Though advocates on both sides often seem to miss it, the argument over gun control is an argument over the degree of control. The Second Amendment guarantees that the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. In 2010 the Supreme Court confirmed this is an individual right. But few would argue this creates an individual right to keep and bear tactical nuclear weapons. The question is where the line should and can be. Guns were an indispensable tool in conquering the American frontier. In many rural areas they are still an indispensable tool. The cultural importance of gun control lies in how it contributes to or detracts from violent crime control without crossing the line into infringement of that traditional personal right.
Single-fire muskets were the height of small arms technology at the time the Second Amendment was adopted. Muskets were inaccurate, had a short range of effectiveness, and took at least a half a minute to reload. Brisk advances in small arms technology have made guns far more powerful and accurate with the capacity to fire many rounds per minute. The exponential increase in destructive potential has made the debate over gun control much more complex and urgent. Modern small arms can decimate a crowd in the time a musket could fire a round. In 1934 Congress heavily taxed private machine gun ownership while setting up a registry of owners. In 1986 it outright banned private ownership of machine guns, with the support of the National Rifle Association, thus establishing that limiting the destructive power of individually-owned small arms was not an infringement of the traditional right to bear arms.
There is an abundance of data on the effects of permissive versus restrictive laws on gun violence. Two of the most authoritative, one by economist John Lott and the other by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), show seemingly contradictory results. Lott's study showed that states which adopted concealed carry laws almost invariably showed a statistically significant decrease in gun violence, often accompanied by an uptick in nonviolent property crimes. The CDC report shows that many of the states with the most permissive gun laws have high rates of gun violence. The studies suggest that in rural areas where gun traditions are strongest, guns are somewhat more likely to be used in violent crimes while in urban areas where guns are most heavily regulated, innocent citizens are significantly more likely to become victims. They beg the question of how to most effectively tailor specific policies to specific types of demographic areas.
Murder rates are dramatically affected by cultural and historical factors. Europe has historically had among the lowest murder rates in the world. But this is regardless of gun laws. Great Britain, which has much more restrictive gun laws than the U.S., has a much lower murder rate. Switzerland, which has much more permissive gun laws than the U.S., also has a much lower murder rate, statistically the same as Great Britain. In the 1950s, when the U.S. and Great Britain had similarly permissive gun laws, Great Britain still had a much lower murder rate. America is a rare example of a first-world country whose frontier days remain within recent memory. Politically mature, it is still in its cultural adolescence. A useful, but largely unexplored avenue of inquiry, would be the trajectory of the rate of violent crimes as older societies, such as European nations, matured.
Changing the Culture
Aggressive policing can have a dramatic impact on all crime and murder rates. In the mid-1990s, New York City adopted the "Broken Windows" theory of policing, putting an emphasis on regular police beat patrols. Petty crimes are aggressively pursued, as officials also work to quickly repair broken windows and paint over graffiti. Under old policies, the city had reached a high of 2,605 murders in 1990. The drop was quick and phenomenal. By 1998 the city was down to 924 murders and in 2012 reached a new low of 684. Petty gun crimes were also aggressively pursued under the policy. By simply changing the culture of acceptable dysfunction, New York City achieved one of the most dramatic, prolonged decreases in all violence, including guns, in the late 90s and throughout the 2000s.
Gun Control vs. Gun Rights
Gun rights activists argue that disarming victims is an ineffective way to fight crime. Gun control advocates argue that easy access to guns, particularly in urban areas, increase violence. Both have a point. Gun control is not synonymous with crime control and not every proposal to regulate firearms is an assault on gun rights. Culture, policing and mental health policies have a profound effect on crime rates. The impressive results of New York City's "Broken Windows" policies were largely applauded by advocates of both gun control and gun rights. Policies that directly attack cultural dysfunctions did, at least in New York, vigorously reduce violent crime without directly attacking gun ownership traditions and vigorously regulated gun ownership without triggering cries of foul from gun rights activists.
- Cornell University Law School; Legal Information Institute; District of Columbia v Heller
- Militaryfactory.com: Harpers Ferry, Springfield Model 1795 Musket
- More Guns, Less Crime; John R. Lott Jr.
- The Atlantic Cities: The Geography of Gun Violence
- United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime: Global Study on Homicide
- Disastercenter.com: New York Crime Rates 1960 -- 2012
- NPR.org: The Decades-Old Gun Ban That's Still On The Books
- David De Lossy/Digital Vision/Getty Images