Gun Control in the USA

Overview of Oregon shooting:

Facts and figures about gun control:

For the 15th time since taking office, Obama was once again addressing the Nation this week to extend his sympathies following a mass shooting at a community college in Oregon. The tragedy, which left 10 dead, has again sparked debate about gun control in the US, a debate which is never far from the surface of US politics.

For students, the application of such debate must be sensible however – it is very easy to get swept up in the emotion of a tragedy or to see the relationship America has with guns through purely British eyes. In the same way that some Americans simply cannot understand our nationalised health service, many Brits do not understand the need for, or proliferation of, guns in the USA. So, how to use this example?

Most obviously, it ties in with debates on how effectively constitutional rights are being upheld. The right to bear arms, being the second amendment to the Constitution, is something that many Americans hold dear. Given the difficulties that Obama has faced in trying to gain tighter gun controls (for example the failure of the Machin-Toomey Amendment after Sandy Hook in 2012) this could be an example of this right being defended. However, the students aiming for top grades will need to make a distinction between the views on this amendment:

The text of the 2nd Amendment reads, “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.”

More conservative readers of the Constitution, those who are often referred to as ‘Originalists’ (i.e. understanding the text of the Constitution with more of a literal interpretation) tend to focus on the final 13 words – the right shall not be infringed. This is used as the main defence of gun-ownership in the USA. The more liberal readers of this text, often referring to a ‘Living Constitution’, argue for the first 13 words and say that the document needs to be interpreted in today’s society for it to remain relevant. They would argue that with the strongest military in the world, it is not necessary for US citizens to have guns in order to defend themselves.

For those who are Originalists, looking at what the text originally meant, there is a logical problem with this argument anyway. To argue the Founding Fathers clearly intended for them to be able to own guns often ignores the fact that, in this case, the ‘arms’ that the Founding Fathers would have been referring to would have been muskets, rather than the sort of weapons that are available today. This conservative argument seems odd, saying on the one hand that the Constitution should be interpreted literally for gun ownership, yet on the other being prepared to interpret the meaning of ‘arms’ as meaning high-powered rifles.

Students could also look at this amendment and compare it to the intentions of the Founding Fathers (so far as we can reasonably work them out!). Having just fought the British and won, the newly freed states were still surrounded by European imperial powers in the 19th Century; Britain, Spain and France were all a local threat. Therefore, lacking a national army, arming citizens was a quick way to mount some defence of the newly formed Union should it be required. This seems a most sensible and feasible reason for the second amendment given the text, “necessary to the security of a free state”. Conservatives may argue the Founding Fathers intended for this to also allow citizens to defend themselves against a tyrannical government, having just freed themselves from the British. The evidence for this is not as clear-cut from the text however. In fact it could be argued that the text clearly states “a well regulated militia” which does not seem to support individual citizens owning guns. Certainly a past paper question has come up on this before asking if the Constitution today is what the Founding Fathers intended and this would be useful evidence.

Finally, this could also be used for Parties, President and Congress topics, when trying to evaluate why gun control is so difficult to pass in the USA. So much of the reasoning for this stems from the way the Constitution set up government in the U.S. – checks and balances means that each branch can thwart the other; federalism means states retain their own rights too; bipartisanship requirements of the amendment process needing 2/3rds agreement in a country divided almost down the middle is almost impossible to agree; and so on. Trying to get agreement on an issue as divisive and controversial as gun control is almost impossible under this system of government. Indeed, while Obama lamented that these mass shooting are now “routine”, Jeb Bush responded that “stuff happens”…

Ultimately, there is lots to use here, and once you’ve got your head around the academic arguments, here is some lighter relief about gun control from the satirical American website, The Onion –