U.S. gun control: complicated past and present

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By: Shawna Muckle ’20 and Aaron Sha ’18

Gun control is again at the forefront of debate in light of devastating mass shootings in Las Vegas and Texas, renewing the controversy surrounding gun control at the state and federal level.Gun control is again at the forefront of debate in light of devastating mass shootings in Las Vegas and Texas, renewing the controversy surrounding gun control at the state and federal level.

The issue of gun control spans back to the beginning of the nation. Prior to America’s Revolutionary War, Great Britain imposed a series of measures to constrain the arm-bearing ability of its colonists: the Intolerable Acts, which established regiments of British soldiers among the colonies.

American colonists felt violated by these limitations and lived in fear of the British army. Once the colonists won their freedom from the British, they avoided such a centralized, standing army due to fear of the state abusing it, instead favoring community-based militias.

“There was a fear that the national government would disband the militias, the body that was supposed to protect us from invasion,” AP U.S. History teacher Mr. Klausenberger said. “In the context of the Constitution and in the latter part of the 18th century, there was a fear of a standing army and the militia was supposed to be a guard against that.”

As a result of this concern, the colonists placed their trust in their militias, a small group of individuals in each town armed with guns. The Second Amendment’s protection of gun ownership was fiercely advocated by people who wanted the militias to remain the main source of military might in the infancy of the United States. However, as the country gained international dominance and adopted a centralized army, people began to question whether the U.S. needed militias, or even the Second Amendment, anymore.

“There is a lot of debate about whether [the Second Amendment] is an individual’s right to bear arms or if it’s respective to some militia.” Mr. Klausenberger said. “In the modern day we don’t really worry about a militia because we have a standing army whose job it is to protect us.”

Despite this uncertainty, in the 226 years since the Second Amendment’s ratification, it has altogether remained scrupulously preserved, with many statewide endeavors to limit it struck down by the Supreme Court.

While the Second Amendment certainly restricted the breadth of gun control, the advent of increasingly dangerous firearms in the 20th century necessitated some minimal restrictions on the types of guns individuals could buy.

The first comprehensive gun reform legislation, entitled the National Firearms Act, was passed in 1934, placing restrictions on military-grade guns, which had proven to be unnecessarily potent in the eyes of common Americans. Four years later, the first constrainments on gun sellers were established with mandated licenses for the sale of regular firearms.

These initial policies gained ground because of their irrelevance to the majority of gun owners and their innocuous intent, but many federal regulations beyond that were stymied by the burgeoning National Rifle Association. For law-abiding citizens, the NRA contended, the process of obtaining a gun should be made as straightforward as possible, with no excessive paperwork, preparation, or screening for gun owners.

In response to what the NRA described as systematic attacks against the Second Amendment, it established the NRA Foundation in 1990 and launched a lobbying operation on Capitol Hill. Threatening electoral reprisals for Republican senators that supported bills it hadn’t endorsed, the NRA labored to prevent many additional Second Amendment restrictions.

Despite the NRA’s opposition, gun control began to pervade modern politics with what was then one of the most shocking and fatal mass shootings in America’s history: the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. With 13 casualties, 12 of them students, the Clinton administration and the then Republican-led Congress were prompted to extensively research the effects of gun control and began passing laws that placed more emphasis on mental health (History.com).

The federal government justified its expanded influence on gun control, a matter typically entrusted to the states, by pointing to the influx of fatal shootings and firearm innovation. Passing legislation to close easily exploitable loopholes and to ensure safety for at-risk communities and individuals evoked bipartisan support and was reluctantly accepted by the NRA.

While the subject was originally bipartisan, Congress’s increased focus on expanding background checks for the issuing of seller licenses and owner registration immediately drew the ire of Second Amendment supporters. Many Democrats also began demanding bans on assault rifles, which they claimed existed solely to inflict mass damage.

As the issue became increasingly divisive, and Second Amendment rights became deeply embedded in the Republican platform, progress on gun control all but stalled. Even after the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, one that generated 49 casualties, gun control legislation was still defeated in the Republican-majority Congress.

In the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, with an unprecedented 58 casualties (USA Today), Democratic members of Congress issued resounding calls for a bipartisan focus on gun control.

Though legislation was introduced to solve one of the loopholes the shooter had abused, the NRA’s opposition to the bill has halted progress towards its passage.  Though Portland is often considered a bastion of liberal thought, the state of Oregon at large remains defensive of gun rights, maintaining lenient policies on background checks and permit eligibility. Oregon does not require permits to purchase rifles, shotguns, or handguns, and it doesn’t mandate additional buyer registration or seller licensing beyond federal regulations. The only requirement that extends beyond federal law is an additional statewide concealed-carry permit for handguns (NRA-ILA).

This accessibility concerns some Jesuit students, who worry that their fellow classmates can acquire a gun without proper expertise.

“I don’t like the fact that any 18-year-old student can walk into a gun store and register for a shotgun without any education or even training,” sophomore Ria Debnath said. “They may not be mature enough to handle something like that.”

Other students  argue the ability to purchase guns is an essential civil liberty, regardless of their youth.

“As an American citizen, I believe it  is our basic right to purchase firearms as long as we don’t have a criminal record,” sopohmore Philip Abraham said. “We should have the ability to protect ourselves against other threats and the government shouldn’t interfere with that under any circumstance.”

The passage of S.B. 719 in the Oregon state legislature this summer marked one of the most impactful gun control measures in the state’s history. S.B. 719, passed through the state House by a margin of only 3 votes, established an expedited courtroom process to revoke guns from at-risk individuals known as an Extreme Risk Protection Order.

By petitioning the court with an ERPO and providing sufficient reasoning, a family member or law enforcement official could protect a mentally ill gun owner from inflicting potential harm upon themselves or others (Oregon Live).

Gun rights enthusiasts, including the NRA, castigated the measure as an attempt to circumvent the law and deprive law-abiding citizens of their gun rights without proper mental diagnosis. Despite the bill’s efforts to assuage this concern by demanding sound evidence demonstrating the subject’s mental incapacity, opponents still felt this left too much possibility for corrupt and improper adjudication.

Though the bill narrowly passed and ultimately became law, its debate is a microcosm for the obstacles currently facing gun control from a national standpoint.

While only citizens with clean criminal records and mental health history can legally obtain a gun, this alone doesn’t prevent deadly shootings. The most extensive background checks can only account for what has been recorded on paper about any given individual.

Yet liberal states like Oregon encounter staunch opposition when attempting to restrict gun ownership beyond the contents of a criminal record. Even some Democrats balk at the prospect of dealing with the potential judicial controversies and litigation that policies such as ERPOs would entail.

As such, any comprehensive progress on gun control, both at the state and federal level, must counter the enduring suspicion in many Americans’ minds that it is nothing but an avenue for government oppression and unaccountability.