In the wake of another tragic school shooting in the United States last month, gun control advocates have raised their voices louder than ever before. For those of us living in similar industrialised countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, or Australia, it’s easy to think of strict gun control legislation as a foregone conclusion. However, implementing new legislation, particularly in a country where this is a highly controversial topic, is not as simple as it may seem to outside observers.
While it is easy to look at the United States and say they should follow the example of our own home countries, in reality, the question of what gun control in America may look like is far more complex. Hypothesising on what this new legislation may entail is a great opportunity to apply critical thinking skills. As you’ll see, these skills prompt the same need for evaluation, questioning, and reasoning that American law-makers will need to apply should they attempt to define and legislate on gun control. Here are some of the questions they may need to consider:
What Exactly Should Be Banned?
When discussing gun control, there is a vast amount of room for the interpretation of that term itself. Does gun control mean a complete and total ban of all firearms? Or does it mean limiting the type of firearms available for sale? Does gun control allow for hunting weapons and recreational firearms? How could gun control limit the type of citizen who has the right to bear arms and what governing body has the authority to make those choices?
Many advocates for gun control concede that there is room for the legal possession of hunting rifles but advocate a total ban on automatic assault weapons. However, one must also consider how each weapon is made. Should a ban on automatic weapons include a ban on the sale of individual parts which can be used to modify or build a more dangerous firearm? And if a ban upholds an individual’s right to possess a hunting rifle, what is there to stop the individual from using that weapon in an illegal or violent way? In addition, some have recently suggested age- restrictions on purchasing firearms based on the general statistics of perpetrators. Is age-based profiling a form of gun control that citizens are comfortable with? And how likely is it that those generalisations can be dangerously extended to condone racial or gender-based restrictions?
These questions all relate to the overall issue of increased background checks which is supported by many people on both sides of the debate. As then President Obama argued at an Indiana town hall event in 2016, increasing the stringency of background checks and the criteria for responsible gun ownership doesn’t inherently pose a threat to the rights of law abiding citizens. However that does beg the question of what criteria should be used to determine whether or not an individual could own and use a firearm legally and safely?
What About Existing Gun Possession?
One question that Americans will have to think about is what to do with the very large number of guns already legally in the possession of citizens. Some may encourage them to follow the examples of Australia, Argentina, and Brazil which have all implemented gun buyback programmes. All three countries offered financial compensation to citizens who surrendered their firearms and studies suggest that these programmes were successful in reducing firearms deaths. However, Argentina’s buyback programme which was voluntary and anonymous eliminated only 7% of the country’s total number of guns.[i] On the other hand, Australia’s buyback programme confiscated 650,000 firearms and coincided with a reduction in the homicide rate by 42% over following years.[ii] In addition, the country’s suicide rate fell by 57% in the same time-frame.[iii]
Despite the statistical success of buyback programmes in other countries, similar efforts in the United States have met with mixed results. During a gun buyback programme in Baltimore in 1974, gun homicides and assaults actually rose, though no reason for the increase has been given and there is no evidence that the two were causally linked.[iv] In 1994, a study was done to analyse a 1992 buyback in Seattle which found that the “effect on decreasing violent crime and reducing firearm mortality is unknown.”[v] Furthermore, since the right to bear arms is seen as a constitutional right and held as a fundamental value for many of the country’s citizens, it is also important to evaluate how a buyback programme might be resisted or undermined by gun advocates. Some people even suggest that a buyback programme would spark increased violence as gun advocates defend their belief in their right to bear arms. On the other hand, small-scale buyback programmes in various states over the years have successfully taken many guns out of the hands of civilians in exchange for financial compensation.
How Will Gun Control Impact The Crime Rate And Mass Incarceration Issue?
Criminalizing the possession of firearms has the potential to increase the crime rate should gun advocates refuse to surrender their weapons. As seen with the War on Drugs, criminalizing certain kinds of behaviour can have a big impact on the legal system, crime rates, and mass incarceration. How will the Judicial Branch deal will a potentially sudden and significant increase in crime as gun-owners hold on to their newly illegal possessions? In addition, how much of the police’s valuable resources should be allocated to rounding up firearms and otherwise law-abiding citizens?
Legislators will have to think carefully about how to handle the transition away from a gun-owning citizenry. Since gun ownership is an ideological right for many people, they may choose not to participate in a buyback programme as a statement of their political ideology. Should they do so, would incarcerating these citizens who have chosen to keep their guns as a form of protest turn them into political prisoners?
As we can see, the practical concerns of changing not just the legislation but also the ideology of a nation is extremely complex. While the majority of the industrialized world sees gun control as an essential step to creating a peaceful and safe society, it is important to apply critical thinking to figure out the best possible way to achieve that ideal when changing centuries-old beliefs, rights, and laws.