Posted on May 31, 1999 in Washington Watch

The U.S. Congress will soon consider legislation designed to limit the access of children to guns. The legislation, which recently passed in the U.S. Senate by the narrowest of margins, calls for a number of modest reforms. For example, it requires background checks in all gun purchases, even those at gun shows, and requires mandatory child safety locks on all handguns.

The legislation was first introduced shortly after the shocking massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado that left 15 dead. The opposition of the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate initially doomed the bill to defeat. But an outraged public backlash forced reconsideration.

When yet another highly publicized school shooting occurred in Georgia, the gun control bill was brought to a vote. The final vote of 51-50 reflected the deep partisan split on this issue. All but one of the 50 who opposed this bill were Republicans. Six Republicans who joined the 44 Democrats in support of the reform forced a 50-50 tie. This enabled Vice President Al Gore, who by law is allowed to vote to break a tie, to cast the 51st vote in favor of the reform.

Gore’s vote against an almost solid Republican opposition ensures that gun control will be a campaign issue in the 2000 election.

The issue of violence and gun control has long been an emotional one in U.S. politics. Advocates of the right to own weapons have argued that the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution guarantees this right. In fact, the second of these amendments does support the “right to bear arms”. But as supporters of gun control are quick to point out, the full text of the Second Amendment, in fact, reads: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” This, they maintain, is a far cry from guaranteeing every citizen with unlimited and uncontrolled access to a weapon. The gun rights movement, and those who support them, are also concerned about any infringement by the central government on the rights of individuals. They believe that the ultimate goal of the gun control advocates is to restrict personal freedoms.

A powerful lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has developed to successfully fight efforts to restrict or control gun ownership. For decades now the NRA has been strongly supportive of and supported by Republicans and some Democrats who come from rural areas where their constituents insist on the right to own weapons.

The NRA is one of the nation’s strongest lobbies with millions of organized and highly motivated members and a campaign fund that has given millions of dollars to their favored candidates.

During the past three decades the nation has been shocked by several dramatic acts of violence. It is largely these incidents that have turned the tide of public opinion in favor of some form of gun control.

In the 1960s it was the assassination of President John Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. These led to the first gun control act that banned the sale of guns by mail order.

The attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan led to the passage of the two gun control bills. The first, the Brady Bill (named for the Reagan aide seriously wounded in the assassination attempt) requires background checks with the sale of all guns and the Assault Weapons Act bans the importation and sale of certain deadly assault weapons.

In the past two years there have been six highly publicized shootings at high school campuses. These have taken the lives of 29 and wounded 70. The ages of the killers in those incidents ranged from 11 to 18 years old. It is the shock caused by these shootings that led to the recent legislation.

What must be understood, however, is that the problem posed by guns and violence is even more troubling than the picture that emerges from these selected publicized events. The annual overall statistics on guns and violence are staggering.

School violence, for example, is a serous national problem. During the past five years there has been an average of 8,000 violent incidents reported annually in U.S. high schools.

The problem of gun related violence is even more serious. Almost 36,000 Americans are killed each year by guns. One-third of those are acts of murder (the others are suicides and accidents). Guns are the number two killer of young people in the United States (traffic accidents are the number one cause of death). Over 5,000 young people are killed by guns each year!

Over 200,000,000 guns are owned by Americans with another seven million more guns sold every year.

With statistics such as these it is no small wonder that over two-thirds of all Americans are in support of some form of gun control laws, especially those that ban the sale of assault weapons, mandate trigger locks and require background checks for all gun owners.

But with a powerful lobby opposing most of these controls and a deep partisan split, it is certain that the issue will continue to be debated.

Republican opponents of new gun control laws point out that current laws are not well enforced. They note that in recent years, for example, 6,000 children have been caught attempting to bring guns into schools–only eight of those cases, they say, have even been prosecuted. They argue that more laws will only create more government regulation and will not necessarily reduce violence. The violence, many Republicans argue, will only be controlled by a greater emphasis on values, discipline and law enforcement.

All of this may be true but the recent high school shootings and the general problem of pervasive violence has created a public demand that something be done to limit access to weapons. Moderate reforms, such as those currently being proposed, are a way of attempting to meet the public’s demand for action.

But as the statistics indicate, the problems posed by guns and violence are so serious that the solution will require more than legislation.

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