Gun Control Explained

Gun Control Explained
Gun Control Explained

The mass shooting in Roseburg, Ore. has reignited debate over gun control and gun rights in the United States.

Below are a series of questions drawn from what people have been searching for on Google since the shooting – and an attempt to answer them.
What is gun control?
“Gun control” is a broad term that covers any sort of restriction on what kinds of firearms can be sold and bought, who can possess or sell them, where and how they can be stored or carried, what duties a seller has to vet a buyer, and what obligations both the buyer and the seller have to report transactions to the government.

Sometimes, the term is also used to cover related matters, like limits on types of ammunition and magazines, or technology, like the type that allows guns to fire only when gripped by their owners.

In recent years, gun control debates have focused primarily on background checks for buyers, allowing people to carry weapons in public, and whether to allow the possession of assault rifles.

What is the state of gun control today?
Federal law prohibits certain people from owning firearms: those with certain kinds of criminal records or mental illness; drug addicts; immigrants without legal status; veterans who left the military with a dishonorable discharge; anyone with a permanent restraining order keeping them from a partner or a partner’s children. And there are others barred as well; a full list of the prohibitions can be found here.

Federal law requires that licensed gun dealers conduct a background check, through a database run by the F.B.I., to see if the customer is among those prohibited from owning a gun.

But the system has major holes in it, among them incomplete listings of criminal cases. Perhaps the biggest hole is that small-scale sellers, including many who do business at gun shows, are not required to do background checks – the so-called gun show loophole.

The law’s provision on the mentally ill is extremely porous, too. It prohibits gun possession by a person “adjudicated as a mental defective” by a court or other authority. Most people with serious mental illness never receive such adjudication, and those who do can petition courts to have it reversed. Many mass shootings have been carried out by people who were recognized by those around them as being deeply disturbed, yet were able to own guns legally.

From 1994 to 2004, federal law also banned the sale of many types of assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, but the law expired and has not been renewed. A few states have assault weapon bans of their own that remain in place.

In fact, most gun controls exist at the state level, with New York, California, New Jersey, Maryland, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Illinois and Massachusetts being the most restrictive.

Some states have more stringent background check systems than the federal one, for example, and some require checks before private sales like those at gun shows. Some states require a license or permit to own a gun, but most do not.

Laws on carrying weapons vary enormously. Most states allow anyone who legally owns a gun to carry it openly, in public, without requiring a license or permit. A few states also have no permit requirement to carry a concealed gun. Concealed carry requires a permit in most states, but the majority of those states grant the permits automatically to any legal gun owners who want them. States also vary in their rules on gun possession in specific settings, like campuses and houses of worship.

For example, in Rhode Island, any person with a concealed carry permit can bring a gun onto the grounds of a public school, but next door in Massachusetts, written permission from school officials is required – and rarely given.

What do law enforcement authorities say about gun control?
There is no consensus. In fact, law enforcement officials have the same kinds of cultural and regional divides as everyone else.

In general, big-city police chiefs are more likely to support gun control, and small-town chiefs and sheriffs are more likely to oppose it. Those in the Northeast are more likely than those in the South and West to favor it.

The Major Cities Chiefs Association endorses closing the gun show loophole, strengthening the background check system, reinstating the assault weapons ban and other measures. The Major County Sheriffs’ Association disagrees on assault weapons, but agrees on strengthening background checks.

The National Sheriffs Association, which includes more sparsely populated areas, has stated that it “does not support any laws that deprive any citizen of the rights provided” by the Second Amendment. And some rural sheriffs have simply refused to enforce new controls.

Where does the American public stand?
Over the past 25 years, Americans’ support for stricter gun control laws has been generally declining even as the number of mass shootings is on the rise. While some high-profile shootings have resulted in calls for increased restrictions, that support has proved fleeting thus far. Gun control is one of the most sharply divisive issues in the U.S. today.

This chart, compiled by the Roper Center, provides a summary of public opinion on the issue since 1989. The most recent reading was taken in mid-September by Quinnipiac University, and found Americans were evenly divided. Several polls in the last several months have shown a similar divide with majorities of Democrats and those without a gun in their households favoring more restrictions on guns and majorities of Republicans and gun owners voicing opposition.

The results, however, also depend in part on how you ask the question. Surveys that ask broadly whether people favor stricter gun laws show the public roughly evenly divided but when surveys ask people about specific gun restrictions, the picture becomes much more pro-control.

Overwhelming majorities support universal background checks, and steps to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people. Those changes have vast support among Republicans and Democrats, and gun owners and non-owners alike. (In 2013, The New York Times profiled several people from across the country who had intimate experiences with firearms, including gun enthusiasts who fell on both sides of the gun control debate.) Majorities also favor the creation of a federal database to track all gun sales, and an assault weapons ban, though answers to those question show more of a partisan divide.

What are the arguments against gun control?
The arguments come down to principle, law and practicality.

Gun rights advocates see weapon possession as a matter of individual rights. They say that people have the right to arm themselves for hunting, self-defense, sport – or just because they want to.

Legally, the debates often come down to the Second Amendment, whose 18th century context and language have been endlessly parsed and debated: “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.” Gun rights advocates say that means an individual right to gun possession, while gun control advocates say it means the people’s collective right, through a militia.

For generations, the Supreme Court avoided directly answering the question, though its decisions were often seen as favoring the collective interpretation. But in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time, in a 5-to-4 decision, that the Second Amendment protects the individual right to have firearms. Even so, debates continue to rage on what sorts of limitations on that right are allowable.

On a practical level, gun owners argue that the weapons actually make society safer, giving people the power of self-defense, and dissuading criminals from victimizing people who might be armed. In particular, they say that an armed citizen can stop a mass shooter.

What are the arguments in favor?
They begin with numbers. The United States has far more gun ownership than other developed countries, and far more gun violence. In 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation had more than 33,000 firearms deaths: 70 percent of all homicides (11,208), more than half of all suicides (21,175), and hundreds of accidental and unsolved deaths.

Fewer guns, better records on who has them, and some restrictions on purchase, possession and storage, gun control advocates argue, would still allow law-abiding people to have firearms, while resulting in far fewer deaths. They contend that it is not a question of disarming the public or absolutes – most people agree that individuals should not have bazookas or machine guns – but a matter of where to draw sensible limits.

While gun-rights advocates say more people armed equal a safer society, people who favor gun control say the opposite is true: the more people carry weapons, the more likely it is that an everyday dispute can escalate to lethal force. Social scientists say there is little reliable data one way or another.

Why does nothing get done about gun control?
Gun rights advocates, led by the National Rifle Association, form a powerful lobby that politicians fear to cross. For many of them, it is a core voting issue, a line they will not cross, which, as President Obama recently lamented, is less often true for those who want gun control.

These advocates have effectively deployed the argument that after mass shootings, when emotions run high – and interest in new restrictions spikes – is not the time to debate the issue.

Opponents of gun control often talk about President Obama wanting to take guns away from lawful owners, and although he has never proposed to do that, many gun owners continue to believe it.

The gun lobby has also become more unyielding in recent years. The N.R.A. has hardened its opposition to expanded background checks, for example, and after years in which the group gave subdued responses to mass shootings, after the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting, Wayne LaPierre, the N.R.A.’s executive vice president, famously declared that school employees should have been armed, because “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Over the past generation, American politics have become more bitterly partisan, and regional divisions more rigid. As a result, gun control has become an increasingly partisan issue, with Republicans more uniformly opposed – at a time when Congress and most state houses are in Republican hands.

The result is that in recent years, states have gone in opposing directions. Responding in many cases to the same mass shootings, some have made their gun laws stricter (such as Oregon and Connecticut) while about the same number (including Arkansas and Georgia) have made theirs weaker.

In Congress and in more conservative and rural states, gun control tends to be a non-starter. Gun control advocates say politicians’ fear of the gun rights lobby is exaggerated, but even in swing states and some more liberal ones, that lobby has a reputation for punishing those who step out of line.

After Colorado enacted new gun controls, in 2013, gun rights groups succeeded in recalling two Democratic state senators who had voted for the measures, including the Senate leader. In 2014, they targeted two Democratic governors who had signed tougher gun restrictions into law, John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Dannel Malloy of Connecticut, but both were narrowly re-elected.

Another example of the gun lobby’s power came after Smith & Wesson broke with the rest of the gun industry in 2000, agreeing to several control measures to settle government lawsuits over gun violence. The N.R.A. led a boycott of Smith & Wesson, its sales plummeted, and rather than setting an example that other gun makers would follow, the company backed out of the deal.

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