The Gun Control Debate: What is the Proper Balance of Liberty and Safety?


By: Chris Richard, Junior Editor 

            The massacre of 26 individuals – 20 children and 6 adults – at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut is a truly tragic event that will be remembered perhaps forever by all Americans.  There is no way to adequately describe the horror that occurred on December 14, 2012.  The tragedy at Sandy Hook, along with other recent shootings, has propelled gun control talks to the forefront of political discussion.    

The resulting debate on gun control has polarized Americans.  Along with the National Rifle Association (NRA), many Americans believe that stricter gun control laws are not the correct approach, and they fear encroachment upon their Second Amendment Rights.  On the other side of the debate are those that believe – and justifiably so – that more expansive gun control laws are entirely acceptable in order to protect all Americans, especially kids in schools.  To what extent can gun control laws be tightened before serving as an unconstitutional restriction on the Second Amendment right to bear arms?

The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”[1]  The immediate question is to what extent the Second Amendment protects the rights of Americans to bear what arms.  Some argue that the right to bear arms is a collective right given to the States, focusing on the ability of the State to raise a militia.  Others might take this notion of collective right further, arguing that it only belongs to individuals actively serving in the militia.  Conversely, others argue that the right to bear arms is a private right held by all individuals.

Justice Scalia, in his opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller,[2] resolved this debate by declaring for a majority of the Court that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms, even though not in active military service, provided that the arms are used for lawful purposes.  Importantly, Justice Scalia also noted that the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment is not boundless.  Like most rights, it may be subject to reasonable limitation.  In Heller, the Court struck down various laws prohibiting handguns in the home and requiring firearms to be disassembled or trigger-locked.  In striking down the gun controls, the Court emphasized the individual right to defend oneself, especially in one’s own home, and noted that the laws served as a ban on an entire class of weapons used for self-defense in the home.

In the current gun control debate, there are many individuals and organizations, including the NRA, that have urged that the right to bear arms includes the right to bear assault rifles.  The NRA has vehemently contested any form of gun control law that would restrict or eliminate the right to own assault rifles or high-capacity magazines.  These individuals argue that high-capacity magazines and assault weapons are simply for sport or part of how they may defend themselves.  Conversely, these groups would favor placement of a security officer in schools for the protection of students and teachers.  Such officers would be subject to intense physiological and background screening to ensure that they are fit for the duty of protecting schools.  These groups also propose expanding the budget for mental health services in an attempt to catch psychological issues before they may manifest in violence. 

On the other side of the debate are those who believe that stricter gun control laws are absolutely the answer to the problem.  Such proponents urge for assault weapons bans as well as bans on high-capacity magazines.  Furthermore, they argue that stronger background checks should be used in addition to other measures to ensure that dangerous and psychologically unstable individuals are unable to obtain firearms and other weapons.  If nothing else, they argue, it will make it that much more difficult such individuals to obtain firearms.  In addition, this group questions the opposition’s desire to possess military-style assault weapons and high capacity magazines.

The President, on January 16, 2013, introduced a series 23 executive orders relating to gun control.[3]  Among these measures are a ban on military-style assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, and the closure of several background check loopholes to prevent weapons from landing in dangerous hands.  The President also seeks to devote more attention to mental health services and evaluations, as well as make schools safer.  These measures, among others, were signed by the President along with a request that Congress pass additional gun control laws as well.[4]  Many have already questioned the President’s method for accomplishing meaningful change in gun control, arguing that it is unconstitutional to bypass Congress regarding such serious measures.  However, that is a debate for another time. 

Regardless of the method of change utilized here, it is patently clear that something must be done to prevent senseless slayings like that in Sandy Hook.  It is not quite as clear whether gun control laws are the best answer, or even the right answer at all.  It seems as though criminals and other nefarious sorts will be able to obtain their arsenal regardless of the gun control laws imposed.  The proposed gun control laws may simply make it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to obtain firearms for self-defense, while criminals may easily obtain firearms and other weapons through black markets. 

Additionally, it seems that time, efforts, and money would be better spent regulating the source of what appears to be the problem:  mental health diagnosis and treatment.  Though the President’s executive orders certainly highlight the importance of mental health in the gun debate, it arguably should be given more attention.  Our focus should not be on preventing mentally unstable individuals from obtaining guns.  Rather we should focus on diagnosis of mental disorders and disabilities that lead to violent outlash.  In this way, we may not only make the community safer, but may provide meaningful treatment and rehabilitation to individuals that suffer from mental health issues. 

In conclusion, there are certainly grounds for individuals to be upset about increased gun control laws, whether it affects their self-defense needs or their recreational desires.  At this point, however, it seems irrational to jump to the conclusion that increased gun control laws will lead down the slippery slope to an absolute ban on possession of firearms.  At the same time, it is important to note that gun control is not the only means by which to protect us from future violence.  In fact, we may benefit both society, and individuals alike, by devoting more attention to the mental health needs of America. 


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