Follow-Up: Let's Talk about Guns... Some More - By Greer Clem
There has been an enormous amount of important feedback to the article I published several days ago, so much so that I felt an obligation to address some of the points of discussion here. Before we get into the thick of it, let me say first that the goal of these pieces is to generate conversation. Whether that be with me, with family members, with friends, with strangers, the whole point of this is to get talking. There will always be opinions I did not consider because I am just one person formed by the experiences I have lived, which is why it's so important to me to listen to others, even when it may make you angry or uncomfortable. With that said, let's talk some more.
I want to begin by defining "gun control," an admittedly restrictive term. In fact, "gun control" and "firearms regulations" are actually synonymously used: both refererring to laws and policies that regulate how guns are made, bought, sold, and transferred by civilians. However "gun control" sounds decidedly more authoritarian, so from now on I will be using "firearms regulations." I had previously used the term "military-grade weaponry," which I was using to specifically refer to assault rifles, which were designed not for civilian use but for warfare. Most assault rifles are variants of the AK-47 or AR-15 which are available for purchase to private citizens in various states. More on military style assault rifles later, but for the main I will use the term "firearm regulations" from now on.
So, the regulation of firearms has brought up many important questions- questions that legislators themselves grapple with. Does firearm regulation include confiscating firearms that were legal under previous laws but are now illegal? Does increased regulation and safety training mean complete budget reconstructions for state departments? How does self-defense play into firearm ownership? How do we make gun safety education more accessible? I could go on and on, but let's break this down into three main categories: safety, rights, and changes.
One of the main points of my previous article was that gun safety training should be a mandatory prerequisite to purchasing a firearm of any type. For those unfamiliar to guns, let's define this a little more:
When you apply for your driver's permit, you are required to take a course that teaches you the basics about cars: what is drive, what is park, hand signals, and basic rules of the road. All of this is done before you are legally allowed behind the wheel. The DMV, which is state-funded, is where you go to apply for your permit, apply for your license, take your test etc. Now, you would think the same thing would be mandatory for gun purchase, but sadly that is not the case.
Logically, this makes no sense. Anyone who wants to purchase a gun should have to demonstrate that they know 1) how it works 2) how to fire it, and 3) how to clean, carry, empty, and store it. What you want to use it for is your business (within the parameters of the law). Getting state-funding for established organizations is difficult enough, so why should states be pushing for a DFS? DFS is the Department of Firearm Safety, a term I just made up and am highly in favor of. Frankly, if Americans want to retain their 2nd Amendment rights, this organization should have been incorporated at the state-level long ago. Republicans, who argue for smaller government and bigger tax breaks, won't want to devote tax-payer money to another state-run facility, but we have to be able to compromise. You cannot advocate for gun rights and not advocate for gun safety. So, yes, this probably means state-funding will need to grow to be able to incorporate firearm safety training. Trump is trying to defund basic healthcare, so we can't expect this money to come from the federal budget. We have to work with what we have.
Is it worth it to raise state taxes and re-allocate funds for gun safety? Well, consider this fact: over 1 million children live in homes with loaded and unlocked firearms. From 2005-2010, nearly 4,000 people died as a result of unintentional shootings. Ultimately, this conversation has to be had in every state, but the only rational consensus is that yes, this is worth the cost.
First, let's talk about the language of the 2nd Amendment, which says, "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." The language of the 2nd Amendment has been debated since its conception but is basically broken down into two theories: the "individual rights theory" and "the collective rights theory." The former interprets the 2nd Amendment to mean that the Constitution, "restricts legislative bodies from prohibiting firearm possession, or at the very least, the Amendment renders prohibitory and restrictive regulation presumptiveley unconstitutional." This is the argument that is still made today by 2nd Amendment rights advocates who say regulation of firearms owned by civilians is unconstitutional. The latter theory interprets the 2nd Amendment to mean, "Citizens do not have an individual right to possess guns and that local, state, and federal legislative bodies therefore possess the authority to regulate firearms without implicating a constitutional right." Both theories have been debated at the Supreme Court level; both have won and each has lost. So you can easily see why the 2nd Amendment debate remains an important factor in today's conversation: no side has definitively been proven over the other.
For me, the significance of the debate lies in the interpretation of the word "right." There is a fundamental difference between a "right" and "privilege" which is inherent to the gun debate but rarely talked about. Anyone can Google what a "right" is and get many different definitions, but all definitions agree that a right is a basic freedom and entitlement. It can then be deduced that a right is something endowed by a governing body, the thing that has determined you are entitled to this established principle, and anyone born under said government has this right. Why does this definition matter? Well, I believe it matters because the rights associated with gun ownership were different in the 1700s than they are now. The right to keep and bear arms as part of a militia to protect one's freedom was a necessary establishment to help keep our brand new Republic from failing. Guns were inherently different and could cause less damage, there were fewer people and fewer guns, and frankly we had more pressing problems than teaching gun safety (see: Revolutionary War).
My point is this: gun ownership is indeed a right as endowed by the 2nd Amendment, but I believe this right has evolved into a privilege. Far more intelligent minds than my own have debated the parameters of the 2nd Amendment, but I think the point is that if you want to be worthy of that right, you have to understand the responsibilities that come with it. Why can't a right also incorporate responsibilities? I feel a responsibility to my country to be an educated voter before I hit the polls, why can't the same be said about guns? As a personal aside, I was raised to believe that using a gun was an immense privilege, and if I wanted to be worthy of such responsibility then I had to demonstrate a commitment to safety and basic training. To me, that didn't make it any less of a right, but just as I had to wait until I was 18 for the right to vote, I had to wait until I was adequately prepared to carry or fire a gun.
I also want to note that the 2nd Amendment is unique to the American identity, and I understand and respect this. It has certainly been part of my identity, and those who argue for firearms regulation are often mistaken for people who don't value the 2nd Amendment or find it outdated. Instead, I want to emphasize the privilege inherent in our rights - that this is part of the privilege of being an American.
The first inherent problem with expanding what kinds of firearms should be available for civilian purchase is what do we do with the ones people already have? Let's say you make it illegal for someone to own an AK-47 - well what about the thousands of gun owners who already have them? Are we supposed to send out a gun confiscation force, which sounds both authoritarian and dangerous?
There is no easy answer, but there is a logical one: gun owners who already own military-grade assault rifles should be allowed to keep them with the parameters that they must be used only at gun ranges. Some (lots) of people won't like this - there are plenty that think that assault rifles offer practical purposes (pest control, hunting, etc). As my dad says, "if you need more than 2 bullets, you're not much of a hunter." I have to say, I agree. As for pest control, I cannot imagine a situation in which your cattle are being attacked by 700 coyotes at once and you need to go full Rambo. Assault weapons are just not necessary for practical use. If you think they're fun to shoot, do it at the range. If you think they're cheaper to buy, buy a used gun.
In my last piece, I also discussed the need for more expansive legislation to prevent domestic violence offenders from purchasing guns. Now, I want to clarify: I am not saying anyone accused of domestic violence or a domestic dispute should fall under this category. I do believe that you should have to be convicted of a domestic crime to qualify for this restriction. That being said, not enough is being done to prevent and prosecute domestic violence. Keep in mind: domestic violence is a violent offense. A 19 year old who got caught with an ounce of weed could serve a hefty prison sentence, but many domestic abusers are never pursued by the law. Partially, that is because of the fear inherent in domestic abuse, and that's an issue for a different day. What I am referring to are the legislative limits: the ones I referred to that determine what domestic violence includes and leaves non-cohabitating spouses, non-immediate family members, and stalking victims still vulnerable. The simple truth is that this is an ugly subject, one we don't want to have to legally define. It's messy and very personal. But consider this: abused women are 5 times more likely to be killed by their abuser if their abuser owns a firearm. We owe it to the men and women who are victims of domestic abuse to ensure that their offenders don't have access to guns.
We need to expand background checks to private gun sellers. This is perhaps the most obvious step towards preventing gun violence. 40% of guns sold annually in America are done so without background checks. People may argue criminals won't get background checks anyways, so why bother? Because having private sellers exempt from performing background checks is actully what allows them to do this in the first place. Yes, guns are also bought and sold on the black market, but for the purposes of this article I am staying within the parameters of the law. Let me further illustrate why the "unlicensed private seller" issue is paramount: a survey of state prison inmates in 13 states convicted of gun offenses found that only 13.4% obtained the gun from a gun store where background checks were required. 96.1% obtained the firearm through an unlicensed private seller. The generic argument for background checks is no longer highly contested - a 2013 survey found that 84% of gun owners and 74% of NRA members supported requiring universal background checks. Closing this last loophole is not only un-controversial, it's a no-brainer.
Okay - so here we are at the end of a very long rebuttal to myself, and I just want to leave you with a few last points. There is a consensus among those who advocate for firearm regulation that if the Newtown Shooting couldn't get more legislation passed, nothing can. But you need to hear this: since Sandy Hook, there have been 998 mass shootings in the U.S. ("Mass shooting" is here defined as where four or more people, not counting the shooter, were shot at the same general time and location).
We cannot risk waiting another day. We cannot let the fear of having difficult conversations dissuade us from facing this harsh reality. As Americans, part of our identity is formed by the 2nd Amendment. We have a duty to that Amendment to uphold it honorably and safely, and that is part of our "right to bear arms." I will continue to try and learn on this subject and to not look away from what is challenging, and I hope that, if nothing else, this piece encourages you to do the same.