Why Gun Control? Why Now?
Much has been written about the need to strengthen gun regulation and alternatively the need to protect our constitutional rights. The argument anti-gun control supporters make is that increased regulation not only infringes on our second amendment rights, but also would, intentionally or unintentionally, expand government power by letting legislators dictate who can and cannot own guns. In addition, they will note how most shootings take place in gun free zones and crime would be reduced if more people were in possession of a gun. Pro gun control activists will turn to the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Colorado movie theater shooting, San Brandino shooting and others as support for the need to strengthen regulations. Urban communities like Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood will highlight the alarmingly high gun related deaths of young black men, as opposed to any other race, as evidence of a gun related problem. But who do we blame? Who is right? More importantly what should we do or not do? Lets break it all down.
On Fear: How did we get here?
One of the fundamental arguments pro gun supporters make is that guns are needed for protection. Indeed, guns have been and continue to be used to protect humans from all kinds of things. In 1791 when the second amendment was ratified, the need to protect one’s family from thieves, scandals and foreign governments in the wake of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) was legitimate for individuals. America had just obtained its independence and states had ratified the first ten amendments to the Constitution, creating the Bill of Rights. The Revolutionary War proved that state militia forces, made up of ordinary civilians who supplied their own weapons, could not be relied upon for national defense. America learned from its mistakes and at the Constitutional Convention, our founders decided to transfer the power from the states to the federal government. But there was one big issue, namely Anti-Federalists. There was a large group of American’s that simply did not trust the federal government. They argued that if states needed to defendant themselves against a tyrannical federal government, the new Constitution would not allow them to do so because the legal authority over the army and militia would be with the federal government. The two sides (anti-federalist and federalist) even discussed whether an armed populace could even legitimately defend against the federal government. As we know, the result of these discussions ended up being the agreement that the federal government should not have the power to infringe on people’s right to bear arms, any more than it should have the power to infringe on people’s freedom of speech.
On Fear: Who should we fear?
As you can imagine, America has gone through a number of changes since 1791. One of those changes is that state-based militia organizations were gobbled up and merged with the federal government, thereby expanding power. Another change was in the thoughts of many Americans. Most Americans understand that the weapons modern soldiers are equipped with varies drastically from the weapons appropriate for civilian use. Meaning that in a fire fight between the federal government and you, the government holds the bigger stick. Unlike the eighteenth century, civilians don’t expect to use their household weapons to fight the federal government. But, that doesn’t mean that the fear of having to use your household weapon to fight government (or other threats to freedom) doesn’t still exist for many people. Similar to the Anti-Federalist of old, there are still a number of Americans who simply do not trust the government and would rather go down in a blaze of gunfire than relinquish even an once of their freedom. It is easy to write off these individuals, and their fears, as archaic fear mongers. Some of those labels are probably accurate, but I would caution throwing the baby out with the bath water.
There is definitely some truth and merit behind anti-gun control supporter’s trepidation towards the governments use of power. Hell, just watching how government shows up to a peaceful protest with swat gear and armored tanks serves as a pretty good visual to their antagonistic ways. It can be argued, and I would agree, our government has far from a squeaky clean track record, using its powers for evil instead of good. Just look at local police forces, some of which, are proven to have a history of institutional racism, discrimination and flat out corruption. Look at Edward Snowden, and other whistle- blowers, who highlighted how the National Security Administration is monitoring thousands of peoples emails and telephone calls without obtaining a warrant. Or how about the ‘no fly list’ which the government has refused to provide the standards by which someone gets put on the list. Moreover, the government will not even notify you that they have decided to put you on the list. The standards our government uses to place people on “watch-list” are so broad, vague and loosely defined that anyone with Facebook or twitter is monitored to ensure they are not speaking out of pocket. If you want to clear your name and get off one of these lists, well….unfortunately, there is no clear meaningful process to even contest the terrorist designation. It is the classic guilty until proven innocent standard. Yet, these are the same watch-lists that pro gun control Democratic lawmakers would like to use to prohibit individuals from obtaining a gun.
So does this mean anti-gun control activists are justified in owning an AR-15 and waiting for their name to show up on a watch-list? Should every eligible American own a gun solely because they are scared the government will come for them next? According to some conservatives, government isn’t the only one you should fear. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has made sure that radical Islamic terrorist who are supposedly working in concert with the Obama administration are added to the list. Trump notes, “they are trying to take over our children.” But don’t think for a second that Donald Trump is alone when he says these things, other conservatives including John McCain have said Obama is, “directly responsible”for the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. In addition to radical Islamic terrorist working with Obama, Trump warns that American’s need to protect themselves from Mexican immigrants. Trump is famously quoted as saying, “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
On Liberty: The fear of taking away guns.
In recent weeks pro gun control lawmakers held a sit-in on the House floor challenging Speaker Paul Ryan to let them vote on “sensible gun control” legislation, that would prevent people who are on the terrorist watch-list from buying a gun. Those in opposition to gun control argue that legislation like this is only the first step in, what will eventually lead to, government rounding up everyone’s guns. In fact, in October 2015 the New York Times and CBS News conducted a poll, which showed 52% of respondents said it was at least “somewhat likely” that “stricter gun laws will eventually lead to the federal government trying to take away guns from Americans who legally own them.” Groups like the NRA will highlight how after hurricane Katrina local police forces began seizing citizens guns in an effort to reduce looting and crime. Some have pointed to the curfew instituted by Baltimore’s Mayor, following the historically tragic death of Freddie Gray, as evidence of the type of martial law that can be instituted by government. Yes, the same Freddie Gray who had his spinal cord, literally, severed while in the back of a police vehicle. Yes, the same Freddie Gray, who the officers involved in the events that led to his death were found not guilty of ANY wrongdoing. Yes, the same Freddie Gray who was shackled and handcuffed however according to our legal system doesn’t need a seat belt. Yes, the same judicial system that all but ignored Baltimore Police Department General Order k-14 – this order requires that an arrestee be secured with a seat belt. And yes, the same judicial system that in the court order acquitting the officer driving Freddie Gray concluded that there was not, “sufficient indicators that an average officer in the position of the defendant would have known to seek medical treatment pursuant to k-14.” And by sufficient indicator, the court order makes clear that Freddie Gray answered “yes” when asked if he wanted to go to the hospital. But I digress….
Now ask yourself, if every protester following the Freddie Gray case, legally owned a gun would they have been able to stop the Mayor from instituting a curfew? If every citizen who is unjustly put on a “watch-list” legally owned a gun, would their name be removed? If you are black living in Ferguson, Mo – a town with a documented history of institutionally discriminatory practices – would owning a gun help your plight for equality? See, taking everyone’s guns away certainly isn’t the answer, but neither is owning them. So who is right?
As the old saying goes, “With freedom comes responsibility.” The key to this paradox is having the capacity or freedom to own a gun, and making clear what actions constitute abridging that freedom. If the FBI places you on a no fly list, but doesn’t tell you that you are on the list, that is not liberty. If the government believes you are a terrorist, but the burden is on you to file a lawsuit against the government to prove that you are not, that is the antithesis of having a presumption of innocences. If limiting American’s capacity to own guns means disproportionately throwing black and brown people in prison, as seen by the war on drugs, that is not justice for Americans. The freedom of owning a gun cannot and should not outweigh the freedom of life. For without life, there is no liberty. Without life, there is no pursuit of happiness. Without life, there is no gun to own.
On Liberty: What does regulation look like?
Figuratively speaking, this is the million dollar question. A key element of the gun debate that I believe often gets ignored is the impact it has on certain segments of our community. Although Republican lawmakers working in tandem with the NRA have handicapped the CDC’s ability to use their financial resources to research this issue, the optics are still pretty clear. Mass shootings like Orlando, albeit becoming more common, are an anomaly as it pertains to gun related deaths. Outliers aside, cities like Detroit, St. Louis, Baltimore, Oakland and New Orleans have alarmingly high gun violence and violent crime rates. On a day-to-day basis, people living in Chicago’s Austin and Englewood neighborhoods are more safe in a nightclub in Orlando then they are in their own home. Over 8,000 kids in Chicago have to be escorted to school by a Safe Passage Volunteer because walking to school in broad daylight is too dangerous. Young black men have a higher chance of being killed by a gun than any other race, and it’s not even close. The overwhelming majority (77%) of white firearm deaths are due to suicides, while less than 19% are of homicide. However for Black Americans, 82% of gun deaths are homicides. Invariably black Americans are likely to view the “gun control” debate from a completely different lens than their contemporaries. Naturally, because black Americans look at the gun control debate differently, their goals as to what regulation should look like will also be different. Therefore, regulation that prohibits a lunatic from obtaining a gun and keeps neighbors safe from gun related gang violence will be complex and terribly difficult. I can assure you black communities suffering from gun related deaths do not care, as much, about government ‘no fly’ list as affluent white communities. Unfortunately, much of the dialog we have heard from lawmakers centers around these “list” leaving black Americans feeling like they need to remind the world that their lives matter too. Ignoring these disparities is not only flagrantly vile but it perpetuates, intentionally or unintentionally, the notion that black Americans lives are not of the same value. Lawmakers exacerbate this issue by only getting on television, following a mass shooting, pleading for gun regulation – while sitting on their hands when law abiding black Americans are gunned down going to Starbucks.
To be clear, the horrific events that took place at Pulse nightclub should not be diminished in terms of their ability to impact the national dialog on gun regulation. The events that take place in communities like Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood every day should equally help shape the national debate. We must take a holistic approach and there must be a diverse group of voices that sit at the table when crafting solutions.
Juggling the multiple variables that the gun debate incorporates sets up a clear indication that the federal government may not be the best institution for recommending and instituting changes. Lawmakers in Washington simply are not in the best position to understand the unique and complex challenges that communities with high gun related violence have, because they do not have the day-to-day experience working with individuals from those areas. In this instance, the federal government isn’t best equipped to pass legislation that is unique and specific to each individual state, which may be required to reduce gun violence. One size does not fit all.
Individual states have a little better ear to the ground on their communities and, for the most part, know what types of things resonate with their constituents. The federal government could adequately provide support in terms of contributing the financial resources necessary to research and implement changes. It is possible that in order to curb gun violence we must address the economic and mental health problems plaguing American cities. Gun violence could prove to be merely a symptom of a larger issue.
In the end, we must continue to prioritize the unalienable Rights that were endowed to us by our creator over the tangible rights given to us by man. As we celebrate America’s independence let’s remind ourselves of the sacrifices everyone had to make, not just those on the front lines, in order to gain and preserve our ultimate freedom.