As far as most parents were concerned, an informal prayer meeting, held every morning in front of Heath High School, was a safe, nurturing environment for their children. But on December 8, 1997, that perception was profoundly altered when a bizarre shootout brought tragedy and unwanted attention to the 27,000-person town of Paducah, Kentucky. Fourteen-year-old Michael Carneal, armed with a pistol, two shotguns, two rifles, and 700 rounds of ammunition, gunned down eight of his classmates before anyone could stop him. In the aftermath, while families mourned the loss of their children, others attempted to understand why this senseless tragedy occurred. Few could offer satisfactory explanations for a motive or factors leading to the event but most could not deny the extent to which gun violence had made its way into contemporary society.
There are more than 223 million firearms in the United States. With an increase in the number of incidents involving guns and children, the heated debate over gun control continues, not necessarily producing definitive answers but more often generating new arguments about the legitimacy of guns in modern society. Tragic events involving guns rarely seem to speak for themselves or to point directly to the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of firearms; rather, what the incident “proves” depends largely on the speakers and whether gun control or gun advocacy is their primary agenda. In the Paducah shooting, for example, gun control groups have argued that the availability of guns made it too easy for a high-school student to attain so many guns and, subsequently, too easy to murder his classmates. Gun advocates, however, view the event differently, asserting that gun availability had little to do with a tragedy that probably resulted from parental neglect and a lack of personal responsibility.
Behind the heated arguments surrounding gun control are motivations rising from very personal experiences with guns. For example, Carolyn McCarthy became an activist for stricter gun control laws after tragedy forever altered her life. In 1994, a gunman shot at twenty-five people inside a crowded Long Island Rail Road commuter train, killing six people including McCarthy’s husband and leaving her son partially paralyzed. Grief over the loss of her husband and the pain of struggling with her son in his recovery propelled her on a mission to prevent similarly devastating tragedies by curtailing the availability of assault weapons.
Others who have experienced tragedies emerge with very different attitudes toward guns. After suffering a violent attack by a rapist, Nancy Bittle founded Arming Women Against Rape and Endangerment, which advocates women’s gun ownership as a form of self-protection. “I was raised to view guns as symbols of evil,” says Bittle, “but now I look at them as tools—like fire extinguishers.”
Gun lobby groups, such as the National Rifle Association, have claimed the stories of people like Bittle to build their case to protect gun ownership. Women especially have been recognized as a group whose safety could be ensured most effectively by responsible gun use.
Personal experiences have acted as motivations behind gun advocacy but the “evidence” needed to further the passage of pro-gun policies comes from statistics- based studies by criminologists and social scientists. A 1996 study by John R. Lott and David B. Mustard, presented in the Journal of Legal Studies’ article, “Crime, Deterrence, and Right-to-Carry Concealed Handguns,” provided the “proof” for which gun advocates had been waiting. According to Lott and Mustard’s study, states that allowed citizens to carry concealed handguns showed a marked decline in violent crimes. Furthermore, concealed handguns did not result in more gun accidents but deterred potentially violent incidents and prevented future crimes.
While gun lobbyists embraced Lott and Mustard’s study, others criticized it, pointing out that unreliable statistical methods ultimately invalidated the study’s pro-gun evaluations and, therefore, should not be employed in making policy decisions. Franklin Zimrig and Gordon Hawkins, authors of a critical analysis, “Concealed Handguns: The Counterfeit Deterrent” in Responsive Community assert, “The benefits and costs of permits to carry are marginal to the tremendous costs we already pay for the high ownership and use of handguns in the United States.”
Many agree that gun violence is still a major problem that can be alleviated with gun control measures. “A little thing like a background check can prevent a murder. And a little thing like a waiting period can save a life,” states Sarah Brady, chair of Handgun Control, Inc., the United States’ largest citizens’ gun control lobbying organization. Brady, whose husband, former press secretary James Brady, was left partially paralyzed during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, was responsible for the passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993. The Brady Act requires vendors to impose a five-day waiting period and perform a background check on a customer before selling that person a gun. The Brady Act has faced opposition from gun lobbyists but still is considered a major success as a gun control measure. “We never said the Brady law would stop all forms of gun violence,” as- serts Brady. “But the Brady law has contributed to a major decline in gunrelated crimes.”
The relationship between guns and crime is just one of the issues addressed in Guns and Violence: Current Controversies. Contributors such as Bob Herbert, Sarah Brady, David B. Kopel, Charlton Heston, and John R. Lott also examine the seriousness of gun violence as a cultural phenomenon. They debate the constitutionality of gun control, the effectiveness of gun ownership, and measures to reduce gun violence.