Gun Control: The Debate and Public Policy

by Christine Watkins

Violence is frequently the lead story on the evening news. Crime and its prevention often figure prominently in campaign speeches for political office. Acts of violence take their toll not only on victims, but on the public's sense of the general welfare of our society. This makes violence-and its antidotes-a likely topic for current events discussions in social studies classes.
But it is not only understanding "the issues" related to violence that makes the social studies pivotal in the violence prevention movement. Reducing violence is integral to the success of our democratic, participatory social system. One could argue that understanding how to maintain a just and peaceful social order is the primary goal of the social studies curriculum.

The concept of democratic participation in maintaining the social order, with the accompanying need for protection of individual rights and freedoms, is critical to preventing violence in a society like ours. Totalitarian systems typically employ at least the threat of violence to maintain order, while democratic systems are designed to rely on political legitimacy. Recognizing citizen participation as a key element in that legitimacy lends practicality to the teaching of civic virtue in order to reduce violence.

Many people today point to a general decline in the level of our civil discourse, attributing it variously to talk radio influences, single-issue politics, a loss of community, the erosion of faith, or just plain bad manners. Whatever its causes, its solution can only be found in the center of the dilemma: we can't stop talking just because we talk so rudely and at such cross-purposes.

Consider the issue of gun control. This issue is clearly rich in content, drawing as it does upon history, economics, political science, sociology, law, government, and cultural anthropology among other disciplines. The scope of teaching and learning opportunities offered by the debate is suggested in Table 1. But it is the process side of the issue-the case study of gun control as a microcosm of public policy development-that argues loudest for its applicability to the social studies.

One observer of our political system has described the gun debate as "furious politics, marginal policy."1 The cycle of policy-making in the case of gun control (and certain other "social regulatory policies")-characterized as it is by outrage, action, and reaction-may lead to active engagement in political debate, but not necessarily to good policy.2

"Beware of the wedge" warned a newspaper columnist recently about the increasingly heated debate over regulating information on the Internet. "All wedge issues work the same way," wrote Eric Zorn, "from gun control to abortion to crime. Advocates on one side of a controversy pry open the debate with the most egregious, upsetting, or scary examples of their opponents' position at its extremes. Those on the other side, fearing to give even an inch, wind up defending the extremes on pure principle."3

Wedges are an effective way of focusing public attention. They seem to force clarity on both sides to a debate by pushing their positions apart. But they may also cover up important areas of middle ground. Public policy based on the wedge approach risks forfeiting practical achievement in favor of principles taken to an extreme.

If the goal in a social studies classroom is not only to engage students in lively debate, but to lead them to evaluate policies based on their effectiveness, some modification of the current "real world" debate is needed. The following overview of the policy debate on gun violence, and the accompanying classroom strategy, suggest an alternative model for public policy formulation.

The Problem
The issue of gun control is as much about "controquot; as it is about "guns." It is not simply a question of liking or disliking guns. Nor is it simply about liking or not liking control. It is-or should be-about judging the effectiveness of control, and particularly of government control as exercised through regulation.
Ideological cleavages in American politics generally involve a choice between more and less intrusive roles for government-a distinction between means rather than ends. Both sides, of course, would argue that because their means are obviously effective and their opponents' are not, dismissing them is merely a tactic that allows the opposition to conceal its true goals. But, if we take both sides at face value in the debate over gun control, the question is not whether either side is advocating gun violence, but whether one side has better strategies than the other for reducing its current levels.

Recent federal policy in this area is marked by the Gun Control Act of 1968, which was passed largely in response to public outrage over the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Highly publicized incidents of gun violence, including the wounding of President Reagan and Jim Brady as well as multiple shootings with assault weapons, led to the 1993 Brady Act and the Assault Weapons Ban of the following year. Though at least symbolically contested, both are relatively modest measures, in many cases less stringent than the patchwork of state laws that crisscross the nation.

Opponents of more gun control argue that there are already some 20,000 gun laws in the United States, and that, as more laws pass, more gun violence occurs. Proponents argue that these are largely state and local laws with limited impact, and that without them incident rates would be even higher.

Another area of dispute involves the use of guns in self-defense. Gun control opponents cite studies that say guns are used up to 2.4 million times per year for protection, while proponents cite data that say the number is more like 80,000 times.4 How can this be, you ask? Different data sets, different methodologies, extrapolations from limited samples.

Both sides use comparative data from other countries to bolster their arguments. Gun control advocates draw comparisons with countries that have stricter gun laws and much lower levels of gun violence. Opponents cite countries like Switzerland, with high levels of gun ownership and much lower gun-homicide rates, as evidence of the protective benefit of guns.5

Clearly, gun-related crime has more than a single cause, and measurements and trends are subject to manipulation by both sides. For example, while decreasing adult homicide rates in urban areas with tough gun laws are cited as proof of the effectiveness of control, increasing youth homicide rates in the same areas are cited as proof of its futility. With such wildly divergent sets of statistical ammunition, one wonders if it even makes sense to prepare for this debate by arming oneself with facts and figures. At a minimum, it seems useful to try to quantify the problem, if not its exact nature.

Most estimates place the number of guns in the United States at somewhere over 200 million. Approximately 223 million guns became available to the general public between 1899 and 1993, according to statistics compiled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, but some of these are presumably no longer in existence or at least not in working order. Handguns and rifles each account for slightly over a third of the total, with shotguns slightly under a third. An estimated 4 million new guns are added to these totals annually, and in recent years, over half of the new guns were handguns.6

Somewhere over a million crimes are committed each year involving a firearm, with recent estimates in the range of 1.3 million per year. The number of deaths due to guns each year is approximately 38,000, divided about evenly between homicides and suicides, with a small fraction attributed to accidents.

The "Debate"
Reducing the issue of gun control to "pros" and "cons" is probably the least desirable outcome of studying gun control, but it may be a very useful beginning. The pure pleasure of argument will attract some students. Other students may appreciate being asked for their opinions, rather than having to come up with a "right" answer at the outset of the discussion.
The debate used to be waged-both in classrooms and elsewhere-largely on constitutional grounds in terms of the right of individuals to keep and bear arms versus the role of government in providing for the common good. The U.S. Supreme Court has had relatively little to say about the Second Amendment, the main constitutional buttress of arguments that regulation is illegal. The amendment 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." The grammar alone is enough to make one avoid ruling on it.

When the Supreme Court has ruled, it has been more likely to allow regulation than to prohibit it, at least at the state level. Even Daniel Polsby, a lawyer and one of the most eloquent and persuasive opponents of gun control, suggests that seeking constitutional protection under the Second Amendment is a flawed approach. He argues that a guaranteed right to bear arms under any circumstances, including those that might endanger public safety, would provide grounds for repeal of the amendment rather than a case for respecting it. Instead, Polsby argues that the best reason for opposing gun control is that "gun control laws don't work."7

The terms, but not the tenor, of the debate have changed. Some of the most persuasive of the gun control opponents employ economic arguments, using rational choice theory to demonstrate the inability of regulation to stop the flow of guns into neighborhoods where crime is the dominant employer in local labor markets.

Gun control advocates argue from a public health standpoint, noting that while guns may not cause violence, they do cause violence to be far more lethal. This "lethality," in suicide and accidents as well as homicide, is the imperative from a public health perspective for regulating guns like other deadly substances.

I recently listened to a debate, staged by a public policy school, that featured two respected figures hurling statistics at each other. They treated each other with disdain. I was appalled that this was the way in which we modeled "public affairs" for adults, let alone for young people. Despite my own bias in favor of regulation, I found myself wondering if such regulation could be effective in a society so full of discord and so lacking in civil discourse.

Opponents of regulation argue that laws are not the primary arbiter of behavior. "Rational gun control," Polsby says, "requires understanding not only the relationship between weapons and violence, but also the relationship between laws and people's behavior."8 If such laws are ineffectual, one might ask, why oppose them? On the other hand, there is surely a social cost when "bad" laws are disregarded, divert resources, or produce a false sense of security.

Others would argue that the role of law is not primarily to change behavior, but to reflect the behavioral norms that a society professes. Even when these norms conflict, the process by which they are negotiated suggests a value in accepting the outcomes.

An Alternative Process
Consider the following primary learning objectives established for a curriculum that addresses public policy approaches to reducing gang violence:
1 to increase student knowledge of the problem, substituting facts and specific information for stereotypes and generalities
2 to listen to a range of opinions, gaining practice both in persuading others to change and in being open to change
3 to understand that laws need not only to have worthy ends, but must provide effective means
4 to demonstrate the role of ordinary citizens in shaping good laws

These objectives apply equally well to the study of gun control or to any other public policy issue. It is not necessary that issues be violence-related in order to teach the fundamental concepts of social justice, public responsibility, tolerance, and equity. But issues related to violence underscore form with function.

A classroom debate on gun control as part of a violence-reduction curriculum offers an appealing option, but also presents a situation to be avoided. The appeal of a point-counterpoint method of engaging students in learning models the real-life process of public policy making. But the rancorous, uncivil, and often unproductive nature of the debate-as it has been conducted in the real-life models of state legislatures, the national media, and the halls of Congress-is at odds with producing either good citizens or effective policy. The challenge is to combine the attraction and inherent interest of the issue with a genuine desire to seek information, solutions, and above all, effective public policy.

Table 1 Gun Control:A Sampler of Social Studies Concepts/Content Issues
When we think of public policy, we often think only of regulatory policy: laws that prohibit, prevent, or mandate certain actions. In attempting to reduce gun violence, the policy debate has focused on regulatory vs. anti-regulatory approaches. One of the most common arguments for why regulation won't work suggests that guns are an integral part of the American culture/identity, and that the more than 200 million actual guns in circulation are both proof of this and an impossible obstacle to regulation.

As students consider policy alternatives, it can be helpful to examine the truth of these beliefs and to investigate the context that gives rise to these notions about the so-called American gun culture. While it is difficult to deny the existence of those 200,000,000 guns, it is worthwhile to examine how and why they came into the possession of their owners, and what factors influence their use. Students might also look at other problems with parallel conditions that might suggest solutions to the problem of gun violence.

The following list is merely suggestive of topics that may crop up in your curriculum. Some provide support for popularly held notions, while others might cause students to examine the motives as well as the content of some policy stances. For instance, some of the earliest gun legislation passed during the post-Civil War era was aimed at disarming recently freed slaves. On the other hand, while we think of the Old West as a place of unfettered freedom, frontier communities often exercised their own controls, as demonstrated by such familiar images as cowboys checking their guns at the entrance to the dance hall.

American History

Political Science/Government/Law

Sociology/Cultural Anthropology

Seven Arguments for and Against Handgun Control

Much of the debate about gun control concerns handguns. There are various proposals at the city, state, and national level. They range from registration to outright bans on handguns. Below are some of the most frequently heard arguments in the debates over handgun laws.

Arguments against Handgun Control
American citizens have a legal right to own handguns under the Second Amendment, which says "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."
"Guns don't kill. People do." Instead of penalizing ordinary citizens, we should punish criminals who use guns. Imposing mandatory, long prison sentences on criminals will reduce crime more effectively than gun control.
Stronger gun control laws will make it more difficult for citizens to protect themselves and their families. Crime threatens everyone, and the police are not usually around when a criminal appears.
Americans have owned handguns throughout our country's history. Gun control would destroy this time-honored tradition.
There is no evidence that existing gun control laws have reduced crime and violence. New York City and Washington, D.C., have the strongest gun control laws in the nation, yet crime and violence are more serious there than in many cities without strong gun laws.
Even if gun control laws did reduce the use of handguns, criminals would simply shift to other weapons.
"When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns." Gun control laws will not stop criminals from getting guns.
Arguments in Favor of Handgun Control
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Second Amendment guarantees states the right to maintain militias. It doesn't give private citizens a right to own guns.
Criminals use guns because handguns are so readily available. They will continue to use guns as long as there is little control over their sale and possession.
Guns are far more likely to harm members of the owner's household than offer protection against criminals.
Americans needed handguns when this country was an uncivilized wilderness. Today, we have police departments to protect us.
Countries with strict gun control have much lower murder rates. We have never had strong gun control laws covering the entire nation. Making handguns more difficult to obtain will significantly reduce crime and violence.
Guns are more fatal than other weapons. A person shot with a gun is five times more likely to die than a person stabbed with a knife.
Strong gun control laws will make it more difficult for criminals to buy handguns quickly. Those who do get guns illegally will face penalties for illegal possession.

From The Challenge of Violence, published by the Constitutional Rights Foundation. This is the first volume in the W. M. Keck Foundation series, which will address key challenges facing our democratic and pluralistic republic under the framework of the Constitution and its Bill of Rights.

Making Good Policy: Gun Control

This classroom activity takes up a slightly different question from traditional gun control activities that pit opposing arguments regarding the rights of gun owners against gun control advocates. The central question is not whether gun control is "good" or "bad," but whether it is good policy. The lesson asks: "Can gun control laws reduce violence? If yes, which specific kinds of laws and language seem to have the best chance of being effective? If no, what other kinds of legal action can be taken to reduce gun violence?"
Laws are the means to an end. Agreeing on a desirable end is the first step in making good public policy. But agreeing on the goal of reducing gun violence is much less difficult than agreeing on the best way to reach that goal. Particularly when addressing complex social problems like gun violence, laws that use resources effectively and produce results without either abridging constitutional rights or having unexpected and undesirable consequences, are hard to craft. And it is not a job that can be left simply to politicians, the courts, and the police. Citizens must be willing to instigate and evaluate good laws, not simply to obey or ignore them.

The following examples of gun control laws and policies provide opportunities for your students to discuss the relationship between law and public policy, as well as the role of citizens in shaping such policy and laws. For our purposes, public policy is defined as "a plan of action designed to solve a problem or reach a goal." The steps used to carry out the policy often take the form of laws.

Conduct a brief class discussion focusing on several "categories" of gun laws (e.g., waiting periods, outright bans, taxes on gun purchases, regulation of gun dealers, stiffer penalties for gun offenses, etc.) The discussion is not intended to fully explore any one topic, but to give students a sample of the range of proposed solutions.
Following the discussion, divide the class into several groups, each one taking up one of the categories. Give students as much choice as possible in forming the groups. Try to get some students in each group who favor the approach and others who oppose it, at least based on the preliminary discussions. Ask each group to use the Policy Evaluation Guidelines shown below. When the class reconvenes as whole, ask students to create a comprehensive policy, including the most effective elements (and/or discarding the least effective) from each category.

Extending the Lesson
Ask each group to research local, state and/or federal law on their chosen topic. Suggest contacting legislators and pro/con interest groups in addition to library/Internet research. State medical associations and law enforcement personnel have been active in this issue, in addition to the more well-known opponents and supporters. Hold a "Youth Summit," inviting local, state, and federal officials to hear from the students on this issue. For more information on Youth Summits, contact the author, c/o Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago, 407 S. Dearborn, Suite 1700, Chicago, IL 60605.

Policy Evaluation Guidelines

What is the proposed policy? What is its goal?
What problems is it designed to address?
Does the policy address the most important underlying causes?
If it does not address an underlying cause, does the
policy alleviate some of the effects?
Does the policy target the most serious aspects of the problem? Or is it too broad to be enforceable?
Where did the policy come from? What is its history?
Who supports the policy? Who opposes it? Why?
Evaluate the policy's pros and cons: claimed or expected benefits, claimed or expected costs.
Can the policy realistically be implemented?
What about alternative policies? Would another approach be better, either instead of or in addition?
(The above guidelines are adapted from "Service Learning in the Social Studies," Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago.)

1. Robert J. Spitzer, The Politics of Gun Control (Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers, 1995).
2. Ibid.
3. Eric Zorn, "Librarians Take a Risky Stand on Full Access to the Web," Chicago Tribune (June 5, 1997).
4. Gordon Witkin, "The Great Debate: Should You Own a Gun?", U.S. News and World Report (August 15, 1994): 24-31.
5. David B. Kopel, The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy: Should America Adopt the Gun Control of Other Democracies? (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1992).
6. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Selected Findings, monograph on "Guns Used in Crime" (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, July 1995).
7. Daniel Polsby, "The False Promise of Gun Control," Atlantic Monthly (March 1994): 57-60.
8. Ibid.

1. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Selected Findings, monograph on "Guns Used in Crime." Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, November 1995.
2. Cozic, Charles P., and Carol Wekesser, eds. Gun Control. Current Controversies Series. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1992.
3. Davidson, Osha Gray. Under Fire: The NRA and the Battle for Gun Control. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1993.
4. Kates, Don B., Jr., ed. Firearms and Violence: Issues of Public Policy. San Francisco: Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research, 1984.
5. Larson, Eric. Lethal Passage: How the Travels of a Single Handgun Expose the Roots of America's Gun Crisis. New York: Crown Publishers, 1994.

Christine Watkins is an educational project consultant and writer based in Chicago.