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September 21st 06, 08:46 AM
A Case for Gun Control

What is freedom? (A separate essay)

The Second Amendment

The moral arguments why the 2nd is not absolute
The legal arguments why the 2nd is not absolute
The problem with guns

Gun murders

Justifiable homicide
Women's self-defense
The "collective self-defense"
The Lott report
Other weapons
A proposal for rational gun control


The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution:

"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

OK, what does this mean? Does it mean that all people should have the
ability to possess whatever arms they wish?

Pro-gunners disagree on the limits of this bill: some people believe
it should be absolute, and any and all arms should be legal. Some
pro-gunners draw what seems to be obvious limitations, for instance,
the owning of a nuclear weapon or other weapon of mass destruction
should be illegal. Some go even further, and declare that such heavy
military equipment such as tanks, bazookas, etc., should be illegal,
and then some believe that reasonable controls on items such as
automatic machine guns are all right.

So, there is obviously much disagreement already about the limitations
of the 2nd. One thing is clear, though, and that is it can be limited
to a certain extent, morally and legally. First, lets look at the
moral arguments:

The moral arguments why the 2nd is not absolute

First, it important to note that no right is absolute, even those
supposedly granted by God and guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. For
example, even though the 1st Amendment guarantees me the right to free
speech, the right is limited. I cannot publish a newspaper in which I
claim that a certain public figure, for example the president of a
major company, is a cocaine user, if that fact is known to me to be
completely untrue. It would be called libel, and it is a valid
abridgment of my rights. The classic example of an abridgment of
freedom of speech is the imminent danger rule: I cannot stand up in a
crowded theatre and scream that there is a fire (if there is not),
because the ensuing panic may cause injury.

The reason abridgment of rights is sometimes valid is that rights can
very easily clash. In the example above, my right to free speech
clashes with the people in theatre's rights to not be trampled. The
same analysis can be applied to the 2nd Amendment. If the right to own
a gun interferes with public safety, that right can morally be
abridged, in order to protect public safety. And the courts have
agreed with this position, as follows.

The legal arguments why the 2nd is not absolute

Throughout the history of the USA, many Court decisions have limited
the right to keep and bear arms. The Miller case in the early 20th
century limited the right to own certain classes of weapons. More
recently, we have the following from the United States Court of
Appeals, Sixth Circuit, which indicates that the clause about "a well
regulated militia" does not mean that the average citizen is part of
that militia: "Since the Second Amendment right 'to keep and bear
arms' applies only to the right of the state to maintain a militia,
and not to the individual's right to bear arms, there can be no
serious claim to any express constitutional right of an individual to
possess a firearm." (Stevens v. U.S., United States Court of Appeals,
Sixth Circuit, 1971).

A similar ruling from the Seventh Circuit held that "Construing [the
language of the Second Amendment] according to its plain meaning, it
seems clear that the right to bear arms is inextricably connected to
the preservation of a militia . . . We conclude that the right to keep
and bear handguns is not guaranteed by the Second Amendment." (Quilici
v. Village of Morton Grove, U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit,

Recently, although the Supreme Court has not issued a clear cut ruling
on 2nd Amendment rights, a 1992 decision by the conservative majority
stated that "Making a firearm without approval may be subject to
criminal sanction, as is possession of an unregistered firearm and
failure to pay the tax on one, 26 U.S.C. 5861, 5871." (UNITED STATES,
the United States Court of Appeals for the federal circuit, June 8,
1992). This opinion, written by Justice David Souter and joined by
Chief Justice William Renhnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor,
indicates that the Supreme Court has a right to limit 2nd Amendment
rights. So, it is clear that the 2nd is not absolute, and thus cannot
be used as a prima facie reason why any gun should be legal.

Above, I referred to the debate even within the pro-gun camp over the
limits of the 2nd. If the 2nd truly gave the right to keep and bear
arms without any infringement, then surely such high-intensity arms
such as nuclear missiles and tanks should be legal -- or your 2nd
Amendment "rights" are being abridged! Obviously, allowing free and
easy access to any kind of armament would be a bad idea, so there
should be some practical limitation. The question then becomes, who
decides what these limits should be? The answer, of course, is that
the people decide, through their representatives and the limited
representation of the Supreme Court.

But what about the intent of the 2nd? Many pro-gunners believe that
the 2nd is the Constitution's way of making sure that our government
never becomes tyrannical, and ensures that if it does, we will be able
to overthrow it.

There are a few reasons why this is not a good argument. First and
most important, the Constitution was a document intended to create a
government that could be changed by the people through peaceful means,
and it has succeeded for over 200 years to that effect. Other
democratic means exist to change, or even overthrow, the government.
One counter-argument sometimes heard here is that if the government
disarms the populace, the populace is ripe for a dictatorial takeover,
and cannot fight back. My response to this is simple: America has over
270,000,000 citizens at last count. No dictator could "take over"
without popular support of these citizens.

There is always the possibility (although an incredibly remote one)
that another Hitler may arise to power, democratically elected and
supported, and begin to ignore the basic ideals of life, liberty, and
the pursuit of happiness. But not only can we elect our leaders, we
can un-elect them as well. We have extensive checks and balances to
make sure no one person or agency can have too much power, and we have
a healthy respect for democracy earned over 200 years. These are
features that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan lacked. There is always
the possibility that another Hitler will come, yes, but in the
meantime, we have at least ten thousand a year dying from guns, and
countless more injured. We must weigh this certainty against the
infinitesimally small chance that our well-constructed checks and
balances will suddenly all fail.

Finally, there is the old canard about slavery; that only people with
guns can avoid being slaves, and that only slaves lack the right to
basic self defense. The response here is quite simple-when as many
people die of gun related incidents as do every year, you are already
a slave. You are a slave to a system in which you feel you need to
carry a gun for self-protection. You are a slave to the chaos that
mankind has worked for millennia to civilize. Perhaps we are all
violent beasts at heart, and that will never change. But evidence of
peaceful, relatively violent-crime-free societies such as Japan
indicate that perhaps we can "all just get along."


The problem with guns

The problem with guns is fairly straightforward: they make it easy to
kill or injure a person. In Jeffrey A. Roth's Firearms and Violence
(NIJ Research in Brief, February 1994, found at
http://sun.soci.niu.edu/~critcrim/guns/gun.viol), he points out the
obvious dangers:

Approximately 60 percent of all murder victims in the United States in
1989 (about 12,000 people) were killed with firearms. According to
estimates, firearm attacks injured another 70,000 victims, some of
whom were left permanently disabled. In 1985 (the latest year for
which data are available), the cost of shootings--either by others,
through self-inflicted wounds, or in accidents--was estimated to be
more than $14 billion nationwide for medical care, long-term
disability, and premature death. (Editor's note: the number of gun
victims has increased since 1989 to 15,456 gun homicides in 1994.
Source: FBI UCR report.)
In robberies and assaults, victims are far more likely to die when the
perpetrator is armed with a gun than when he or she has another weapon
or is unarmed.
(Dr. Jeffrey A. Roth served as study director for the Panel on the
Understanding and Control of Violent Behavior. Currently he is
research director in the Bethesda, Maryland, office of the Law and
Public Policy area of Abt Associates, Inc.)


Gun murders

Obviously, there are different types of gun murder. There is 1st
degree, premeditated murder, in which case the gun just made it
easier, but the killer probably would have killed anyway, given that
he had time to premeditate. But after that, there is murder in course
of other crime, acquaintance murders in the heat of passion, and
criminal negligence. And naturally, there are the non-lethal injuries
from firearms as well. These non-lethal injuries have actually been
going down recently, but this is not because the number of shootings
is going down; but rather that emergency room doctors and technology
are getting better equipped to deal with gunshot victims. (Source:
1996 N.Y. Times News Service: "An improvement in emergency medical
services and hospital trauma centers, so that many gunshot victims who
might have died in the past are now saved.")

In the case of murder in course of other crime, it is obvious from Dr.
Roth's research above that the presence of a gun makes the crime more
potentially lethal. And in the case of acquaintance murders, the
presence of a gun makes it easier to kill, makes the killing more
instantaneous, more detached, makes the killer have to think not at
all about what he is doing. In short, people are not always thinking
rationally, and when there is a gun around, it is easier for an
irrational person to do greater damage.

In addition, although we hear a great deal about the tens of thousands
who die from gunshot wounds, we don't hear enough about the countless
tens of thousands of others who are injured by gunshot wounds.
Increasingly, hospital emergency rooms are getting better at treating
gunshot wounds, which leads to less gunshot deaths. For this reason,
looking at gunshot deaths alone is misleading, and only a small part
of the picture.



Residents of homes where a gun is present are 5 times more likely to
experience a suicide than residents of homes without guns (Arthur L.
Kellermann, MD, MPH; Frederick P. Rivara, MD, MPH; Grant Somes, PhD;
Donald T. Reay, MD; Jerry Francisco, MD; Joyce Gillentine Banton, MS;
Janice Prodzinski, BA; Corinne Fligner, MD; and Bela B. Hackman, MD,
Suicide in the Home in Relation to Gun Ownership, The New England
Journal of Medicine, Vol. 327, No. 7, August 13, 1992, pp. 467-472.)
Although the reader may or may not disagree with the morality behind
suicide being illegal, the fact remains that a gun makes it easier to
commit suicide in a fit of rage, depression, or under the influence of
drugs or alcohol. Furthermore, there is conflicting evidence as to
whether any kind of substitution occurs.



Dr. Roth argues that "Self-defense is commonly cited as a reason to
own a gun. This is the explanation given by 20 percent of all gun
owners and 40 percent of all handgun owners contacted for a household
survey conducted in 1979. (Decision-Making Information, Inc.,
Attitudes of the American Electorate Toward Gun Control, Santa Ana,
California: Decision-Making Information, Inc., 1979).

But research has shown that a gun kept in the home is 43 times more
likely to kill a member of the household, or friend, than an
intruder.(Arthur Kellermann and Donald Reay. "Protection or Peril? An
Analysis of Firearm Related Deaths in the Home." The New England
Journal of Medicine, vol. 314, no. 24, June 1986, pp. 1557-60.) The
use of a firearm to resist a violent assault actually increases the
victim's risk of injury and death(FE Zimring, Firearms, violence, and
public policy, Scientific American, vol. 265, 1991, p. 48).

Dr. Roth does cite that there may be some self-defense benefit:
victims who defended themselves with guns were less likely to report
being injured than those who either defended themselves by other means
or took no self-protective measures at all. Thus, while 33 percent of
all surviving robbery victims were injured, only 25 percent of those
who offered no resistance and 17 percent of those who defended
themselves with guns were injured. For surviving assault victims, the
corresponding injury rates were, respectively, 30 percent, 27 percent,
and 12 percent. (Kleck, Gary, "Crime Control through the Private Use
of Armed Force," Social Forces, 35 (1988):1-22.)

But he goes on to argue that these statistics are "an insufficient
basis for the personal decision whether or not to obtain a gun for
self-protection.... First, the decision involves a trade-off between
the risks of gun accidents and violent victimization. Second, it is
not entirely clear that the relatively few robberies and assaults in
which victims defended themselves with guns are typical of these types
of crimes and that the lower injury rates resulted from the
self-defense action rather than some other factor. Perhaps offenders
lost the advantage of surprise, which allowed victims not only to
deploy their guns but also to take other evasive action."

Research by Dr. Arthur Kellerman has shown that keeping a gun in the
home carries a murder risk 2.7 times greater than not keeping one.
That is, excluding many other factors such as previous history of
violence, class, race, etc., a household with a gun is 2.7 times more
likely to experience a murder than a household without one, even while
there was no significant increase in the risk of non-gun homicides!

This study (Arthur Kellermann et. al., "Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor
for Homicide in the Home," The New England Journal of Medicine,
October 7, 1993, pp. 1084-1091) has been much maligned by the gun
lobby, but despite repeated efforts to tar it as non-scientific, its
publication in one of the most respected peer-reviewed journals in the
world is just one indiciation of its soundness. For a complete and
vigorous defense of the study, please see this essay by Steve Kangas.

Obviously, there is a problem with criminals having access to guns,
which is why so many people feel they, too, need a gun for
self-defense. But this is a vicious cycle: FBI Crime Reports sources
indicate that there are about 340,000 reported firearms thefts every
year. Those guns, the overwhelming amount of which were originally
manufactured and purchased legally, and now in the hands of criminals.
Thus, the old credo "when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have
guns" is silly. What happens is many guns bought legally are sold or
stolen, and can then be used for crime. If those 340,000 guns were
never sold or owned in the first place, that would be 340,000 less
guns in the hands of criminals every year. Part of the reason there
are so many guns on the street in the hands of criminals is precisely
because so many are sold legally. Certainly, there will always be a
way to obtain a gun illegally. But if obtaining a gun legally is
extremely difficult, the price of illegal guns goes way up, and
availability goes way down. Thus, it is much more difficult for
criminals to obtain guns.


Justifiable homicide

A study of 743 gunshot deaths by Dr. Arthur Kellermann and Dr. Donald
Reay published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that 84%
of these homicides occurred during altercations in the home. Only 2 of
the 743 gunshot deaths occurring in the home involved an intruder
killed during an attempted entry, and only 9 of the deaths were
determined by police/courts to be justified (FE Zimring, Firearms,
violence, and public policy, Scientific American, vol. 265, 1991, p.
48). The evidence revealed in the Kellermann study is consistent with
data reported by the FBI. In 1993, there were 24,526 people murdered,
13,980 with handguns, yet only 251 justifiable homicides by civilians
using handguns. (FBI, Crime in the United States: Uniform Crime
Reports 1994, 1995).


Women's self-defense

Women's self-defense implies that since women are physiologically
weaker than men, guns are the great equalizer, and women can use them
to protect themselves. I think perhaps it would be best to leave this
discussion to the women, don't you? The following women's associations
have come out in support of the Brady Bill, which mandates a waiting
period and background check on firearms purchases:

American Medical Women's Ass'n, General Federation of Women's Clubs,
Int'l Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, League of Women Voters of the
United States, Nat'l Council of Jewish Women, Nat'l Council of Negro
Women, Nat'l Organization for Women, Women's Nat'l Democratic Club,
Women Strike for Peace, Women's Action for New Directions (WAND),
Women's Int'l League for Peace and Freedom, YWCA of the U.S.A.

If this many women, from a cross-section of society, support gun
control, perhaps women do not perceive a need to own a gun, and male
lawmakers and critics have no right to claim otherwise.


The "collective self-defense"

The "collective self-defense" argument is that if many Americans own
guns, it is better for the general welfare of the country in case we
are invaded by a foreign power. This is silly given the strength of
the American military. Often, this paranoia is manifested in fears of
a increasingly powerful United Nations, but this is even sillier, as
the United States maintains veto power in the Security Council (and
would thus have far more to lose by withdrawing from the UN, despite
what some radical critics have said). Thus, there is no present danger
to the United States from foreign invasion of any kind, and if the
danger arises, and arming the general populace becomes necessary, it
should be done through the auspices of the US Military, where people
will be guaranteed to receive training in marksmanship, and more
importantly, gun safety.

We can see how dangerous the "collective self-defense" argument by
looking at amateur militias in America. Although the majority of
militia members, like the majority of Americans, are probably
peaceful, law-abiding citizens, it is rather dangerous for citizens'
groups that are not under any sort of "well-regulated" supervision,
and answering to nobody, to be conducting exercises that make them a
potential paramilitary force capable of extreme damage. Such exercises
are better left to those who are well-regulated, i.e., the United
States Armed Services and the National Guard.


The Lott report

Recently, a study published by John Lott (a Law Professor at the
University of Chicago) and David Mustard (a U. Chicago graduate
student) has indicated that recently enacted laws in states allowing
the legal carry of concealed weapons has reduced violent crime in
those states. However, there are numerous problems with this study
that have not been addressed, even when directed to Professor Lott

For example, when asked under the rubric of causality, how the falling
crime rates affects their study, Lott said "The general changes in
crime rates is not a problem for our paper since we control for
individual year dummies which take out any year-to-year changes that
are occurring in crime rates." What this ignores is that the
year-to-year changes are precisely what is important, and if crime
rates are already dropping, then adding the laws they defend and
pointing to their success in lowering crime rates begs the question of
causality, which they never demonstrate.

Another difficulty in his figures is population motion. For example,
he claims that Florida's violent crime rate dropped dramatically after
the passing of CCW laws, but he does not take into account the
enormous migration of the elderly and retirees into that state during
his examination period. Such an influx of elderly citizens (not
usually violent criminals!) would certainly push the crime rate down,
as the population of law abiding citizens rose dramatically.

Furthermore, they admit right in their study that "Using county level
data has some drawbacks. Frequently, because of the low crime rates in
many low population counties, it is quite common to find huge
variations in the arrest and conviction rates between years." So,
their solution is "to limit the sample to only counties with large
populations. For counties with a large numbers of crimes, these waves
have a significantly smoother flow of arrests and convictions relative
to offense." Thus, the limited sample also limits the accuracy of
their study. They say that "an alternative solution is to take a
moving average of the arrest or conviction rates over several years,"
but then go on to say that this "reduces the length of the usable
sample period, depending upon how many years are used to compute this
average. Furthermore, the moving average solution does nothing to
alleviate the effect of multiple suspects being arrested for a single
crime." These are real problems which Prof. Lott did not address, even
when directly asked via e-mail.

More criticism on the Lott report from Johns Hopkins University
Professor Stephen Teret can be found here.


Other weapons

"People kill with knifes, too. Do you want to ban knifes?" From Dr.
Roth's study: The overall fatality rate in gun robberies is an
estimated 4 per 1,000--about 3 times the rate for knife robberies, 10
times the rate for robberies with other weapons, and 20 times the rate
for robberies by unarmed offenders. (Cook, Philip J., "Robbery
Violence," Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 78-2,
(1987):357-376.) For assaults, a crime which includes threats, the
most widely cited estimate of the fatality rate is derived from a 1968
analysis of assaults and homicides committed in Chicago. The study,
prepared for the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of
Violence, reported that gun attacks kill 12.2 percent of their
intended victims. This is about 5 times as often as in attacks with
knives, the second most deadly weapon used in violent crimes.(Newton,
G.D., and F.E. Zimring, Firearms and Violence in American Life: A
Staff Report Submitted to the National Commission on the Causes and
Prevention of Violence, Washington, D.C.: National Commission on the
Causes and Prevention of Violence, 1969.) With one exception, more
recent studies have generally concluded that death was at least twice
as likely in gun assaults as in knife assaults. (The exception is
Kleck and McElrath, "The Effects of Weaponry on Human Violence.")

An offshoot of this argument is the old classic "cars kill more people
than guns, but we don't ban cars." The response to this irrelevant
argument is that cars have other usage, whereas guns basically just
kill, or threaten to kill. Their one potentially valid use,
self-defense, is undercut by the statistics by Kellerman and Zimring
previously cited, as well as fatal weaknesses in the arguments of Lott
and Kleck.


A proposal for rational gun control

Although I would personally like to see as many civilian-owned guns
eliminated from mainstream society as possible, I realize that this is
not a politically realistic goal. Thus, I present my own plans for gun
control that I would consider a valid compromise. Perhaps policy
discussions can start from these.

1. A national system for registering guns and ammunition. Part of the
reason New York City has stiff gun laws and high gun death rates is
that anybody can go from New York to a state with less restrictive
laws, get a friend who lives in the state to buy the guns for them,
and take those guns back to NYC. (Yes, I am aware this is illegal, but
it happens.) First, a national system would prevent this by scaring
those "friends" into not buying the guns legally and selling them
illegally, for if the guns are used in an illegal crime, that person
can be held accountable. Second, a national system would be more
helpful in tracking crimes after they have happened, to bring the
perpetrators to justice.

2. Instant background checks on people attempting to buy guns or
ammunition. Brady is still patchwork, and does indeed have its flaws
in tracking felons. Felons and ex-cons should not have access to
weapons, and many misdemeanors and juvenile crimes should also count
against a person's record.

3. Stiffer sentences for gun crimes. This has been the position of the
NRA for quite some time, and it is certainly one with which I agree.

4. Gun education. Many guns are involved in accidents that could
easily have been prevented by a little care or forethought. Perhaps
gun purchasers should be required to take lessons in gun safety, at
the purchaser's expense. Again, the NRA has long been a proponent of
gun education.

5. General education. Study after study has concluded that there is a
direct correlation between lack of education and violent crime. Every
dollar spent on education now will prevent countless dollars worth of
crime damage in the future. Think of all the private and public funds
used to pay for gun violence -- hospital bills, funerals, insurance
bills, the actual cost of buying firearms. Now invest that money in
education, and watch the crime rate drop.

6. Hand grip ID tagging. This is technologically probably still in the
future, but it would be a good goal to work for. The theory is, each
gun is "registered" to one's person palm prints (the legal purchaser
of the gun), and only that person can fire that gun. If another person
tries, the gun simply will not fire. Thus, stolen guns become useless,
and cannot be used to harm anybody in the course of a crime.

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