Letter: Gun rights and gun violence: A response to the ISD Editorial Board

John Rochford

In a recent issue of The Daily, the editorial board published an article entitled, “Swift Political Action Necessary, Critical,” which discusses the response to the horrific tragedy in New Zealand where an evil human being shot and took the lives of 50 victims and injured many more.  The editorial board subsequently praised the response by New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, in which her government banned “military-style assault rifles and high capacity magazines” from being owned in New Zealand.

The editorial board then asks a rather baffling question, “Keep in mind, the United States has had mass shootings more often than in New Zealand-so why is it that no action has been taken to enforce stricter gun laws?”  Essentially, the editorial board is questioning why the United States has not taken a similar action as New Zealand. When I first read the question, I was surprised why it needed asking, because the answer is not all that complex.  To the editorial board: gun ownership in the United States is not a privilege, it is a right, spelled out in the form of the Second Amendment of our constitution. That amendment reads as follows: “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.”  It is worth elaborating on the context and tradition constructed from that amendment, and how the spirit of that amendment still holds true today.

Pre-United States, citizens of British colonial America not only had a right to bear arms, but indeed, colonial governments like that of the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed acts that mandated ownership of a firearm, as well as all free, able-bodied male participation in the colonial militia. English culture also possessed a tradition of leeriness toward professional standing armies for fear of how those forces may be used.

Fast forward to the independence of the United States. The skepticism toward a national standing army continued to be maintained in American minds. Look above and re-read the words that spell out the amendment. The text held, and still holds, a two-fold purpose. The first purpose is to provide for an army, in the event of war, comprised primarily of the citizen militia.  Secondly, the amendment provides a necessary check on a government that could potentially engage in various usurpations of other liberties. The Militia Act of 1792 further illustrates one of the intents of the amendment, as that act mandated that all able-bodied, 18 to 45-year-old white male citizens enroll in the militia and possess a firearm within six months of the act’s authorization.

This idea still stands today. Although the Militia Act was replaced in 1903 and gun ownership is no longer a written mandate, U.S. Code Title 10 Section 311 continues to establish that every able-bodied male citizen aged 17-45, and every female citizen enlisted in the National Guard constitutes a part of the militia in the year 2019. Indeed, there is still legal relevance to the original intent spelled out by the constitution. For those individuals outside the legal definition of militia, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the right of all citizens to bear firearms, most famously in the case Heller vs. D.C. The “’people,” as written in the Second Amendment, includes us all.

My principal point is that individual gun ownership is a tradition that is rooted and central in American history, and that this tradition is still protected, and relevant today. Gun ownership in New Zealand is a privilege, thus not protected, and the laws surrounding firearms are much more malleable. But let us now discuss the weapons in question: “assault rifles.”

A goal that many gun control advocates, and seemingly, the editorial board desire, is the prohibiting of “assault” weapons such as the AR-15 (which is not a military weapon) and other rifles and weapons akin to the type. Gun control advocates assume that this prohibition will lead to less gun violence and fewer mass shootings. I am again astonished at this notion. A quick glance at the FBI statistics on homicide will show that handguns are used, by far, more frequently in homicides than all other types of firearms combined.  For example, the 2017 FBI statistics list 10,982 homicides by firearm. Of those homicides, handguns constituted 7032, rifles 403, shotguns 264, “other guns” 187, and “firearms, type not stated” 3096. Even if all 3096 “non stated” firearms are added to the rifle category, the number would not come close to approaching handgun homicides. These statistics stay consistent as each year’s report is released. 

Therefore, it is truly a useless and ill-informed gesture to call for the increased regulation or banning of certain types of semiautomatic rifles when those are not what are being used most often to kill. If one truly subscribes to the notion that banning these rifles would radically reduce gun violence, they would be mistaken.

Mass shooting (or “mass killing”) casualties are counted, at least according to Congress via the Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act of 2012 as: a shooting resulting in at least three victims, excluding the perpetrator. 

A report furnished by a public policy group, the Rockefeller Institute, based in New York (and made up of mostly Democratic governors according to the Washington Times), states that from 1996-2016 three quarters of all mass shootings involved a handgun, while only twenty-nine percent involved a rifle (some shootings contained different combinations of firearms used). Other such studies of mass shootings echo this data. To again restate, if your principle answers to reducing mass shootings are centered around rifles, you are not going to succeed. There seems to be a peculiar focus on rifles, because, for a lack of a better phrase, long arms instill more fear in those uninitiated with or simply scared of guns. However, public policy cannot be determined by a feeling; we must examine the facts.

Another argument that is often made in the debate on behalf of more gun regulation, is the phrase, “We are not trying to take your guns.” While that is often true, support for not only infringing on gun ownership, but more explicit calls to ban, have become more prevalent. The editorial board, perhaps not so tacitly, expresses support for the recent buyback program mandated in New Zealand in response to the shooting. New Zealand’s program is not a voluntary buyback; indeed, the program is a state directed confiscation, ironically, backed by their government’s force. These actions are what “coming for your guns” look like. Without our constitution, attempts at confiscation in our country would be much easier.

The “swift, political action that is necessary and critical,” called for by the editorial board, is checked by our Second Amendment. If you truly do support actions such as New Zealand’s, then you must be honest, and realize two things. One: you must understand that rifles are not your problem as it pertains to number of gun deaths. Two: if you realize number one, and ultimately explore handguns regulation or restriction, then you must advocate for repealing the Second Amendment outright. This is the only honest argument, because if you wish to infringe upon an individual’s right to own a firearm, you best make sure it is not a right but only a privilege. You have much American tradition to contend with.

A gun is a tool. Evil individuals are evil individuals. We do need to enforce the laws already on the books to guard against individuals who may look to do harm to others. This is a difficult task, I understand that. There are lines that must be drawn and redrawn, especially in terms of mental health and when rights might lawfully be stripped.  That means we must focus our energy not on the tool being used, but on policies surrounding unstable people. We must strive to understand the underlying motives that push people to violence. Simple gun ownership is not an epidemic or a disease, nor are guns the real issue. The real issues, as often is the case, are the ideas and manifestations of disturbed individuals. Prohibiting, or wishing to prohibit a certain means still leaves us with no solution to the real problems underlying violence.