Last week, the Review published a letter to the editors that raised a number of points about gun violence (“Founding Fathers Would Approve of AR-15 Sales,” The Oberlin Review, March 2, 2018). Given that several claims in this letter do not stand up under closer scrutiny, we felt compelled to respond and offer the evidence and context that Jacob Britton’s letter lacks.
In his article, Britton states, “The fact that the United States has significantly lower homicide rates than other countries with stricter gun laws should be enough for anyone to remember that safety is in the hands of those who are the most responsible.” While it is true that El Salvador, the country with the highest rate of intentional homicides as of 2015, has restrictive gun laws, Britton ignored the context of the situation. In this specific case, El Salvador is not comparable to the United States at all. It is neither of similar size nor population, nor does it hold a similar relationship with guns. Furthermore, El Salvador is emerging from a deeply turbulent part of its history. Britton asking us to compare the U.S. and El Salvador is like asking to compare the U.S. and 2005 Iraq. It is more reasonable to compare countries with similar development and population levels with the U.S. For example, Indonesia — the country whose population is most similar in size to the U.S. — has very strict gun control and had a murder rate of 0.5 per 100,000 in 2014 compared to the U.S.’ 4.88 per 100,000 in 2015. China, the largest country in the world, has much stricter gun laws than America, but had a murder rate of just 0.74 per 100,000 in 2014.
If you compare countries by development instead of population, you end up comparing the U.S. to countries like Japan, China, France, the U.K., India, Brazil, Italy, Canada, South Korea, and Russia. Of these, only Brazil and Russia have higher murder rates, and both countries are deeply corrupt states rife with organized crime. More generally, Britton neglected to mention other contextualizing details about guns in the United States that show why regulation is needed. First, U.S. citizens own nearly half of the estimated number of civilian-owned guns worldwide, while making up only 4.4 percent of the world’s population. Furthermore, between 1966 and 2012, the U.S. also had five times the number of mass shootings as the country with the next-highest rate. When examining the data in context, it becomes clear that the United States has a particularly serious problem with gun violence.
Rather than insinuating that enacting stricter gun laws is not worth trying, and thus that our current state of affairs is inevitable, we must consider the effects of legislation that other countries have enacted in context. If, rather than looking at the countries with high rates of violence, we turn instead to the countries with low rates of homicides, we might consider the case of Australia. After a mass shooting in 1996 that left 35 people dead, Australia’s parliament enacted strict gun laws and has not had a mass shooting since. Safety need not only be in the hands of those who are most responsible, as Britton argues. Safety can also be found in laws designed to keep people safe.
When all else fails, anti-gun control activists often claim that the Second Amendment is a fundamental part of the U.S. Constitution, therefore protecting gun ownership. Gun control proponents respond by saying that the Second Amendment does not apply to modern guns since the Founders couldn’t possibly have imagined their power. Britton preemptively counters by saying that semi-automatic weapons existed at the same time of the Constitutional Convention and therefore the Second Amendment does include them. However, this lacks both internal and external logic.
First, saying that the Founding Fathers intended the Second Amendment to cover all arms present and future actively disregards 200 years of judicial precedent which established that the Second Amendment did not grant an individual right to guns. If we accept the Supreme Court’s new, more expansive definition saying that an individual’s right to bear arms is constitutional, we arrive at the unfortunate extreme of Britton’s argument. If semi-automatic weapons are included under the Second Amendment by virtue of existing, then why aren’t grenades? These weapons existed and were used during the Revolutionary War, but are illegal to own under the Crime Control Act of 1968. Simply because something existed contemporaneously with the Second Amendment does not mean that the intention was to include it as part of some expansive right to arms.
Second, Britton’s argument fundamentally rests on the infallibility of constitutional intent. This is both disingenuous and false. It is disingenuous because it implies that Britton’s problem with gun control is not its nature, but that the idea is unconstitutional. If that were true, then Britton should have no problem supporting a constitutional amendment allowing the government to restrict access to weapons. However, it is clear that he does not support such legislation, because he does not believe that such an ability should exist. His problem is with gun restrictions, and he should not hide behind the thin argument of constitutionality. His argument is also false because it claims that constitutional intent is the correct way for our country to govern itself. The Constitution is full of contradictions, and was meant to provide full rights to only a fraction of the population. The intent behind the Constitution was to create an America where slavery was legal, voting rights were restricted, and power was kept within a landed elite. Britton may respond by saying that while all these problems existed in the original, it was clearly the intent of the framers that these be removed or changed later on through the amendment process — at which point Britton has nullified the importance of constitutional intent since it is no longer static, but rather fluid, changeable, and reflective of the contemporary United States.
As for Britton’s claim that increasing armed policing in public schools would protect students, there is no good evidence to suggest that this would have the intended effect. There is, however, plenty of evidence that it would be harmful. According to the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center, communities with more guns have more gun deaths, even after controlling for variables including socioeconomic demographics and other crime. Britton’s proposed solution adds more guns into the school community, and it is all too easy to see how a heated confrontation could quickly escalate into a fatal one with these weapons present. Furthermore, increasing policing in schools has been shown to be detrimental to students, particularly students of color. According to the ACLU, in the 2013–2014 school year, many children were actually charged with “crimes” such as throwing a paper airplane or wearing saggy pants in school — charges that would likely never have been brought had there been no police on the premises. School policing remains concentrated in neighborhoods with more POC residents, and Black students are nearly four times more likely than white students to be charged with “disturbing schools,” a chillingly vague law that serves to perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline for many students of color. Britton may argue that armed policing in schools would make students safer — and, again, there is no evidence to support that claim — but he cannot deny that the increased presence of police in schools also leads to more instances when students are body-slammed, tased, pepper sprayed, choked, placed in handcuffs, or otherwise injured. These very real consequences are not an acceptable trade-off for whatever theoretical benefit having more armed policing on school premises might have.
We must continue to discuss the very real problem of gun violence in this country. But let us make sure that we are engaging in these discussions from an informed standpoint, rather than cherrypicking statistics out of context, taking an overly narrow view of the law, and blithely ignoring evidence of the harm of certain proposed measures.