In just the first four days of 2016, 147 Americans were killed as a result of gun violence. By the end of the year, over 15,000 individuals lost their lives due to gun violence, while over 30,000 were seriously wounded. In this respect, the United States is out of step with the rest of the Western world, where gun control is nearly universally accepted and gun related deaths are substantially less frequent. In fact, the United States’ gun-related murder rate is 25 times higher than that of other developed countries (Goldberg). Mass shootings at Orlando, Charleston, San Bernardino, and Sandy Hook within the last five years have heightened public anxiety about the role of guns in American culture, and gun control laws have become a topic of heated debate between liberals and conservatives. Many conservatives view gun control laws as a challenge to their personal liberty, or a violation of the Second Amendment, which they interpret as guaranteeing citizens the “right to bear arms”. They are opposed to most restrictions which seek to regulate what type of guns can be purchased, and who is permitted to purchase those guns. In contrast, many liberals view gun control laws as a societal necessity. They highlight terrorism, indiscriminate mass shootings, and the deleterious effects of high murder rates within cities such as Chicago, as arguments that gun control laws are for the greater good. Who’s right in this debate? The answer is clear: the safety of society is far more important than the liberty of the individual. It is the fundamental responsibility of the government to keep its citizens safe -- even from one another. In order to do so, the federal government needs to strengthen the rigor of its background checks on gun buyers. It must also place restrictions on firearm magazine size, thereby limiting the number of bullets which can be discharged from a single weapon before reloading.
Although background checks have been in place for nearly two decades, and have proven to be effective, they simply haven’t done enough. In addition, and perhaps more significantly, there are legal loopholes which allow individuals to evade background checks entirely. On June 12th, 2016, Omar Mateen stepped into the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida with the intention to kill as many people as possible. Earlier in the week he had purchased two guns from a shop named St. Lucie’s Gun Sales, and he was able to do it legally because he had passed a background check conducted by the FBI. Using his rifle and pistol, Mateen shot and killed 49 people, leaving 53 others wounded, sending terror through the LGBT community and the rest of the country. Though Mateen had been on two FBI terror watch lists before the shooting, he was still able to purchase guns and commit the largest mass shooting in American history (Daly). That Mateen managed to obtain firearms and ammunition demonstrates the inadequacy of the FBI’s background checks. How can a man who is suspected of being a terrorist pass a background check? He shouldn’t. It is therefore incumbent on the FBI to improve or revamp their procedures. In addition, loopholes exist for guns purchased in “secondary markets” -- gun shows, in other words: “most states do not require background checks for firearms purchased at gun shows from private individuals -- federal law only requires licensed dealers to conduct checks” (“Gun Show Background Checks State Laws”). Thus, individuals can effectively circumvent federal law by purchasing firearms at gun shows; multiple weapons can be bought in a private transaction and transported across state lines. As a result of this loophole, mentally unstable individuals, as well as criminals, can end up with firearms that can be used with deadly consequences. This loophole should be closed; the federal government must require some system of background checks in secondary market transactions.
Background checks cannot be the sole remedy used to decrease gun violence in the United States. Legislators must not look only at who owns a gun, but also at the “killing capacity” of the weapons themselves. The term “magazine” refers to the volume of ammunition that can discharged before reloading is necessary. In recent mass killings, shooters have used high capacity magazines, so that they have been able to kill or injure large numbers of people. In fact, “high capacity magazines have been involved in at least 45 mass shootings since 1994” (Yablon), illustrating their near ubiquitous use in mass murders. Individuals wishing to inflict the greatest harm utilize these large magazines so they can kill people at a faster rate. In 2011, Jared Loughner murdered six people (including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and a nine year old girl) with “bullets fed from a 33-round magazine” (Yablon) in Tuscon, Arizona. In this case, the shooting did not end until a bystander tackled Loughner to the ground as he was reloading. Had the magazine that he used had been smaller, Loughner would have had to reload sooner, and perhaps the number of deaths from that incident would have been fewer. Some gun rights advocates believe that any restrictions on magazine size punish gun owners indiscriminately, particularly those gun owners who keep firearms for recreational use such as hunting. However, many hunters acknowledge that use of semi automatic rifles with high capacities detract from the sport. In the magazine, North American Whitetail, hunter Dick Metcalf asks: “Why would anybody want a hunting gun that has the capacity for more than two follow up shots” (Metcalf). Given that high capacity magazines are not needed for recreational activities, the pro-gun activists’ argument is eroded. If high-capacity magazines are a major factor in the mass shootings which have been so lethal in the past decade, and if recreational hunting does not require their use, why not place restrictions on magazine size?
The issue of gun control laws addresses a broader question as to which is more important: individual liberty or the needs of society? Ayn Rand, in her novella Anthem, addresses that specific question by detailing the fictional society in which Equality 7-2521, the main character, lives. In this society, a majority of the population is content. The Council (as the government in this society is known) provides the people with food, a home, clothing and work, but in exchange it implements certain rules to keep society functioning. For example, the Council dictates that all men should love other men equally, and not hold one man above another (Rand 30). This law ensures that men will not harm each other, and thus the government keeps the population safe. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French Enlightenment philosopher, addressed this concept in his work The Social Contract, in which he gives his opinion on the role of government in the protection of the people. In Book Two, Chapter Six, Rousseau states: “All justice comes from God, who is its sole source; but if we knew how to draw it from that high source we wouldn’t need government or laws!. . . . Agreements and laws are needed to join rights to duties and relate justice to its object” (Rousseau 6). Rousseau states that while justice emanates from God, government must implement laws to deliver justice and protect the people. Both Rand and Rousseau acknowledge the need to balance certain personal autonomy in order to protect and preserve the public good. In Athem, the fictionalized society is extreme in that its members have had to relinquish knowledge in order to gain safety. Our society does not require this kind of sacrifice; gun control laws can increase public safety without any great forfeit of knowledge or independence, resulting in a more benign and secure community.
Most gun-rights’ activists argue that any type of legislation which restricts one’s ability to obtain a gun is simply unconstitutional. As the Second Amendment states that individuals have the “right to bear arms” -- there is reference to a musket and a knapsack -- some of those activists maintain that restrictions undermine one of the basic rights a citizen enjoys in the United States (“A Ban on Assault Weapons Would Not Reduce Crime”). These activists would be well served to remember that the Constitution was written over two hundred years ago, and that its intent was to preserve the status of citizen based militias both as defenders of the new nation against external foes and threats of internal tyranny. The amendment contains no language about an individual’s right to own a gun for individual self-defense or recreation. The Founding Fathers surely had no experience with weapons like the AR-15 or other powerful assault weapons, and could not imagine the death and destruction which could be unleashed by one citizen against another. If guns themselves are different now, and are used differently, then how can we interpret a law written in 1781 about guns in the static way?
While other Western nations are mostly unified in their acceptance of the validity and importance of gun regulation, the citizens of the United States remain divided on the question of gun control. Pro-gun activists invoke the historical legacy of the country, citing the Second Amendment of the Constitution as an argument for unfettered access to firearms. Gun control activists reference terrorism, mass killings, and the high murder rates within cities, as arguments that gun control laws are for the greater good. But most Americans can agree that with the number of mass shootings on the rise in America, changes need to be made. The Federal Bureau of Investigation must increase the intensity of background checks, while implementing checks in at gun shows to ensure that guns do not fall into the wrong hands. Large magazine sizes that, without a doubt, have contributed to the severity of mass shootings must be restricted. As Jonathan Lowy, Director of Legal Action Project at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, has said, "These are weapons that will shred your venison before you eat it, or go through the walls of your apartment when you’re trying to defend yourself… [they are] made for mass killing, [but are] not useful for law-abiding citizens" (“Should More Gun Control Laws Be Enacted?”).