Our country leads the world in mass shootings. Wikipedia lists more than 250 in 2022 alone. Gun violence, it seems, has eclipsed even COVID and the war in Ukraine as a center of attention and debate.
Most Democrats and independents favor some form of gun control, while many Republicans, determined to protect the Second Amendment, resist such regulations. A group of federal legislators recently agreed in principle on modest changes. Meanwhile, Ohio has just passed a law intended to arm teachers and encourage concealed carry.
Although politically I’m on the left, I sympathize to a degree with gun rights advocates and their concerns. That sympathy is based on tenets laid out in our founding documents. The Declaration of Independence states that we all share a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Governments, it says, are established to protect those rights and, should a government impede them, citizens may alter or abolish it. Endorsement of the power to depose tyrants, however, is followed by a cautionary note: “Prudence … will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes….”
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On balance, most Americans believe our government to be reasonably sound. Still, some on both the right and left contend that any government may grow repressive. Should that occur, and if only the government and its emissaries are armed, citizens will be helpless. The military junta ruling Myanmar, and Chinese authorities’ treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, illustrate the danger.
The Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, and other right-wing conspiracy theorists fear that a crackdown by the US government is imminent and feel a need to arm themselves. Anti-government militias on the left are less prominent, but partial analogies exist. The 1970s’ “Weather Underground” may fit the bill. Similarly, the Black Panthers believed that police violence against their communities could only be deterred through armed self-defense.
Few Americans are inclined to shoot it out with the police. Some, however, are sufficiently concerned about the possibility of governmental overreach that they wish to arm themselves. Others do not currently own weapons but insist upon the right to do so should they someday feel it necessary.
Such concerns existed at our nation’s founding; therefore, the Constitution’s architects included, the Second Amendment: “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.”
Although this proclamation’s precise meaning has been long debated, its implementation makes clear that the right to possess arms is not absolute. Not even the most ardent pro-gun activists suggest that private individuals should wield nuclear bombs, ballistic missiles, tanks, or anti-aircraft artillery. A line exists restricting the right to bear arms in the interest of public safety. The question is where to draw that line.
Few gun control advocates object to responsible citizens owning hunting rifles. While some question the wisdom of keeping pistols for self-protection, there is little clamor for a legal prohibition. Semi-automatic military-grade weapons such as AR-15 rifles, which can kill large numbers very quickly, on the other hand, are fiercely debated.
Gun rights activists proclaim that guns don’t kill people; people do. People, however, kill people with guns. It’s true that one can kill with other weapons. Sometimes killers use poison, knives or even cars. But guns, especially semi-automatic rifles, are far more efficient. To focus our attention on guns and gun control, therefore, makes sense.
Gun control opponents frequently declare, “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” That is a catchy slogan with a kernel of truth. But the point of gun control is not to take guns from responsible citizens; it’s to make it harder for “outlaws” (that is, irresponsible, anti-social characters) to acquire firearms.
We routinely regulate other potentially-dangerous objects. We limit who can write prescriptions for powerful drugs. To fly a plane or drive a car, one needs a license. For a competent adult, a driver’s license is fairly easy to obtain and millions of Americans possess them and drive every day.
To obtain a license, however, one must take a test and demonstrate competence. Individuals with certain physical or mental disabilities may be precluded. And irresponsible behavior likely to place others at risk — for example, repeatedly driving while intoxicated — can be grounds for rescinding a license.
Likewise, regulation of gun ownership makes sense. Such regulations should include training to ensure competence, background checks to disqualify those with a history of violence and laws to keep particularly lethal weapons off the street. The proposed gun control framework, should it become law, won’t by itself resolve solve the problem. It will, however, be a small step in the right direction.
Rick Feinberg is professor emeritus of anthropology at Kent State University.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: World's leader in mass shootings needs reasonable gun control