“The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963,” write Jan E. Dizard, Robert Merril Muth, and Stephen P. Andrews Jr. in the introduction to Guns in America: A Reader, “set off a national debate over the place of firearms in our society that has continued, virtually unabated, to the present.” Prior to Kennedy’s death, firearms were commonly sold over-the-counter and through mail-order catalogs to almost any adult who wanted them. Then, in part because of the public outcry after Kennedy’s assassination, Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968, which expanded gun-dealer licensing requirements and banned most felons, the mentally incompetent, and illegal drug users from buying guns. In signing the legislation, President Lyndon Johnson said, “Today we begin to disarm the criminal and the careless and the insane,” but he lamented that the bill fell short because “we just could not get Congress to carry out the requests . . . for the national registration of all guns and the licensing of those who carry guns.”
Historically, concern about gun violence has usually followed a high-profile shooting, as it did with the Kennedy assassination. On March 30, 1981, another such shooting occurred, this time a failed assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The president and three others were wounded, and presidential press secretary James S. Brady was permanently disabled from his injuries. His wife Sarah subsequently became the head of Handgun Control Inc., the leading gun control advocacy group in the United States.
In the wake of the assassination attempt, gun control advocates pushed for tighter restrictions on gun sales. They argued that while the 1968 Gun Control Act banned gun sales to most criminals, it was still easy for criminals to lie to gun dealers about their identity or their past. A bill, named after James Brady, was introduced in Congress that would require background checks of all gun purchasers. Since the background checks could take several days, the bill also necessitated a waiting period on gun purchases.
The Brady Bill, however, faced considerable opposition from many congressmen, as well as President Reagan and his successor George Bush. The bill did not become law until 1993, after President Bill Clinton took office. The Clinton administration also instituted a ban on militarystyle “assault weapons” as part of its 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill. Since these two bills were passed, however, there has been no major gun legislation from the federal government.
This lack of federal government action is partly the result of Republican control of both the House and Senate since 1995. (Broadly speaking, Democrats tend to favor gun control legislation, while Republicans are generally resistant to stricter gun laws.) Many Republican legislators side with the National Rifle Association (NRA) on gun control issues. The NRA is the nation’s largest organization of gun owners, and its members believe that gun control laws are unconstitutional and ineffective in reducing crime.
In the late 1990s, however, a series of school shootings, such as the one at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in which two heavily armed students killed 12 students and one teacher, shocked the nation and again renewed public debate over the availability of guns. Gun control advocates argued that many of the shootings could have been prevented if the students had not had such easy access to guns.
Gun rights advocates countered that responsible gun use sometimes saves lives. For example, the October 1997 incident in Pearl, Mississippi, in which a 17-year-old killed two students and wounded seven others at his high school, was brought to an end when the assistant principal of the school retrieved the pistol he kept in his car and subdued the shooter. Opponents of gun control also employed the classic logic of “guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” by arguing that in each of the school shootings, the killers were clearly disturbed and that the availability of guns wasn’t the deciding factor that caused them to go on their rampages.
Policymakers, in the end, must confront the practical questions: What can be done to reduce the levels of gun violence in America? Does the problem of gun violence warrant further restrictions on gun ownership? There is a great divide on these basic questions. Groups like Handgun Control Inc. call for a total ban on handguns as well as licensing and registration of rifles and other so-called long guns. The National Rifle Association counters that guns are a vital means of self-defense, that gun ownership is a constitutional right, and, in another often-used phrase, that “when guns are outlawed, only criminals will have guns.”
As Dizard, Muth, and Andrews note, the bitter nature of the debate between pro- and anti-gun groups often ends up leaving many Americans feeling more distraught about the problem of gun violence:
Both pro-gun and anti-gun forces promote a sense of precariousness. The pro-gun folks portray a nation on the verge of anarchy that requires law-abiding people to arm themselves in self-defense. The anti-gun folks portray a nation awash in guns, held hostage to the impulsive acts of unstable people. . . . Paradoxically, the pro- and anti-gun extremists feed each other’s fears. The consequences of this not only harden the opposition but also help to reinforce the pervasive sense of danger that grips so many Americans.
The viewpoints in Gun Violence: Opposing Viewpoints represent both moderate and extreme positions on issues of gun ownership, gun control, and violence prevention. They are organized into the following chapters: How Serious Is the Problem of Gun Violence? Does Private Ownership of Handguns Increase the Threat of Gun Violence? Does the Constitution Protect Private Gun Ownership? How Can Gun Violence Be Reduced? The school shootings in Pearl, Littleton, and other towns such as Paducah, Kentucky, and Jonesboro, Arkansas, were tragic. But they have served to raise the level of debate over the problem of gun violence, as other high-profile shootings have in the past.