Guns and the Impetus for Action

On Dec. 2, 2015, active shooters opened fire at a social services center in San Bernardino, Calif., killing 14 unarmed citizens in what has been cited as the largest mass murder since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school in 2012. As families and friends mourn their loved ones and authorities continue to confirm the shooting as an act of terrorism, fierce debate about gun rights has once again ensued. Since the bloodshed, the U.S. Senate has rejected a proposal to expand background checks for all gun purchases, while Missouri state representative Stacey Newman has proposed another bill to treat the gun purchasing process more like that of abortions, complete with a required 3-day waiting period. More recently, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case which would have challenged a ban on assault weapons in Chicago, and President Obama has called for action once again, condemning individuals' abilities to purchase guns regardless of whether they are authorized to do so following background checks. Even capitalism's ugly hand has been involved, with news coming to the surface that child-sized bullet proof blankets are now a best seller to schools across the country, priced at $1,000 each. Thus, much has taken place since this most recent shooting; yet, we are continuously at an impasse when looking for the solution to such carnage. While the impetus for ending gun violence is certainly alive and well, different obstacles impede in this process, including what the Supreme Court has ruled as Law of the Land, what historians and the federal courts say, what public opinion holds as true, and an overall lack of research on gun violence.

For starters, one of the biggest roadblocks when faced with finding a solution to the bloodshed is that which the Constitution has been interpreted to say on guns. In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment must no longer be interpreted as a collective right to bear arms for protection against a tyrannical government, as it had been for most of the 1900s. In the majority opinion, Justice Scalia instead argued that the Founding Fathers drafted the Second Amendment in order to protect the right of individuals to bear arms in their homes for lawful purposes, such as self-defense. With this statement, the National Rifle Association and gun enthusiasts alike cheered as the Second Amendment was resuscitated into a new obstacle for subsequent regulation of guns. From this point forward, the main argument for the protection of gun rights has come from this originalist approach to Constitutional interpretation. Consequently, from 2008 and forward, passing gun legislation cannot infringe on individuals' rights to keep and bear arms in their private homes.

Two years later in 2010, the Supreme Court had yet another ruling, this time on whether the federal handgun ban dismantled in Heller should also be applied to the states. Indeed, when all was said and done, the Supreme Court ruled in McDonald v. Chicago to apply it at a state level. Thus, the fight to regulate guns in states, and not just at a federal level, effectively became more difficult to do thanks to McDonald. In fact, both Heller and McDonald did much to effectively protect individual gun rights with a firm grasp.

Praised by originalists and gun enthusiasts, Scalia's arguments in his Heller majority opinion did contain a few holes in them however, as pointed out by historians. This has contributed to a lack of agreement on how the Second Amendment can be enforced while also protecting individuals from guns' wrath. Tribe and Matz describe in their book "Uncertain Justice" what Yale Professor of Law, Reva Siegel, deems "temporal oddities." For starters, Siegel argues that what the Founding Fathers imagined as "arms" in 1791 largely ignores technology's vast role in today's society. Arms today are starkly different, more powerful, and deadlier than those in 1791, and this alone challenges what the Fathers defined as "arms" when they drafted the Second Amendment. But perhaps the most problematic part of Scalia's majority opinion, seemingly rooted in an originalist approach, emerges when he makes an exception of individual Second Amendment gun rights against those who are felons and mentally ill; while this exception is commonsensical and should most certainly be enforced, it does clash with the very values Scalia upholds as an originalist, since gun right exceptions for felons and the mentally ill were never introduced into legislation until 1938 and 1968, respectively. Thus, the idea that individual gun rights were wholly created when the Constitution was drafted and ratified is at odds with this fact.

Federal courts have also taken what is referred to as the "consensus view," a view not quite aligned with the Law of the Land. When evaluating a gun rights case, federal courts first determine whether it relates to the Second Amendment in its originalist view. If so, the courts subsequently look at the case in terms of the present day and whether society will receive any negative ramifications as a result of granting individuals in question the right to bear arms, as stated in the Second Amendment. This can get tricky and often times confusing. Different federal courts must uphold the Second Amendment to the best of its ability, while also making the best and most calculated judgement for society at large. In fact, a federal judge in Chicago, Richard Posner, has pointed out that while the Second Amendment protects individuals' rights to keep and bear arms in the home, such a law is markedly pointless as looming danger is generally more present in public areas; however, guns in public spheres is territory which both Heller and McDonald never addressed. Thus, while both the 2008 and 2010 Supreme Court decisions laid out the foundation for what is acceptable in our country in terms of gun rights, it has gray areas and discrepancies that both historians and federal courts cannot get behind, making gun regulation more difficult and confusing due to a lack of agreement between parties.

How do the public's views on guns fit into all this? A 2015 report by the Pew Research Center revealed that while there is bipartisan agreement for expanded background checks, disagreement arises when members of the public must choose between supporting either individual gun rights, or the control of guns instead. The report further reveals that compared to Caucasian individuals, Hispanics and African Americans, on average, largely support the use of a federal government database during all sales of guns and assault rifles; more women than men usually support a complete ban of assault rifles altogether, and individuals who hold post-graduate degrees typically heavily support the banning of assault rifles, compared to only half of those who hold at least a high school degree supporting such action. Thus, while some research on public attitudes shows some bipartisan agreement on the subject, looking deeper into the statistics paints a convoluted picture of further disagreement just within the general public alone.

Finally, perhaps the biggest impediment to gun control is a lack of overall research on the topic, which may in part also contribute to the three previously mentioned roadblocks. Bohannon discusses the Centers for Disease Control's halted funding for gun violence research and subsequent suspension from conducting any research on guns due to legislation passed in 1996. Today, while gun deaths can be predicted using death certificates, extant data on gun violence does not formerly exist. Therefore, preventing research on gun violence is not only an impediment to ceasing mass shootings. It is a public health issue with many negative ramifications, and prevents fruitful conversations between Justices, historians, federal courts, and the public alike, because total numbers of casualties to guns are simply not known.

Hence, it is clear that different groups cannot agree which aspects of gun rights should be prioritized, largely resulting in a barrier to plausible action after much heated yet inadequate debate. While the answer to curtailing gun deaths may not be clear, one thing should be: the excessive amount of turmoil guns have helped generate for our friends, families, and peers must not continue.

Contacting Representatives and Senators to lift the ban on funding the CDC is important for more research to be done on gun control. Allowing for more research will help create ways in which gun safety is increased for all. Additional measures should be taken as well. For instance, if individuals are not eligible to own a gun, then such rules should be enforced. Moreover, just as car owners are required to have insurance, so must gun owners have to purchase liability insurance to protect victims of accidental shootings, which actually occur at a high rate, estimated at around 15,000 per year in the U.S. alone. Extensive training should also be a requirement for all who wish to purchase guns, since accidents are common; after all, training and lessons are required to conduct an automobile. Why not for guns as well? Finally, the use of personalized handguns which only fire after the authorized user has been confirmed can help.

The bottom line is differing views must not continue to divide us. Jeffrey Runge, a professor of medicine once said about guns "we don't care what you own. We only care when a fatality occurs." Considering all the fatalities which occurred in San Bernardino alone, it is time to do more than just care. It is time to take action.