In the United States, the debate between individuals who support stricter gun control legislation and those who support the right to freely bear arms is intense and divisive. The aim of this paper is to determine the key issues of the gun control debate in regards to the legalization and use of assault weapons, an issue that is particularly important due to the recent questions regarding the current assault weapons ban and legislation in the United States. This paper will assess the legal question of banning assault weapons, and will also assess the risks and the benefits of banning assault-style weapons. This paper will assess the political, ethical, economic, and legal issues faced by those who support the ban on assault rifles, and will evaluate the separate arguments in regards to the ban. The benefits and weaknesses of each argument in regards to assault-style weapons will be assessed in the context of the current American political climate, taking into consideration a variety of different pertinent current events. The current available literature suggests that a re-definition of the idea of “assault-style weaponry” should be considered; as a result, the paper will argue for the re-definition of the idea of an assault-style weapon, and for a variety of applicable changes to be made to the current assault weapon ban based on the changes that are suggested.
The issue of gun control in the United States has always been a contentious one. There are individuals on both sides of the debate who make excellent points regarding gun control in the United States, and it seems increasingly unlikely that the debate will be resolved any time in the near future. In the United States, those who are proponents of gun control laws are generally more liberally-leaning than those who do not support gun-control legislation, although the distinction is not always so absolute. The issue is multifaceted and complex, with political, legal, ethical, and economic implications that must be considered before any kind of policy decision is made, particularly in the United States.
Policy decisions, particularly those that deal with a very divisive issue such as gun control and assault-style weaponry, the political process of change is very slow. Politicians are often unwilling to push for radical change when it comes to these types of issues, as they can cause divisions within their constituencies and potentially cost a politician a re-election.
There have been many different studies on the efficacy of gun control legislation since its inception. According to Roth and Koper (1999), the effects of banning handgun and other types of weapons are mixed:
Evidence is mixed about the effectiveness of previous gun bans. Federal restrictions enacted in 1934 on the ownership of fully automatic weapons (machine guns) appear to have been quite successful based on the rarity with which such guns are used in crime. Washington, D.C.’s restrictive handgun licensing system, which went into effect in 1976, produced a drop in gun fatalities that lasted for several years after its enactment. Yet, State and local bans on handguns have been found to be ineffective in other research. (Roth and Koper, 1999).
Because the evidence is “mixed,” it is particularly difficult to come to a consensus on the issue in the public sphere. In the United States, it is politically infeasible (and potentially unconstitutional) to ban all types of weapons, so this discussion will focus on assault-style weapons. To understand the discussion, it is important to look at the legislation of the past, and the ways in which assault-style weapons have been defined in legal terms.
According to Abrams (2013), in 1994, the United States passed what was known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which was a ban on certain types of weaponry that the legislature felt was particularly dangerous to the well-being of the population. This ban on assault-style weapons was active for ten years, and expired in 2004, prompting an onslaught of new discussion about the legitimacy of banning assault-style weapons and how best to protect the American public from gun violence (Abrams, 2013).
The Federal Assault Weapons Ban defined assault weapons based on a series of features that the weapons themselves possessed; for instance, semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines were classified as “assault weapons” under the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, if they had at least two of the following features: a flash suppressor, a threaded barrel, a folding stock, a bayonet mount, a barrel shroud, or certain types of grenade launchers (Abrams, 2013). Similarly, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban also banned a number of guns by name, make, and model (Abrams, 2013).
Upon its expiration in 2004, a number of bills have been suggested to replace the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, although none have been successful (Abrams, 2013). Most recently, Senator Diane Feinstein of California proposed a new bill that would renew and revise the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994; however, the motion did not receive the support it needed to be signed into law, and died upon a vote in the Senate (Simon, 2013). Currently, there are no federal bans on assault-style weaponry that are valid in the United States, although a number of pieces of legislation have been proposed.
According to Holt (2013) The United States Supreme Court has upheld the government’s right to restrict gun ownership on a number of occasions, but most notably in District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago. While these cases upheld the individual’s right to own and bear arms, they also noted that there are certain circumstances in which the government is legally able and perhaps even obligated to restrict the individual’s right to own and bear a certain type of weapon. The exact legal test and status will be discussed in depth, particularly in terms of assault weaponry.
In addition, recent mass and spree shootings have caused the general opinion in the United States to stray towards support for stricter gun control, but politicians and the legislative branch are much slower to respond than the general public is (Abrams 2013). Because of the political pressures on politicians and the legislature, enacting any kind of legislation regarding gun control can be very difficult.
1. Ethical and Practical Considerations
1.1 Reasons for Banning Assault Weapons
If the purpose of legislation is to curb gun violence in the United States, then banning assault weapons is important, as the weapons that were defined in the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 were responsible for approximately a quarter of gun-related crime (Koper, 2004). According to Koper (2004): “Following implementation of the ban, the share of gun crimes involving AWs declined by 17% to 72% across the localities examined for this study (Baltimore, Miami, Milwaukee, Boston, St. Louis, and Anchorage), based on data covering all or portions of the 1995-2003 post-ban period” (Koper, 2004). However, Koper (2004) is careful to point out that the connection between the reduction in violence and crime and the reduction of the availability of assault weapons is tenuous at best; reducing the amount of assault weapons available to the public does not necessarily mean that the amount of violence caused by assault weapons will diminish.
Koper (2004) is hesitant to assert that the assault weapons ban reduced the amount of violent crime during the time it was in place, but he addresses several issues that must be considered when considering a ban on assault weapons. First, the ban functioned in such a way to make the assault weapons that individuals owned before the ban “grandfathered in” to the ban, meaning that they were legal; they became rare items as a result, and many individuals were loathe to part with them (Koper, 2004). Some States even made the sale of these weapons illegal (Koper, 2004). However, Koper postulated that once the ban was lifted, these older models would go into circulation in the gun “black market” as gun manufacturers began to turn out new and different assault-style weaponry (Koper, 2004). In the black market, these guns would be available for use by the type of spree killers or mass murderers who should never be able to acquire and use semi-automatic or automatic weapons.
Similarly, research suggests that assault weapons are commonly used in violent crimes in urban centers, particularly those involving law enforcement officials. Reducing the number of law enforcement deaths is an important goal for any type of gun-control law, particularly as weaponry becomes more powerful and more accessible to criminals (Roth and Koper, 1999). Certain types of weaponry, according to experts, pose a much greater threat to law-enforcement personnel and the general population than others; it is these types of weapons that should be subject to bans via federal gun-control legislation.
There is also research that suggests that the assault-weapon ban had an effect on mass shootings during the time it was in effect. The figure below shows the time period in which the Federal Assault Weapons Ban was in effect, and the corresponding drop in mass shootings:
Source: Plumer, New York Times, 2013
The drop in number of targets in mass shootings dropped during the years in which the ban was in effect, but both Koper and Plumer are hesitant to suggest that this trend is indicative of the effect of the assault weapons ban; mass shootings are relatively rare and the change may be coincidental (Plumer, 2013). However, it does suggest that there is, at the very least, a correlation between the ban of assault weapons and the number of targets in mass shootings. The reduction of targets in mass shootings is an excellent reason to support the ban on assault weapons, particularly if the ban is reworked to be more effective.
1.2 The Problem of Defining “Assault Weapons”
One of the reasons that the Federal Assault Weapon Ban of 1994 was so heavily criticized by opponents was its questionable definition of an “assault weapon” (Kopel, 1995). To truly define an assault weapon in any way that will be applicable to legislation, it is important to look at what makes certain types of weapons more dangerous than others.
However, the issue is complex, and the United States legislature did not simplify the issue in 1994 when they passed the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. According to Plumer: “Congress didn’t want to ban all semiautomatic weapons — that would ban most guns, period. So lawmakers mainly focused on 18 specific firearms, as well as certain military-type features on guns Any semiautomatic rifle with a pistol grip and a bayonet mount was an ‘assault weapon.’ But a semiautomatic rifle with just a pistol grip might be okay. It was complicated. And its complexity made it easy to evadeFor the 10 years that the ban was in effect, it was illegal to manufacture the assault weapons described above for use by private citizens. The law also set a limit on high-capacity magazines” (Plumer, 2013). Clarifying and simplifying the definition of “assault weapon” is fundamentally important if a functional assault-weapon ban is ever to be instituted in the United States. To find a functional definition of “assault weapon” that protects the individual’s rights and the lives of the general population may be complex, but it is one of the most important issues facing the debate today.
1.3 The Ethics of Gun Control
Gun control is an ethical conundrum, particularly in the United States where the individual’s autonomy is particularly-highly valued in the legal and social system. The individual’s right to own and utilize a gun should, in theory, extend only so far as his or her right to own and utilize that gun does not interfere with other people’s rights to live safe and peaceful lives. Guns, like any other weapon, are not evil in their own right; assault weapons, similarly, are not evil in their own right. These objects are tools, and the fact is that assault weapons are merely tools that are capable of more destruction than other, similar tools. Assault-style weapons bans are merely tools that can be used to protect the individual’s right to be free from harm within society, whereas a complete blanket ban on weapons would be infringing into the individual’s right to autonomy.
2. Legal Considerations
2.1 Second-Amendment Considerations
The Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution states: “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” (Holt, 2013). The Bill of Rights, while providing Americans with some unique protections, is one of the most infuriatingly vague legal documents that exists within the American legal system. The Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights is evidence of this vagueness.
The Supreme Court has issued several decisions on the constitutionality of bans on certain types of weapons, including handguns (Holt, 2013). The Supreme Court’s current test for whether or not an individual’s Second Amendment right can be limited is based on whether or not the weapon in question is “unusual and dangerous,” the latter of which most guns are (Holt, 2013). Many who oppose the assault weapons ban see any ban on the Second Amendment as a slippery slope of restrictions on gun ownership, but none of the rights in the Bill of Rights are without restriction. Restrictions on the Second Amendment are not taken lightly by the Supreme Court, and even the most liberal of the Supreme Court justices have never expressed support for an all-out restriction on the rights contained within the Second Amendment.
Many opponents of the assault weapons ban will also point out that the Second Amendment allows-- even requires that-- the average citizen be allowed to access weapons so that the average citizen can partake in militia activity if he or she so wishes. However, many who oppose gun-control legislation fail to note that the Second Amendment is very clear: the individual has a right to bear arms insofar as he or she is participating in a “well-regulated militia,” which is something many people do not partake in in this day and age.
2.2 Existing Assault-Style Weapons and the Grandfather Clause
If an assault weapons ban is enacted, problems still remain for those who believe that assault-style weapons have no place in American society. There are still hundreds of thousands of legally-purchased assault-style weapons in circulation in the United States (Abrams, 2013). If an assault-weapon ban went into effect, these are the weapons that were purchased before the ban; the legislation itself could not make possession of these weapons illegal, as retroactive legislation and criminal charges are illegal under the United States Constitution (Abrams, 2013).
This issue leaves the legislature with two options: write a “grandfather” clause into the assault-weapons ban legislation, or create some type of timeline and structure for a systematic collection, reimbursement, and destruction of the currently-existing assault-style weapons in the United States. Because the latter option is incredibly expensive and very difficult to impose on the population, the most common way for assault-weapon bans to be written is with a grandfather clause. This allows for any assault-style weapon purchased legally before a certain date to continue to be utilized by the owner legally. Clearly, this poses problems, as it does not eradicate assault-style weapons from American society, it merely prevents more of these weapons from being produced by gun and ammunition companies.
The loopholes in past and currently-proposed gun-control and assault-weapon legislation are very problematic, and support what many of the opponents of gun control legislation claim: that legislating gun control is too complex an issue for the federal government to handle. However, gun control and bans on assault-style weapons have been shown to be effective in other countries, and striving for a society free from gun violence is a lofty but respectable goal for the United States legislature (Koper, 2004).
3. Economic Considerations
3.1 Interest Groups, PACs, the Gun Lobby, and the Gun Market
The “gun lobby” is a blanket term that is used to refer to all of the powerful individuals, groups, corporations, and lobbyists that oppose gun control legislation in the United States (Kopel, 1995). The gun lobby’s main goals are to ensure that gun control legislation does not pass in the United States legislature; the lobbyists employ many different methods to ensure that gun control legislation does not pass. Political Action Committees, or PACs, are very politically powerful because they contribute huge amounts of money to the campaigns of various individuals; these PACs can influence the way a senator or representative votes based on the threat of removing their funding (Kopel, 1995).
The use of PACs and lobbyists to push certain interests is one of the major problems in the American political system, as these PACs and lobbyists have, arguably, too much power over the legislative system; sometimes, the threat of losing funding can cause a senator or representative to avoid voting his or her true conscience because the threat of losing support is very real (Kopel, 1995). The National Rifle Association, or NRA, is a very politically and economically-powerful lobbying group; without the support of the NRA, a number of politicians in the United States would struggle with re-election. As a result, it is very difficult to glean the support needed from politicians to pass certain types of legislation, including bans on assault-style weaponry.
Similarly, Abrams (2013) reports that the market for firearms in the United States is extremely large: the economic impact of the firearms industry has been estimated at $32 billion annually. This is an industry that is historically very resistant to regulation, and the issue of cooperation and economic and political clout is very real when considering the gun market. Gun manufacturers are politically active, have a large number of supporters, and are backed by some of the most powerful Political Action Committees and lobbying groups on Capitol Hill (Abrams, 2013). These things, together, make it difficult to push legislation on gun control through the legislature in the United States.
4. Political Considerations
4.1 Pleasing the constituency
Politicians in the United States often find it difficult to enact controversial policies like gun control because of the issue of re-election. When politicians worry very heavily about being re-elected, they have a tendency to vote very carefully on issues that are divisive, so that they do not alienate any specific group of voters. Gun control, even though it enjoys widespread public support in the current political climate, is one of those issues that can be very risky for American politicians to take significantly controversial stances on (Abrams, 2013).
This does not mean that all politicians are unwilling to take a stance on assault weapons and support bans on the weapons themselves. Diane Feinstein has recently made attempts to introduce a bill into the Senate that will ban assault weapons; in early 2013, the bill was voted on and rejected by the Senate (Fox, 2013). The Coloradoan writes:
The California Democrat’s bill had faced tough odds on Capitol Hill since she introduced it in January, despite broad public support for curbing gun violence after the Newtown, Conn., shootings in December in which a gunman killed 20 elementary school children before taking his own life Rankled by the Senate’s rejection of one firearms proposal after another, Feinstein took to the floor moments before her proposal came up for a vote to blast her colleagues for what she called their “lack of courage to stand up and say, ‘We’ve had enough of these killings.’” (Chebium, 2013)
Feinstein’s lack of success in the Senate does not suggest that the majority of Americans do not support a ban on assault-style weapons-- instead, it suggests that American politicians are often unwilling to participate in any type of discussion or vote that could alienate their constituency and put their chances of re-election in jeopardy.
The research concerning the American ban on assault weapons is inconclusive, but global research done into societies with less ready access to guns suggests that a population that does not have access to guns as easily will commit less gun violence. Gun violence is a very real problem in American society, and allowing individuals to own as many guns in as many different types as they wish has not been successful politically or sociologically; a different methodology should be tried.
While there are significant arguments in favor of less gun control and no ban on assault-style weapons, these arguments can be convincingly nullified through a more mediated approach to gun-control legislation. An assault weapons ban does not have to be an assault on the Second Amendment of the Constitution as individuals who oppose gun control often suggest; instead, it should be seen as a way to meet those who wish to ban guns outright in the middle. Almost everyone can agree that reducing the amount of gun violence in the United States would be a positive step forward for the nation, and designing a logical ban on assault weapons is an excellent way to begin to reduce the violence.
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