In the wake of yet another tragic mass-shooting in the United States, the debate concerning gun reform has, once again, been brought sharply into focus. The latest research from the gun violence centre indicates that in the past 5 years alone there has been a total of 1,624 mass shootings in the US, which is equal to almost one mass-shooting a day on average. Furthermore, restrictions on the possessions of guns appear to be at an all-time low, and more states than ever now have right-to-carry laws. Despite promises made to implement legislative changes in the aftermath of the recent Florida Park shooting, which left 14 children dead, President Trump seems to have significantly backpedalled on plans for reform. Many suspect this inertia to be mainly the result of resistance from the powerful US gun lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA) which, through financial contributions, a highly organised grass-roots campaign and considerable spending on internet and television advertisements, wields sizeable political influence.
As mass-shootings continue unabated in the US, what appears to be lacking from mainstream media discourse on the subject is a persistent effort to engage with common anti-gun control arguments. This has meant that in some corners, these arguments have gained credence and can be found being repeated after almost every single mass-shooting occurs. In response to this, this article will examine some of the most commonly used arguments against gun reform and see to what extent they can be said to stand up to close scrutiny.
“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
This argument runs that as it is not guns themselves that kill people but rather people pulling their triggers that do, instead of focusing on regulating guns, society should instead focus its attention on the people carrying out these shootings. This is perhaps the most commonly deployed argument against suggestions to reform gun laws however, whilst it admittedly has some superficial appeal, a closer look at it reveals that it is flawed.
It is, of course, correct to say that guns do not kill people of their own accord. Guns are inanimate objects, and before a mass shooting, they do not suddenly become possessed of evil spirits, wickedly pulling their own triggers in a frenzy. Restricting gun ownership however, would not be an endorsement of the idea that guns did literally kill people (although the number of accidental gun killings is not low). Instead, reforming gun laws would be a recognition of the fact that, whilst it is indeed people who generally decide to kill other people, guns greatly facilitate these killings, with the assault-style weapons frequently used in mass-shootings having been designed to kill as many people as possible in a short space of time. It is for this ability to facilitate killing that there have been calls to reform to gun laws, and the argument that “guns don’t kill people” is little more than a straw-man, masquerading as a legitimate response to a position never genuinely advanced by those calling for reform.
This, of course, does not mean that society cannot and should not do more to address the people carrying the guns, however the two options are not mutually exclusive; society can definitely do more to tackle issues such as mental health and socio-economic factors that can lead people to commit atrocities, whilst at the same time reducing the chance that would-be attackers can commit mass carnage with weapons designed to facilitate death.
“The second amendment protects my right to own and use guns, therefore the government cannot take my guns away from me.”
In modern political and media discourse, the Second Amendment has become synonymous with an unrestricted right to own and use whatever guns an individual pleases, wherever an individual pleases. So prevalent is the belief that the US Constitution protects such a right, that those who advocate for even minimal gun control laws are often characterised as “anti second amendment”, and those who would like to see even modest gun controls evaporate, “pro second amendment”. In order to assess this argument, it’s necessary to take a closer look at the Second Amendment.
The Second Amendment to the US Constitution is one the nation’s oldest laws having been adopted in 1791. It reads:
“A well-regulated militia being necessary for the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
The US Supreme Court had the chance to decisively interpret the Second Amendment for the first time in a 2007 court case that came before it. This case involved a ban on handguns by the District of Colombia in Washington D.C and a requirement that all firearms in the home be kept trigger-locked in an unusable condition. In this case, the court decided that the Second Amendment did protect an individual’s right to own guns, however importantly, it restricted that right to no more than the right to keep a loaded handgun in the home for self-defence. Far from arguing that this right was unrestricted, as many seem to believe today, the Supreme Court stated in its judgment that:
“nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
As well as endorsing restrictions on who may purchase guns and where they may be carried, US Courts have also interpreted the Second Amendment as placing restrictions on the type of guns individuals can own. In 2015, the Court of Appeals for Maryland stated that:
“…assault weapons and large-capacity magazines are not protected by the Second Amendment”
More recently, in a case which had to do with a ban by the state of Massachusetts on AR 15 Semi-automatic rifles, in upholding the ban, the Court of Appeal for Massachusetts stated conclusively that assault weapons :
“fall outside the scope of the Second Amendment and may be banned”.
These cases show that the Second Amendment does not protect an unfettered right by anyone to own whatever gun they please. Instead, courts have recognised that it protects only a limited right to keep a weapon in the home for self-defence, and far from prohibiting the state from taking any action on gun reform, regulating the commercial sale of arms and prohibiting assault-style weapons has been held to be perfectly in accordance with the Second Amendment.
“Hammers and plastic bags can be used to kill people, if we ban guns are we going to ban these too?”
In order to understand why this oft-cited argument is problematic, we have to look at two factors namely, the purpose an object was created for, and the consequences of its incorrect usage.
Hammers and plastic bags were both created for what we may describe as non-harmful purposes; hammers were created as tools of construction and plastic bags to carry consumer goods. Granted, it is clear that if used for a purpose they were not created for, both objects can cause a degree of harm; a hammer, for example, can be used to hit someone over the head with, and a plastic bag for suffocation. Whilst this is possible and harm can be caused with almost any everyday object, this is plainly not the purpose these objects were designed for. Further, even if they were to be misused, the harm they can cause is relatively limited – a hammer could be used to hurt or seriously injure someone but the chances of someone with a hammer killing large numbers of people without being resisted or apprehended are extremely low. Likewise, a misused plastic bag could cause injury but the potential for harm and the likely scope of this harm is extremely limited.
Firearms, particularly the semi-automatic and automatic types frequently used in mass-shootings, are entirely unlike these everyday objects. These weapons have their origins in warfare and the purpose of their creation was to kill and/or maim as many enemy combatants as possible, as quickly as possible. Not only therefore, very unlike hammers and plastic bags, do they have an incredibly harmful purpose, but the potential harm that can be caused from their misuse i.e. not being used on enemies in warzones, is immeasurable. When unleashed on innocent civilians, these weapons can kill tens, even hundreds of people in seconds and, as past attacks have demonstrated, the nature of these weapons makes the attackers almost impossible to apprehend unless they voluntarily desist in their carnage.
With this in mind, it is therefore clear why, although it is true that hammers and plastic bags can be used to hurt or even kill people, the purpose for which they were created and the scale of harm that could result from their misuse, means that it is justifiable for us to take a different approach to their regulation as compared with assault-style weapons.
“Mass shootings always occur in gun-free zones, we, therefore, need fewer gun-free-zones to prevent this.”
One of the most widely perpetuated assertions is that mass shootings occur almost exclusively in gun-free-zones. Supporters of this argument point to the shootings in elementary schools and concerts and make the argument that if only people were allowed to carry arms everywhere they went, then these tragic events would have likely been avoided.
The first problem with this position is that it is simply not true that mass-shootings occur only in gun free zones, or even that they occur mostly in gun-free-zones. In a study of mass-shootings between 2009 – 2015 it was found that only 13% took place in areas where the carrying of firearms was prohibited. The vast majority of mass shootings catalogued actually took place in private homes (70%) with the rest taking place in public areas where the carrying of firearms is permitted. Just a brief look at the history of mass shootings show that they have and can occur everywhere, from heavily guarded army and naval barracks to little children’s schools and there has been no, conclusively proven, link between a prohibition on guns in a given space and the likelihood of a mass-shooting occurring there. Even if we were to accept, for argument’s sake, that mass-shootings do mostly occur in gun-free-zones, would more guns really be the answer? Several studies have pointed to the fact that when confronted with a mass-shooting, humans are more likely to freeze from fear and panic than to shoot back. The fact that this response is more likely than any other is supported by the lack of cases where an individual carrying out a mass shooting has been apprehended by another individual in the vicinity with a gun. With this in mind, it seems strange to say that more guns is a sensible response to the problem.
There is also a moral argument to be made. At what point is the militarisation of public spaces simply unacceptable in a developed society? It has already been suggested that teachers should be armed in schools – if this happens and there is yet another mass shooting, will the answer then be to arm the children? Where does it stop until there is no longer an inch of space where someone is not armed? Whilst it is clear that those making enormous profits from the sale and manufacture of arms have no limits to what they deem acceptable, surely society must preserve some space where weapons of death are not permitted.
Common objections to meaningful gun reform do not stand up to careful scrutiny. Whilst these arguments are deployed with great frequency and certainty by certain people after mass-shootings, this article has demonstrated that there is both weak logical and evidential basis to support them. It is hoped that those discussing gun reform, particularly those within media circles, will engage more readily with anti-gun reform arguments in order to identify and highlight their flaws. This will make it increasingly difficult for them to be deployed as template responses in the aftermath of tragedies, which could have a decisive impact on a debate which has become very much stagnated.