Of all the so-called "third rail" issues facing American politics, from tax reform to health care, perhaps none provokes such polarized responses as gun control. It resurfaces any time a shooting makes national headlines, followed almost immediately by concerns from Second Amendment advocates that such occasions are "too soon" for a frank, open discussion of gun rights and restrictions. It took a ghastly tragedy — the murder of 26 people, including 20 children at a Connecticut elementary school — to reopen the nationwide debate.
To call the Sandy Hook shootings "unthinkable" would be apt, if similar senseless incidents from the campus of Virginia Tech in 2007 to an Aurora, Colo., movie theater last summer hadn't instilled a kind of grim familiarity. With them have come increased calls for media sensitivity in how to report such crimes without glorifying or encouraging them; for scrutiny of the role of violent entertainment in such incidents; for examinations of the effectiveness of mental-health laws and screenings — everything but close evaluation of the availability of the guns themselves.
No less conflicted than the rest of the country on the issue, the Scene opens the floor to five Nashvillians representing a range of positions on gun control. They raise questions on both sides that must be addressed in any serious consideration of weapons regulation. If restrictions are lifted, will it result in a safer populace or armed anarchy? If restrictions are tightened, will only criminals have access to the strongest firepower? Do "gun free zones" reduce citizens (and children) to defenseless targets, or does opening schools to permit carriers create new risk of incident or accident?
The Tennessee General Assembly will almost certainly consider legislation concerning such matters in its coming session. That makes discussion of gun control doubly urgent. We do not expect resolution or agree with some of the sentiments expressed here on both sides, and we expect readers will feel the same way: For every person who boycotts a restaurant that does not prohibit concealed carry, another may choose to show it support for that precise reason. But it's a public debate that mustn't be postponed — and in that spirit, we encourage you to post your own responses, for excerpting in next week's issue.
"Countries with many fewer guns have much lower rates of gun violence"A gun-control supporter sees popular support for common-sense limits
By Bruce Barry
If I told you that I had a (partial) solution to a compelling social problem — a solution backed by broad public support and empirical evidence, one that costs little and doesn't infringe on bedrock civil liberties — wouldn't you say, "Let's go for it?" More and better gun control is just such a solution.
We see public support for gun control in the short run as a byproduct of the Newtown horror. Granted, capturing an acute spike in public opinion in the wake of a hideous and highly visible event isn't the best way to take the nation's attitudinal pulse. But a CBS survey in mid-December found 57 percent of U.S. adults endorsing "more strict" gun laws, markedly up from 39 percent just eight months earlier.
Gun rights types like to point out — correctly — that the longer-term trend is a decline in support for stricter laws covering the sale of firearms. That decline — from more than two-thirds in the early '90s to less than half in recent years, according to Gallup — is explained by expanding numbers who say keep gun laws as they are. Support for looser regulation has been low and flat — consistently in the mid-to-upper-single digits for two decades.
But if public approval of the general idea of regulating firearms more aggressively is not as high as it once was, don't let the gun lobby fool you into thinking that gun control is therefore not so popular. When people are asked about specific measures, we discover that more gun control remains widely popular.
A recent CNN poll finds two-thirds of Americans would ban the manufacture, sale and possession of semi-automatic weapons, and almost as many would ban the sale and possession of high-capacity ammunition clips. Fully 95 percent endorse legally required background checks on anyone trying to buy a gun. What's more, a whopping 78 percent are fine with requiring gun owners to register weapons with local government. (Those last two post-Newtown numbers, on background checks and registration, are essentially unchanged from a survey earlier this year, before Newtown.)
People like gun control because they like the idea of fewer guns in public places, and they understand empirical connections between fewer guns and lower gun violence. The NRA and its patrons in weapons manufacturing may want to turn the country into an armed fortress, but polls find that two-thirds of us think venues like movie theaters and restaurants are less safe when concealed firearms are permitted. And three-quarters of us think schools are more dangerous if school officials are armed.
People grasp the undeniable reality that countries with many fewer guns have much lower rates of gun violence. They comprehend models, such as Australia during and following the mid-1990s, illustrating how a society steeped in gun culture can sensibly craft rules and buybacks to alter its gun-violence trajectory.
So gun control is popular. Guns themselves are popular as well. Almost half of us live in a household where a gun is present, and 70 percent of us have fired a gun, though only about a third of us personally own one. Large majorities of both gun owners and non-owners believe the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to own firearms, and the Supreme Court agreed in its landmark Heller decision in 2008.
We don't let majorities vote away others' constitutional rights, whether those be rights to expression, religion, due process, and the rest. But while the court in Heller located in the Constitution a right to possess firearms for "lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home," it also made clear that reasonable restrictions on types of weapons, on who can possess weapons, on where they can be taken in public spaces, and on how they are commercially traded, remain constitutionally viable.
The bottom line, then, is pretty simple when you look at this issue through the lens of facts and data. Most Americans endorse a right to possess firearms, but most Americans also favor more aggressive gun-control measures that will leave fewer especially dangerous weapons in fewer hands. The Supreme Court has stated clearly that these two things — gun rights and gun-control regulations — can readily coexist. Evidence from overseas demonstrates that fewer guns and less gun violence go hand in hand.
To recap: Wide support, empirical evidence, low cost, preserving of liberties. Sounds like a plan.
Bruce Barry contributes regularly to the Scene's news blog Pith in the Wind.
"It is safe students or massacres"A gun-shop owner says weapons restrictions don't work
By Bill Bernstein
The sad events in Sandy Hook, Conn., coupled with other high-profile mass shootings, have prompted calls from some elected representatives and others for a re-evaluation and discussion of firearms in America. This is understandable. Whenever there is loss of life, especially of children, there is a need to explain, hold the culprits responsible, and plan. People want solutions that would prevent future such incidents.
As a firearms dealer and father of three, including a 6-year-old in public school, I welcome this discussion. I note it is not a new discussion in this country, but one that has gone on for a century or more. And always it comes in response to events much like Sandy Hook. New York's Sullivan Law, the first to require permits to own and carry firearms, was passed in 1911 in response to a grisly murder-suicide. The National Firearms Act of 1934 was the first nationwide gun control effort, passed in the aftermath of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and other gangster incidents. The Gun Control Act of 1968, which established the licensed dealer system, came after the Kennedy and King assassinations. All of them passed after considerable debate. So debate on the topic is nothing new.
Neither are the proposed solutions new. We have a 100-year history of gun control measures on the federal, state and local level. This should be enough data to begin to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of any measure. An honest debate would address the question of the best way to end or curtail the kinds of mass shootings and other forms of gun-related violence we have seen over the last several years. Any measure that reasonably could not have a demonstrable effect must, on honest reflection, be rejected as ineffective. We want effective solutions, not political grandstanding or policies that merely "stick it" to one group or another.
Among the proposals floating around is a renewal of the federal "Assault Weapons Ban" of 1994, which expired in 2004. That bill restricted some magazines and cosmetic features on firearms. Even after the federal law went away, many states, including Connecticut, maintained similar bans statewide. By analyzing the 10 years the law was on the book, we can evaluate the law's effectiveness at deterring crime. It was not effective in the slightest. The Centers for Disease Control sought to evaluate the effectiveness of the AWB. The center is hardly pro-gun. Yet even they could conclude only that "insufficient evidence exists to determine the effectiveness of any firearms law on violent outcomes." Although they caution that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, the truth is that all gun control measures fail to effect any change in outcomes. This is so for all the policies that have been tried and are being advocated today. This is because, as often repeated by the firearms community, only law-abiding citizens obey the law. And law-abiding citizens by definition do not commit crimes. That leaves criminals, who are not deterred.
In fact, of the high-profile incidents over the last five years, most of the killers were already prohibited persons whose mere possession of guns was illegal. Adam Lanza, the Connecticut killer, tried to buy a rifle before the shooting but refused to wait the 14 days required under Connecticut law for a background check. Instead, he stole his mother's guns for his rampage. The futility of such waiting periods in deterring crime should be obvious.
In dealing with these high-profile shooting sprees, we must identify what sort of person and situation we have in order to deal with it. As opposed to killings in pursuit of robberies or vengeance, or over turf wars, these are shootings for their own sake carried out by determined madmen who are not afraid to die. There is no way even to identify with certainty, much less deter, a determined madman prior to his acts. The only deterrent is another person with a gun at the scene, whether a police officer or private citizen. Signs and laws are no deterrent.
Consequently, I was quite pleased to see that Tennessee is taking the lead in allowing at least some armed citizens in schools. The idea of a school as a "gun-free zone" is simply cruel: Almost all the high-profile shootings recently happened in "gun-free zones." It is cynical even to use the phrase: They are gun-free only until an attack. The only way to deal with the determined madman is with immediate force to counter his attack.
People viscerally react to the idea of "guns in schools," preferring an idyllic peaceful learning environment. All of us would. But the choice is not a peaceful idyllic gun-free zone. It is safe students or massacres. An honest opinion would opt for safety.
Bill Bernstein is the proprietor of Eastside Gun Shop in East Nashville.