January 24, 2011

Ban the Handgun

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The Tucson massacre, like any national tragedy, compels a certain degree of self-reflection: How can we as a country improve ourselves to prevent similar crises in the future? President Obama’s excellently crafted call for unity and civility was, in my opinion, both welcome and necessary — but perhaps a bit off mark. For as we learn more of Jared Lee Loughner and what drove him to commit such a heinous act, it becomes increasingly clear that the shooting was less motivated by political vitriol than by paranoia and delusional thinking. Obama’s message was certainly important — and, thankfully, well received — but in a world where our political discourse were more civil, I’m not convinced that this shooting would have been prevented.

Rather, the lesson that we should learn from this massacre is the same lesson that we should have learned from the many frighteningly similar incidences that preceded it: Handguns have no place in a responsible society that values the safety of its citizens. Unfortunately, this message seems to have been largely lost in the reaction to the shooting. In the days following, one-day handgun sales in Arizona jumped by 60 percent, and many political analysts speculated that there would be little government mobilization towards any meaningful gun control.

One needs not think far back to recall tragedies that parallel this most recent shooting. The 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, in which 33 were killed and another 25 injured, has been most commonly cited for comparison. But there was also the 2008 massacre in Covina, CA, which left 9 dead. And even more recently (and locally), 14 were killed in Binghamton in 2009 when assailant Jiverly Voong opened fire at an immigration center. In each of these instances, the shooters were able to gain proximity to their targets through the use of concealed handguns, and notably, in each of these instances, the handguns used were purchased legally.

But of course, these shootings, while highly visible, are but a drop in the bucket when viewed relative to the aggregated statistics: Around 30,000 individuals per year die from injuries caused by firearms, with up to 80 percent of these deaths attributed to handguns. It is both irresponsible and unintelligent that, despite these statistics, handguns continue to be sold freely throughout the country.

Gun advocates, who collectively comprise some of the most powerful lobbyist groups in the United States, tend to argue for the free purchase of guns on two grounds: recreation and self-defense. With respect to the former, the desire to use handguns for recreational purposes hardly outweighs the collective danger they pose to society (although, in fairness, handgun possession isn’t typically justified on these grounds). Self-defense is the purpose most frequently cited for the legality of handguns, but I find the logic behind such claims faulty: If the need to own a handgun is framed in terms of protecting oneself from criminals who presumably have handguns, would it not be both more efficacious and collectively beneficial to remove handguns from the equation entirely? The security of a nation’s citizens should be ensured proactively, not reactively, and while gun advocates often fall back on highly inflated statistics of defensive gun use, the prohibition of handguns would go farther towards preventing such incidences from occurring in the first place.

The pro-gun lobby further defends their position by reinforcing the distinction between law-abiding citizens who legally purchase their guns, and criminals who obtain their weapons illegally: To make handguns illegal would therefore do little to stop their use in crime. But even if it is true that more crimes are committed with illegally obtained firearms, two observations are worth noting. First, though the guns are transferred into the hands of criminals through illegal means, they are manufactured legally, and originate at a legal point of sale. Secondly, the prohibition of handgun sales and the crackdown on the black market for handguns are certainly not mutually exclusive policies; to the contrary, they are complementary, the former helping to ensure the success of the latter. To be sure, it is hard to imagine how cracking down on the black market for handguns could possibly be successful with hundreds of thousands of them being legally manufactured and sold annually.

Pragmatic considerations aside, gun control is often difficult or impossible to enact because of the gun lobby’s constitutional ammunition: the Second Amendment. From an ideological camp that so fervently defends constitutional originalism, the incredibly expansive reading of the Second Amendment made by gun advocates is curious, to say the least. Nonetheless, handgun bans have been held unconstitutional in the Supreme Court, largely as a product of two recent cases: D.C. v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago. In the remaining space that I have, I want to touch briefly on the former case, as the latter simply applied the ruling of the former to the states (D.C. being a federal enclave).

In the decision to overturn D.C.’s handgun ban, the Supreme Court asserted that although the Second Amendment is qualified with the need for a “well-funded militia,” the amendment does indeed guarantee the right for citizens to own guns unconnected to militia service. This finding is rather predictable, but the decision to allow for handgun possession in particular rested on the notion that governments are only legitimate in curtailing that right for guns “not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes…” Given the vastly disproportionate rate at which crimes are committed with handguns, this assertion seems like something of a non sequitur. And while the court further asserts that handgun bans fail any level of scrutiny (i.e. a handgun ban is not necessary towards the end of curtailing gun violence), I contend that it would be utterly impossible to witness any meaningful decrease in gun violence without first addressing the manufacturing and selling of such potentially dangerous weapons.

So long as there are handguns, there are likely to be handgun massacres. The gun lobby argues that the solution is to arm more citizens — to make handguns more readily available. But if our collective experience tells us anything, it ought to be this: Sometimes, when you fight fire with fire, everyone gets burned.

David Murdter is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at dmurdter@cornellsun.com. Murphy’s Lawyer appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: David Murdter