Gun violence has become an epidemic in the United States and concerns about reducing gun violence have created a number of policy choices at the state and federal level. Federal authorities have encouraged local governments to create programs such as Project Safe Neighborhood (PSN) and Project Exile, which focus on reducing gun violence in many U.S. cities. However, these programs are only a portion of the gun control initiative. Gun control policy is also related to the social and historical foundations of the problem, political ideologies, and gun control legislation.
The debate on gun control laws and policies in the United States demonstrates a struggle that has been ongoing in both politics and policy process for decades. Gun control and regulations of gun ownership have played a significant role in gaining public support during elections. Debate on gun control policies has become a highly salient issue, especially at times when gun violence has appeared in schools or other public places. Social science research on gun control can be divided into three main categories that present the scientific and political debate on the issue.
History, Culture, and Gun Control
The first group of research studies focuses on gun control from a historical viewpoint and mainly explains the role of guns in American society throughout history. This type of research also considers gun ownership as a cultural phenomenon and claims that gun ownership is at the center of traditional American life. Discussions on the role of guns in American traditional life are also connected to the origins of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees citizens the right to bear arms. Advocates of gun ownership claim that the Constitution gives citizens of the United States the right to own a gun and that the right is protected. On the other hand, advocates of gun control arguments highlight the relationship between gun ownership and gun violence and claim that it is not against the spirit of the Constitution to make guns unreachable to criminals. Advocates of gun control also argue that the Constitution is a “living and changing” document; that is, any part of it can be discarded at will, and that rights are never absolute. They argue that at the time the Constitution was drafted citizens were arms of the government, so they needed weapons to protect their government. Gun control advocates argue that the states, the federal government, and the people have all changed over time.
Another argument centers on the differences in beliefs about gun control among cultures and demographic regions. Gary Kleck’s study of the cultural foundations of gun control indicates that gun control support is more a product of culture conflict than response to crime. The findings of his study suggest that high crime rates and prior victimization do not increase support for gun control among the general urban population. Gun control opinion was found to be related to membership in groups whose cultures have certain opinions concerning guns, hunting, modernism versus traditionalism, change orientation versus status quo, and internationalism versus localism. On the other hand, the research shows that regional origins, gender, and affiliation with a religion are unrelated to gun control opinions. Research also shows that support is stronger in cities with more police and fewer gun owners per capita.
Gun Control and Politics And Legislation
The second type of research puts gun control at the center of the political arena. Political debate about gun control and the ideological foundations of that debate, interest group participation, and party politics are some of the major issues studied under this type of research. This research suggests that the American political process muddies the gun control debate. The interaction of different political actors makes the issue even more complicated, which later results in poorly crafted and ineffective policy that accomplishes nothing more than conflict that feeds back into the policy debate.
A significant amount of research has been conducted to examine the legislative aspects of gun control and measure the effectiveness of gun control laws. Political debates on gun control are also related to the legislative side of the gun control issue. Liberals and conservatives differ from each other when they look at gun control as a policy option. Liberals argue that gun availability causes violence and insist that gun control is both justified and necessary to prevent such violence. Conservatives, on the other hand, think that it is unfair to disarm responsible citizens because of irresponsible criminals. Conservative ideology supports the idea that almost all gun violence is perpetrated by a very small group of criminals using illegal guns, while the vast majority of firearms are never used illegally. From the conservative perspective, outlawing guns to prevent violence would be like outlawing speech or printing presses in order to prevent libel.
In terms of legislative process, conservatives oppose passage of new legislation for gun control and support the enforcement of existing laws and programs that provide sentence enhancements for crimes committed with guns. Both gun control supporters and Second Amendment advocates agree that prosecutors should be given the discretion to be able to increase sentences for crimes committed with guns. From a deterrence perspective, sentence enhancement should reduce gun violence by incapacitating gun criminals through longer sentences. Such a policy does not affect the ability of law-abiding adults to keep guns for self-defense or recreation.
The social science literature presents contradictory findings about the application of sentence enhancement laws and their effects on reducing firearm related crimes. However, a large number of studies show that sentence enhancement laws are not significant in deterring firearm-related crimes, and in many cases those laws are used as a plea-bargaining tool.
Most recently, the federal government began an initiative called Project Safe Neighborhood (PSN) to reduce gun violence by increasing enforcement and prosecution of gun laws. PSN is a coordinated effort to stop gun violence in communities through enhanced, directed resources and more effective prosecutions of gun crime. Prosecutors are expected to apply the maximum sentence for gun crimes in their jurisdictions. With a budget of $550 million, PSN aims to enhance penalties for gun crime by diverting those who have committed federal firearm offenses into federal court, where prison sentences are typically more severe than in most state systems.
Criminal Justice Interventions and Policy Perspectives
The third category of research basically approaches gun control from a policy perspective and includes criminal justice interventions, the outcomes of gun violence reduction programs, and criminological research that seeks to explain the relationship between firearms and violent crimes. The main concern among these researchers is whether gun ownership increases or decreases crime rates. On one side of the spectrum, scholars who take the “more guns, less crime” approach argue that gun ownership increases deterrence by allowing people to defend themselves. Classical criminological theory underlies this approach, with the principle that people will be deterred from crime if the pain associated with punishment outweighs the pleasure associated with crime. There is research that indicates that allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons deters violent crimes without increasing accidental deaths. However, at the other end of the spectrum, researchers focus on the idea that the availability of guns and increased number of gun owners are two of the most important causes of violent crimes. Supporters of this approach criticize the way the government and the media emphasize the costs of gun ownership over the benefits, despite the fact that the best evidence shows that the benefits clearly outweigh the costs.
The theoretical and policy implications of the assumption that the objective of gun ownership is to enhance the security of gun owners and their associates have also been explored by researchers. Gun ownership may be one possible way to reduce crime; however, alternative ways to achieve this objective, such as better police control, education, and socioeconomic justice, should be considered before drawing the conclusion that gun ownership reduces crime.
The various segments of the gun control debate are interconnected and are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Any historical explanation can be related with the political, policy level, and legislative aspects of the gun control debate. However, looking at the gun control issue at different levels of analysis helps us to clarify one of the most controversial social and political debates in American history.
- Correa, H. (2001). An analytic approach to the study of gun control policies. Socio-Economic Planning Sciences, 35, 253–262.
- Egendorf, L. K. (2005). Guns and violence: Current controversies. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press.
- Kleck, G. (1996). Crime, culture conflict and the sources of support for gun control. American Behavioral Scientist, 39, 387–404.
- Lott, J. R. (2003). The bias against guns: Why almost everything you heard about gun control is wrong. Washington, DC: Regnery.
- Vizzard, W. J. (1995). The impact of agenda conflict on policy formulation and implementation: The case of gun control. Public Administration Review, 55, 341–347.
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