April 16, 2008

Nation Divided Over Gun Control

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This is the first in a series of three articles examining gun control on the Cornell campus, the United States and the international community.

It has been one year since the Virginia Tech Massacre but the memories are far from faded.
“It was one of the worst days ever,” recalled Bryce Johnson ’10, who had many friends at Virginia Tech. “There was no way to get through to anyone … It was scary,” he said.
In the aftermath of the massacre, which claimed 33 lives, colleges across the country have taken numerous steps to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring on their own campus such as implementing emergency alert systems and installing security cameras.
Though many colleges have certainly recognized the importance of making psychological and mental services available to students who are potentially at risk to harm themselves or others, many feel that the tragedy could have been avoided altogether if the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, did not have access to assault weapons in the first place. On the other side of this debate are those that claim Cho could have been stopped if other students had access to guns on campus.
According to “The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative” issued by U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education in 2002, “most attackers used some type of guns as their primary weapons, with over half of the attackers using handguns … and nearly half of them using rifles or shotguns.”
The conflict over the presence of guns in public settings has magnified into a national debate over whether civilians are entitled to own assault weapons under the Second Amendment or whether they should be banned.
On various campuses across the country, student interest groups, such as Students For Concealed Carry on Campus, have advocated a policy of conceal and carry as a way to protect fellow students during a shooting. Conversely, some feel that by bringing more guns onto campus this would only increase the propensity toward violence.
“The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative” stated that “few children are likely to fall prey to life-threatening violence in school setting.”
It is because of such data that people feel that carrying guns on campus is an unnecessary security measure.
“It’s not a new phenomenon. What people aren’t addressing is a larger issue — why do people have psychological problems and how can the university make the campus safe for everyone?” said Randy Lariar, ’08, president of Cornell Democrats.
However, many are claiming that banning guns would have little impact on gun violence and would only serve to make civilian Americans more vulnerable.
“A ban would further facilitate illegal use of the weapons and take away from the abilities of civilians to legally defend themselves,” said Ahmed Salem’08, president of the Cornell College Republicans.
“We banned weapons on campus, but people will still illegally bring them,” he continued,
“It’s just people who are properly trained that aren’t allowed to bring them … This is an important issue because we can’t tolerate even one of these shootings.”
It is noteworthy that Cho went through all training and background checks required by the state of Virginia to operate a firearm, and purchased his weapons from a federally certified dealer.
At the moment, Utah is the only state that allows students to carry and conceal on guns on nine of its public campus as long as they have a permit that stipulates they “must be 21 years old, have no criminal record of violent, immoral or substance-related crime, and mentally competent,” according to CNN.com. 13 states are currently consideration laws that would permit students to carry and conceal guns on campus.
However, the heated debate over control is not limited to college campuses; it is currently playing out in the Supreme Court, which has been tasked with the decision of whether Washington D.C.’s ban on handguns is constitutional in the case District of Columbia vs. Heller. The ban, set in 1976, was established to minimize violence that occurs in urban areas, such as D.C. by prohibiting all handguns unless they were registered before 1976.
The lower courts struck down the ban citing it as unconstitutional, but this decision was stayed while the Supreme Court considered whether individuals have the right to carry guns under the Second Amendment against the “tyranny of government” or whether the right applies only to militias.
“The justices will have to decide if the Second Amendment protects individual rights. If they conclude does, then they will have to decide the extent to which it can be regulated,” said Prof. Trevor Morrison, law.
One aspect the justices will have examine is civilian access to machine guns and plastic guns, which were not around at the time the Bill of Rights was implemented.
The Supreme Court’s decision will have important implications for colleges. At this point, only private universities can implement a blanket ban on guns on its campus, unlike public universities. Cornell is in a unique position because it is a land-grant institution, partially funded by the state, but current state law dictates that no citizen shall conceal guns on a college campus.
Though this Amendment dates back over 200 years, this is the first time in over 70 years the justices have had to decide a case concerning the interpretation of Second Amendment rights, but the Justices were forced to hear the case due to its galvanizing nature.
According to Morrison, the D.C. ban is so extreme that it could not be ignored and that political lobbying by such interest groups as the National Rifle Association has gained enough momentum that the Courts had no choice but to acknowledge it.
In trying to decide the case, the Courts have been fielding arguments on what constitutes reasonable and unreasonable restriction of guns.
During oral arguments, Justice John Paul Stevens asked: “And how about a State university wants to ban students having firearms in the dormitory?”
Alan Gura, representing the plaintiffs replied, “It’s something that might be doable, but again that’s something that’s so far from what we have here. We have here a ban on all guns for all people in all homes at all times in the Nation’s capital. That is too broad and too sweeping under any review.”
Morrison interpreted this answer to mean that Guru was not prepared to say that a university ban on handguns was reasonable.
He said, “If a university doesn’t want guns on its campus, the Court doesn’t want to stay in its way.”
At the same time, Morrison believes that the Supreme Court will upheld an individual’s right to own a firearm.
As the presidential election heats up, many candidates have tried to address gun control, realizing that it could be a decisive factor when the time comes for people to vote. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) opposed restrictions on assault rifles and ammunition types. While in support of the current interpretation of the Second Amendment, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) calls for a ban on assault weapons and tough restrictions on gun ownership. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is calling for a ban on the sale and transfer of semiautomatic weapons. He is also in favor of increased restrictions on the purchase and possession of firearms.