Philosophical commentary on contemporary political issues in the tradition of Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Sandel.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Two Modest Recommendations for Gun Safety in America

After last week's horrific tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, the discussion around gun violence in America has once again been reinvigorated. While I have shared some thoughts on gun violence in a previous post, I focus this post on a more results-oriented approach as we find ourselves in the wake of yet another national tragedy. While President Obama rightly leaves the door open for a broad-based approach that includes more than traditional gun control and this tragedy again highlights the necessity of better mental health care in America, I will comment here only on the topic of gun safety.

First, a federal assault weapons ban must be re-implemented. The previous ban was put in place in the wake of the 1980s spate of gun violence, but expired in 2004, a year that had seen a decade of declining homocide rates. With the NRA on the rise and Republicans in charge of the Presidency and Congress, renewal did not have a chance. This coupled with the Supreme Court's controversial rewriting of the second amendment in 2008's District of Columbia v. Heller was a huge victory for gun-rights advocates and criminals alike.

The main argument of gun enthusiasts and the NRA for the preservation of assault weapons in private possession is that assault weapons are necessary for self-defense. Their defense of this claim, however, is rather weak. The only advantages an assault weapon provides over a handgun is more ammunition, faster firing, and more range, all advantages that are traded for a dearth of portability and ability to conceal. No, assault weapons are not tools for defense, but are, as their name suggests, designed for assault. The case has been made for restrictions on assault weapons and high-capacity clips and congress should act on that case.

The second proposal I put forth has to do with local control. The constitution was devised at a time when the word "state" meant something more than "province." Each separate state saw themselves as a substantial political entity; the nation-state of "America" had not yet become established. Thus, the 10th Amendment was born: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

While we still live in a federal system in which states have a strong role, we also live in a country where local divisions are even more relevant culturally than state divisions. The Manhattanite likely has more in common with someone who lives in downtown Los Angeles than someone who lives on a farm in upstate New York, and that farmworker in upstate New York likely has more in common with a farmer in rural Wyoming than a Buffalo suburbanite.

While America was born as a country with fairly even population distribution, it has evolved into a country of densely populated metropolitan areas and sparsely populated rural areas, all with their own needs. These divisions, however, are not mirrored in our federal system. In City of Cleveland v. State of Ohio, for example, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the City of Cleveland could not restrict gun ownership past the dictates provided by the state.

Rural areas often need softer gun laws to accomodate for hunters (who have an important role of controlling animal populations) to own guns. Urban areas often need stricter gun laws as a way to curb gang-related violence. The current system of state control often leads to a state consolidating its power by picking a loser between the two.

So here is my second recommendation: leave non-assault weapon laws to local governments and regulate the transportation of weapons at higher levels of government. After all, that is the role of the commerce clause. Democracy works best when rights are guaranteed through federal and international means and all else is left to be locally decided upon, through a fair and democratic process. This may mean more power to municipalities to the detriment of state governments, but state governments have a vital regulatory role that cannot be dispensed of. But overall, the role of health, safety, and morals is best dealt with on a more intimate level than the state can provide.

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