Political debate about gun control has a direct influence on the legislative aspect of gun control policies in the United States. How liberal and conservative parties think about gun control determines their approach to gun legislation. Therefore, liberals who support strict control policies emphasize the necessity of new laws and restrictions on gun ownership, whereas conservatives argue that the Second Amendment of the Constitution gives citizens the right to bear arms and, instead of new laws with more severe restrictions on gun ownership, they support enforcement of existing laws.
In democratic societies, legislative proposals gain popular support and are passed into law for two basic reasons. The first reason has been labeled the instrumentalist explanation and suggests that laws are passed because their supporters believe that they will help solve social problems. The second reason, the conflict perspective, suggests that laws are instruments of power used by conflicting social groups to gain or preserve some advantage of wealth, prestige, or influence.
Gun control legislation represents both instrumentalist and conflict perspectives where legislative proposals to require restrictions on gun ownership, assuming such laws will affect violent crime rates, face significant opposition from interest groups and political parties that support policies other than legislative restrictions. For example, in 1994, during the Clinton administration, the federal government enacted legislation banning certain semiautomatic weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines. Even though this law only included a small portion of the group of weapons that ban advocates proposed, it was a product of a highly competitive legislative process. The main source of opposition to the ban was the National Rifle Association (NRA), a third-party interest group. In 2001, the Bush administration designed a nationwide program that proposed enhanced sentences for gun crimes and increased law enforcement capacities. Enhanced sentences were considered to have a deterrent effect on gun crimes and found bipartisan support because they did not affect gun ownership by law-abiding citizens.
Aside from the political aspect of the legislative process, it is also worth mentioning the instrumental aspect of the laws, which suggests that those laws are believed to help solve gun-related problems. Research on the impact of gun laws to reduce gun crimes provides little evidence about their effectiveness, suggesting that gun laws are not really effective tools in reducing gun violence. Sentence enhancement for gun crimes, a common feature of the federal programs, and their effect on violent crime and reduction of gun use also do not show promising results in research evaluating their effectiveness. For example, one recent study explored the effects of sentence enhancement laws on reduction of violence in Detroit, Jacksonville, Tampa, and Miami and concluded that there was little evidence that sentence enhancement laws are successful in reducing violent crime. However, in a similar study conducted in two Pennsylvania cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, there was evidence that sentencing laws substantially reduced the number of homicides.
In summary, two characteristics of gun control legislation have been documented: the instrumentalist approach that aims to find a solution to the problem of gun violence, and the conflict approach that represents the law as a product of power in the political process. In either case, in order to have effective gun control policies, social programs, effective law enforcement strategies, and targeted problem-solving instruments are necessary in addition to legislation.
- Hahn, R. A., Bilukha, O., Crosby, A., Fullilove, M. T., Liberman, A., Moscicki, E., et al. (Task Force on Community Preventive Services). (2005). Firearms laws and the reduction of violence: A systematic review. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 28(2S1), 40–71.
- Kleck, G. (1996). Crime, culture conflict and the sources of support for gun control. American Behavioral Scientist, 39, 387–404.
- McDowall, D., Loftin, C., & Wiersema, B. (1992). A comparative study of the preventive effects of mandatory sentencing laws for gun crimes. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 83, 378–394.
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