the uncertainty of how 76 guns were acquired. With numbers and reports like these, it is quite obvious that we have a serious problem here in America.
When politics enter into the conversation about gun control, the first weapon to be brandished in the debate is the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The major issue in the debate surrounds the proper interpretation of the amendments content and what its authors originally intended when it was written. Here is what the 2nd Amendment says:
“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.”
What must be considered whenever anyone embarks on a mission to interpret the words of another is the need to understand the context in which the words were communicated. However, in situations such as reviewing the words of the 2nd Amendment, there is often a lack of clarity to its intended purpose and relation to the contemporary context. As a result, the 2nd Amendment is often viewed from two perspectives: the individual right theory and the collective rights theory. According to Cornell Law School, under the individual right theory,
“…some believe that the Amendment’s phrase “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” creates an individual constitutional right for citizens of the United States. Under this “individual right theory,” the United States Constitution restricts legislative bodies from prohibiting firearm possession, or at the very least, the Amendment renders prohibitory and restrictive regulation presumptively unconstitutional…”
Conversely, the collective rights theory suggests,
“…the prefatory language “a well regulated Militia” to argue that the Framers intended only to restrict Congress from legislating away a state’s right to self-defense…and…citizens do not have an individual right to possess guns and that local, state, and federal legislative bodies therefore possess the authority to regulate firearms without implicating a constitutional right…”
Important to realize, the intensity of the gun control debate is not a new source of contention within modern American society. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in decisions concerning gun control dating back to the case of The United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939). The resulting ruling was viewed from the collective rights stance stating that,
“…Congress could regulate a sawed-off shotgun that had moved in interstate commerce under the National Firearms Act of 1934 because the evidence did not suggest that the shotgun (in the case) has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated milita . . .and explained that the Framers included the Second Amendment to ensure the effectiveness of the military…”
This collective rights precedent was the governing rule for over 70 years until the case of The District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008). In this case, the constitutionality of the Washington D.C. handgun ban was in question. The U.S. Supreme Court overruled the decision (5-4) using the individual right position and stating that the ban was a violation of a U.S. citizen’s right to possess firearms. This ruling was reinforced with the decision in the case of McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U.S. 742 (2010).
What does this mean for us in 2018? On the heels of the Parkland, Florida incident, the gun control conflict has resurfaced. The consensus of the American people seems to be the belief that gun control legislation needs to become a high priority with the government at every level. However, there are several variables at play in this debate. For instance, in recent mass shootings, many people have argued that mental health concerns are one of the most prominent (if not, the most prominent) factors to consider when discussing gun control legislation. However, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported that there are “…four central assumptions that frequently arise in the aftermath of mass shootings:
(1) Mental illness causes gun violence,
(2) Psychiatric diagnosis can predict gun crime before it happens,
(3) US mass shootings teach us to fear mentally ill loners, and
(4) Because of the complex psychiatric histories of mass shooters, gun control “won’t prevent” another Tucson, Aurora, or Newtown“.
In addition to this, NIH also reported that,
“…the notion that mental illness causes gun violence stereotypes a vast and diverse population of persons diagnosed with psychiatric conditions and oversimplifies links between violence and mental illness. Notions of mental illness that emerge in relation to mass shootings frequently reflect larger cultural issues that become obscured when mass shootings come to stand in for all gun crime and when “mentally ill” ceases to be a medical designation and becomes a sign of violent threat…”
Another variable is the belief that one political party wants to take away the individual right mentioned in the 2nd Amendment through gun control legislation. This is where the connection of the individual right theory to the 2nd Amendment needs further explanation. In the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Justice Antonin Scalia stated,
“Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
In other words, Justice Scalia was reinforcing the fact that within the 2nd Amendment, the government has the authority to place restrictions on firearms with the intent of protecting the members of society. So the problem is not the assumption that one side is attempting to revoke the constitutional right of a U.S. citizen to bear arms. The problem, however, lies in the opposition to gun control legislation that will regulate the purchase of firearms, background investigations, possession of firearms by persons with mental health concerns and ensure the overall protection of the American population. So why is this a problem?
Sean Mungin, author of “The Thorn In The Flesh”