Where is the Conversation on Gun Rights Now?

Just days before Thanksgiving this year, five shootings took place across America. Given the recent slew of domestic terror attacks — which also includes a series of bomb threats and two other high-profile shootings in Pennsylvania and California — a reevaluation of the conversation on gun laws in America seems to be in order.

As the nation neared the 2018 midterm elections in the final weeks of October, a series of pipe bombs were mailed to well-known Democrats and Trump critics including George Soros, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Robert De Niro, and the CNN offices. On Saturday, October 27, a shooting took place in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which resulted in eleven deaths and six injuries. On Wednesday, November 7, at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, California, twelve were killed when a gunman opened fire in the contained area. Some of the patrons of the bar were survivors of the deadly Las Vegas shooting just one year prior, forced to re-experience the trauma of a mass shooting. On Monday, November 19, what began as a domestic argument in the parking lot of Chicago Mercy Hospital resulted in five bystander fatalities. In the same week, four other shootings occurred in Philadelphia, St. Louis County, Denver, and Boston.

In the past year, local conversation surrounding gun control has led to possible pro-gun control legislation. The Kingston Common Council pushed for a memorial resolution to state and federal officials that would impose stricter gun licensing laws. One section of the resolution argues that New York’s low rate of gun crimes is due to its strict gun regulations—current state law bans automatic and semiautomatic weapons. Only two types of firearms are purchasable in the state: pistols or hunting rifles/shotguns. No permit is required to purchase a hunting rifle or shotgun, and these can generally be purchased by anyone over 18. However, pistols do require permits, which are only given to those over the age of 21. A more detailed explanation of current gun laws in the Hudson Valley area can be found on the Hudson Valley magazine’s website.

Following the recent Chicago Mercy Hospital shooting, the medical community has started to voice their outcry against the lack of government action on gun control. In an interview, the American Medical Association President Barbara McAneny stated, “We see this as an epidemic and public health crisis and we think intervening as early as possible is smarter than just building more intensive care units for people who are either killed or damaged and badly hurt by the violence. We need to increase firearm background checks … so we know if there are people who have a history of violent crimes, if they’re at risk of hurting someone else or themselves, we can look at all those factors.” In their activism, as our prime health caretakers, the medical community’s supportive attitude towards gun control indicates a dire need for some type of change in our gun rights laws.

Democrats in Washington seem to be ready to respond. According to Representative Robin Kelly of Illinois, talks with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi suggest that “gun violence prevention strategies and bills will be on the list of priorities.” However, the specifics of these strategies and bills remain unclear beyond promises for more research.

A news conference in early December held by Kelly included Democratic Representatives Mike Thompson, Eric Swalwell, Frank Pallone, incoming Representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, and several medical professionals. The conference called for more research on gun violence. Frank Pallone, who is the likely chairman of the Energy and Commerce committee, plans to authorize legislation to fund such research. Whether or not such activism indicates any sort of outcome to the gun control debate remains to be seen. However, it is a step in the right direction if the research is not biased. More information on gun violence will lead to a more informed legislature, and with the recent slew of elected gun control advocates, there remains the potential for much needed changes in gun safety policy.

While the conference did not seem to present any specifics on strategies to push for pro-gun control legislation, Kelly did speak out against the Conceal Carry Reciprocity Act passed in the House late 2017. According to congress.gov, the bill would “allow a qualified individual to carry a concealed handgun into or possess a concealed handgun in another state that allows individuals to carry concealed firearms.” The bill would also allow special authorization to retired or off-duty law enforcement to not abide by the federal prohibitions of possessing or discharging a firearm in a school zone. Currently, it is been read by the Senate and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary. When it will be voted on remains to be seen.

The current top lobbying groups for gun control include Everytown for Gun Safety, Giffords, Sandy Hook Promise, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. These groups continue to push for the activism that remains slow in Congress. According to Everytown’s “Year In Review,” great progress was made in this year’s midterm election. Of the 196 gun safety candidates endorsed by the Everytown for Gun Safety fund, 150 won their races. At a local level, 98 mayors joined Mayors Against Illegal Guns this year, with 36 of those mayors from states that were won by Trump in 2016. With such progress, people seem more ready than ever to participate in activism for the cause.

Despite all this, there remains the fact that there are more mass shootings in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. Although there has been some additional nation-wide gun control legislation passed, mass shootings continue to happen. However, public debate on the subject occurs at its peak only in the aftermath of these events. The recent activism in this issue can still be attributed to the high frequency of shootings that occurred this year. This is not to undersell the progress that has been made in gun control legislation,  moreso meant to highlight why more attention and action is not yet being applied to this issue.

More than anything, there is a need for more dialogue about gun control and rights. The issue is one of the most polarizing, as it goes deep into people’s core beliefs on safety and individual freedom. Jen Zamzow, an ethics professor at UCLA and Concordia University, writes on why people can’t agree on gun control:

“Anyone serious about building consensus on gun policy needs to be slower to judge and quicker to listen to those who disagree. I understand why gun-safety advocates might not want to listen to those who are skeptical of gun-safety laws. People are being killed in their places of worship and kids gunned down at school; this kind of crisis can make people feel they don’t have time for dialogue…However, listening to those who are resistant to gun-control laws is more than just a sign of respect. Understanding what motivates people can help us come up with better solutions that are more likely to stick.”

The road to enacting change in gun policy might not be the immediate action in legislation that pro-gun control activists want, but an honest dialogue might be a place to start. The gridlock found in gun rights legislation must first be resolved through understanding both sides of the argument, and coming to some sort of compromise or realization that leads to change. It is in places such as Kingston, where local dialogue has led to progress in gun laws, that need to be reflected upon.

The Supreme Court viewed the meaning of the Second Amendment as a collective right. This meant that the right to own guns was for the purpose of maintaining a militia. However, this changed in 2008 with the Supreme Court case District of Columbia vs Heller. In this case, the court ruled that Second Amendment included an individual right to keep and bear arms, but that this right was not unlimited. Still, in an era where mass shootings have become a norm, the questions continue about the limitations and definition of the Second Amendment.

A 2017 Pew Study showed that most gun owners in America stated that a firearm is essential to their freedom. Perhaps this indicates a greater need to reconsider the larger, fundamental issues: What constitutes as individual freedom? To what extent should individual freedom be compromised with greater societal needs?

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