This is the first episode where we actually get to see some legislative wrangling take place, rather than just watching pre- or post-wrangling walk-and-talk in the West Wing. In short, passing bills is hard, especially when the VP is working against you. Also, the gun control debate unfortunately doesn’t seem to have changed much in the past 18 years. Bartlet’s bill wasn’t great, but I’m not sure we could have even gotten that much passed today. In short, it’s not difficult to guess the topic for this week’s post, so let’s jump right in.
What exactly are our Second Amendment rights?
The Second Amendment 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.”
Why is this so controversial?
The Second Amendment was mostly a response to complaints about the Constitution’s provision for a standing army even in peacetime. Anti-Federalists feared that the government might use its army to oppress the citizens and called for the army to be disbanded except in times of war. Federalists argued that constantly disbanding the army and counting on part-time, underprepared militias for immediate back-up could leave the U.S. unprepared, especially considering how little help the militias had been during the Revolutionary War. The Second Amendment was an effort by Anti-Federalists to defend themselves against possible tyranny of a federal army, although they were not able to win their ultimate goal of disbanding the army in the first place. (Source)
Today, local militias have mostly disappeared, leading to questions about modern interpretation of the law. Until recently, the court held that the right to bear arms applied only to organized militias (like the National Guard), not to individual citizens. In cases such as US v. Miller (1939), it supported gun control restrictions. Most recently, this stance has changed. In DC v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (2010), the court narrowly struck down gun restrictions and extended the right to bear arms to individual citizens. However, both cases dealt only with handguns used for self-defense; neither allows unrestricted purchase and ownership of, say, assault rifles. Proponents of gun control argue that only certain types of firearms should be sold, and only to those with background checks for a criminal record or mental illness. The extent of the Second Amendment is still very much undecided.
Why bother with gun control at all?
In 2014, 33,736 Americans were killed by firearms, including 10,945 in firearm homicides and 21,334 in firearm suicides. Every year, almost 85,000 more are injured by firearms. In 2016, the US saw 385 mass shootings (>4 killed or injured). In 2017 so far, 42 mass shootings have occurred – that’s nearly one per day. Eighty percent of all homicide deaths in 24 developed countries occur in the US. In 2014, a child or teen was killed by a firearm every 3.5 hours.
Private citizens in the US own 270 million guns, nearly one per person. This is more than in any other country. It’s not hard to image that cutting down on the number of guns might cut down on gun violence. Indeed, studies have shown that gun control laws do decrease gun deaths. A 1995 Connecticut law requiring a background check and gun safety training for firearm purchase led to an estimated 40% reduction in gun deaths. A 2015 study found that the homicide rate of law enforcement officers is three times lower in states with fewer guns. And, of course, we have the examples of other countries – in Australia, for instance, a mass shooting in 1996 prompted buyback of firearms and restrictions on sales of new ones, which has led to a 72% decline in firearm deaths and zero mass shootings since. Gun control – not a total prohibition on firearms, but smart restrictions and regulations – can make people significantly safer.
What gun control laws do we have in the US today?
Gun control laws can be categorized into three groups: who can have guns; what guns they can have; and where they can have them. The first category mainly includes background checks to prevent people with criminal records or a history of mental health issues from acquiring firearms. One example is the law recently overturned by Congress that placed mentally ill people deemed incapable of handling their own financial affairs on an FBI Criminal Background Check list used to block some from purchasing guns. Current federal law only requires background checks for guns purchased through licensed firearms dealers, not private individuals, although unlicensed sellers account for about 1/5 of all gun sales. Fewer than half of states have closed this loophole, despite polls showing that 90% of Americans approve of universal background checks (and 74% of NRA members!). Universal background checks would be a relatively easy loophole to close.
The second category restricts what kinds of guns can be purchased, differentiating between handguns and high-powered weaponry like assault rifles. This is the type of restriction debated in West Wing. In the episode, Josh complains about the difficulty of making these restrictions general enough to actually restrict the guns you want, but specific enough to satisfy NRA members. The differences between some categories of guns are, indeed, purely cosmetic, and banning a whole category of weapons requires constant updates to take into account continual releases. California, for instance, has a 96-page guide spelling out exactly what kinds of assault weapons do and do not require registration. Federally, certain firearms were banned under the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, but the act expired in 2004 and was not renewed due to concern that it violated the Commerce Clause and/or the Equal Protection Clause. Similar legislation was introduced in 2013 but not passed. Gun type restrictions are effective but complicated and messy to write and update.
The third category restricts where guns can be carried, open or concealed. For example, eight states ban open carry of some kind, either indiscriminately, handguns only, or rifles only (source). Of these eight, none are among the 10 states with the highest rate of firearm deaths, and 5 are among the 10 states with the lowest rate of firearm deaths (source). Of the 42 remaining states, 31 do not require any license to carry a weapon openly (source).
Last year, Texas became the most recent state to allow licensed open carry, as well as concealed carry on college campuses. No state currently bans concealed carry altogether, although forty states require some sort of licensing. Federal law places no restrictions on open or concealed carry except on some federal property.
Clearly, gun control is complicated. It can be attacked from many different angles, and there’s still dispute over which laws are most effective, although it’s clear that gun control does lead to fewer gun deaths. Background checks would most likely provide the biggest benefit with the most public support, but the NRA’s stringent opposition makes even this difficult. Despite continued tragedy, gun control still seems to be a nonstarter in Congress.
Josh and Donna Watch: Did Donna secretly buy Josh the $1189 smoking jacket that won him the office pool for best gift on financial disclosure forms? I don’t want to say yes, but…