UPDATE: On June 28, 2010, the Supreme Court made a landmark ruling expanding the right to bear arms in cities and states.
UPDATE: On June 26, 2008, the Supreme Court made a landmark ruling upholding the right of individuals to bear arms for hunting and for self-defense.
Before the landmark ruling, the most visible issue under debate was whether the federal government should provide a stronger role in regulating handguns and related firearms. Methods of regulation include making it harder for dangerous persons to buy a gun, improving safety of guns, regulating sales at gun shows, and more. The most visible group that is against more federal regulations is the National Rifle Association (NRA). The most visible group that is in favor of more federal regulations is Handgun Control (the Brady Center), along with its affiliate organization, the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.
The NRA argues that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees individuals the right to own and carry guns. They are concerned that federal regulations will continue to increase until owning a handgun will be difficult to achieve, infringing on their Constitutional rights. They also argue that if law-abiding citizens have guns, they are safer from criminals, bringing crime rates down.
The Brady Center, on the other hand, argues that the Second Amendment of the U.S.Constitution does not guarantee individuals unrestricted rights to own and carry guns. Further, they argue that when more people have guns, deaths and injuries from guns increase.
It is up to the rest of us to determine which positions are true. We may not agree with the conclusions of either group, but we need to know whether the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right for individuals to own and carry guns. We also need to know whether more guns mean more deaths and injuries.
Protection of the Right to Bear Arms Under the Second Amendment
We have assembled the key facts at one site, Gun Control. For example, the Second Amendment to the U.S. 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."
Both sides agree that the final authority for interpreting the meaning of the Second Amendment of the Constitution (above) is the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 26, 2008, the Supreme Court made a landmark ruling upholding the right of individuals to bear arms for hunting and for self-defense.
A key case before this landmark ruling, according to both sides of the argument, is United States v. Miller 307 U.S. 174 (1939). In this case, the Supreme Court was asked whether the Second Amendment protected Miller's right not to register a "sawed off" shotgun, despite a federal law requiring it. The Supreme Court examined the original records of Congress to determine why the Second Amendment was written into the Constitution. They clarified the intent of the Second Amendment with this statement:
"The Constitution, as originally adopted, granted to the Congress power -- To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions; To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress. With obvious purpose to assure the continuation and render possible the effectiveness of such forces, the declaration and guarantee of the Second Amendment were made. It must be interpreted and applied with that end in view."
The Supreme Court then ruled that Miller's shotgun was not for a militia-type purpose and that it therefore was not protected by the Second Amendment. The Supreme Court further explained that at the time the Second Amendment was adopted, Congress favored using the civilian population (adult males) as the State Militia for national defense rather than building an army of professional soldiers. The purpose of the Second Amendment was to support the national defense. Therefore, the only purpose for which owning and carrying a gun is protected under the Second Amendment is as part of "a well regulated militia," acting on behalf of the national government.
The NRA agreed that the Supreme Court ruling meant that only militia-type uses for guns are protected under the Second Amendment. However, the NRA has an additional interpretation of the ruling: Because the Supreme Court wrote about the purpose of the weapon, and did not specifically mention Miller's lack of membership in the military, the NRA therefore concludes that individuals not in the military have a right to bear arms, as long as they do so for a military purpose.
More recently, an individual right to bear arms was affirmed in the trial court of U.S. v Emerson, but overturned on appeal to the Fifth Circuit. Although Emerson lost the case, the NRA regards the opinions of two of the appellate judges as support for their position that the right to bear arms is an individual right.
Regarding the Emerson case, the Brady Center states, "This suggestion that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms is contrary to the holdings of the U.S. Supreme Court and every other federal appellate court to consider the issue."
According to Brady Center sources, Congress debated whether the Second Amendment should include the right of individuals to carry guns for personal reasons and decided to limit the Second Amendment to include only the right to bear arms for the military purposes, national defense.
To summarize, before the Supreme Court's landmark decsion, the Brady Center concluded that individuals do not have the right to keep and bear arms for personal uses under the Second Amendment since the Second Amendment's purpose is solely for national defense. The NRA, on the other hand, concluded that the Miller ruling supports the right of individuals to keep and bear arms, as long as they do so for a military purpose. The Supreme Court on June 26, 2008, however, made clear the interpretation of the Second Amendment: Individuals have the right to bear arms for hunting or for self-defense and do not need to do so for a military purpose.
Do More Guns Mean More Deaths and Injuries?
The Brady Center argues that when the civilian population has more access to guns, more teens and children die from gun wounds. For example, during a year when over 5,000 teens and children died from gun wounds in the USA, in Great Britain, where gun ownership is very restricted, 19 teens and children died from gun wounds.
The Brady Center also argues for laws that promote gun safety, such as requiring child-proof locks on gun triggers. They have praised Smith and Wesson (gun maker) for starting to make guns with safety features. The Brady Center asserts that the public good is served by enacting laws that more carefully protect children from access to guns.
The basic reason NRA is against regulation of gun ownership is the belief that each piece of federal regulation will lead to more until finally, gun ownership will be very restricted. Research findings provided by the NRA conclude that gun ownership results in protection from crime. They argue that when more people have guns, crime rates are reduced. They argue that research results provided by the Brady Center and others in favor of gun controls are false or overstated.
The NRA is strongly against Smith and Wesson adding safety features to guns. The NRA's position is that if gun manufacturers build guns with safety features, then the federal government will start requiring those safety features. If the federal government requires safety features, that will provide momentum to the federal government for passing more regulations.
According to information gathered from federal agencies by Newsweek, deaths from gun wounds have been declining in recent years. Is this decline in deaths caused by enforcement of the "Brady Bill," allowing fewer dangerous people to have guns? Is it from having more people in prisons? In truth, we do not know yet why deaths from guns are declining.
The NRA position that restricting access to guns causes more crime (because then only criminals will have guns), is not supported by evidence at a national level. In countries where guns are greatly restricted, such as Great Britain or Japan, deaths from guns are very rare, especially compared to the United States. In fact, the USA is a world leader in the rate of homicides from guns.
Although a Gallop Poll shows that a majority of Americans have a favorable opinion of the NRA, the majority's positions on gun control do not match the NRA's positions. We want guns to be made safer, such as having child-proof trigger locks. We want our government to take reasonable steps to keep dangerous persons away from guns.
Data and arguments from both sides of the debate on gun control are provided for your consideration in our Gun Control section. Also see Safe Schools.
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and Dr. R. Jerry Adams