Overview of the Gun Control Debate

Overview of the Gun Control Debate

The term gun control as it is used in the United States refers to any action taken by the federal government or by state or local governments to regulate, through legislation, the sale, purchase, safety, and use of handguns and other types of firearms by individual citizens.

The political and social debate over the question of how much gun control is appropriate has been an extremely polarized one for several decades. In recent years, the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech and other subsequent school shootings have pushed the gun control debate further into the public eye. Among the special interest groups that lobby the government on either side of the issue, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the National Rifle Association are the most renowned groups that hold influence over many groups and organization.

Discussions of the topic tend to revolve around three major talking points: A sociological, an ethical and a legal dimension. From the point of view of social science, the arguments concern the efficacy of gun control laws in relation to reducing violent crime. The ethical point of view pits the right to bear arms against the protection of citizens and prevention of crime. The legal question is the interpretation of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on the issue of whether or not the right to bear arms extends to private citizens or applies only to a so-called "well-regulated militia." On a surface level, a "fourth" issue is found in the question of whether more legislation is needed, or just better enforcement of current legislation.

Some of the restrictions that have been proposed or enacted into law include background checks and waiting periods for individuals who want to purchase a firearm, regulation of secondary market sales, mandatory child-safety locks, child-access prevention laws, concealment laws, bans on small and lightweight guns, and a controversial 1994 ban on assault weapons.

Although not an entirely partisan issue, public opinion polls and voting histories indicate that Democrats largely support gun control legislation, and Republicans are more divided between gun control and gun rights advocates.

Important Concepts and Definitions Related to Gun Ownership Rights

Assault Weapons: As defined by federal legislation, this term refers to semi-automatic weapons (guns that fire a round of bullets with each pull of the trigger). As defined by gun rights advocates, only fully automatic weapons (guns that continue to shoot until the trigger is released) should be considered assault weapons.

Background Checks: Investigations into the background of potential gun buyers, intended to prevent the purchase of firearms by potentially dangerous criminals. Depending on legislation, these can be "instant" or may require a waiting period.

Concealment: Carrying a loaded weapon that is not visible.

Secondary Market Sales: Sales of guns by individuals who are not licensed firearms dealers; such transactions are sometimes exempt from gun control regulations such as required background checks (this is known as the "gun show loophole").

Special Interest Groups: Non-governmental organizations that advocate for or against changes in public policy; also known as lobbying groups.

Well-Regulated Militia: A disputed term used in the Second Amendment: gun control advocates interpret it to mean a disciplined, organized army under government control; gun rights advocates interpret it to mean any person trained in the use of firearms.

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