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Gun politics

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In both the United States and around the world, debates about firearms policy center on the role of privately owned firearms in crime and crime prevention, as well as on the role of these firearms in the balance of power between governments and the people.

In summary, those who support gun control claim that there is no fundamental right to own weapons, that gun control legislation helps to cut down on violent crime by reducing the availability of weapons, and that citizens have no need to own guns to protect themselves against governments or crime.

Those who oppose gun control—advocates of "gun rights"—claim that owning weapons is a fundamental right. They claim that law-abiding citizens have a right to self-protection. Some claim that letting law-abiding citizens have guns decreases crime by providing a deterrent effect. Some claim restricting gun ownership makes the people vulnerable to totalitarian government, though this is not widely held even among gun owners. Some who argue for "gun rights" do so from a type of private-property libertarian perspective, saying that the government has no right to interfere with individuals rights to own guns or any other inanimate object of private property as long as the individuals are not harming or intimidating their fellow citizens.

This is a controversial issue.

Table of contents

Gun Politics in the United States

The private ownership of guns is an especially contentious political topic in the United States, where the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states:

"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 meaning of this text remains fiercely debated, with some saying that the amendment only refers to official bodies under government control (such as the National Guard) and others saying that the amendment always guaranteed the right of independent individuals to possess and carry firearms. Earlier drafts of the Bill of Rights had much lengthier text that was trimmed as part of an overall effort by the Framers to shorten a document that was then perceived to be too wordy. Some constitutional scholars ascribe significance to these drafts, which tend to support a broader application of the second amendment. On the other hand, the firearms known to the Framers were primitive by comparison to today's weapons, and this has been the major basis for the courts' acceptance of some erosion of second amendment rights.

There are many positions held on this debate, including the belief that gun ownership is currently overregulated, the desire to further regulate guns without banning them, and the wish to ban ownership outright. Gun rights and gun control advocates disagree upon many issues. Key disagreements include:

  • Did the Framers intend the Second Amendment apply to individuals or only to government bodies such as States?
  • What does the word "militia" refer to—state forces such as the National Guard, or the entire able-bodied citizenry?
  • Should the Second Amendment enjoy Fourteenth Amendment incorporation?
  • Does existing gun control legislation infringe upon the Second Amendment?
  • How many crimes are prevented and lives are saved due to the availability of firearms?
  • How many crimes are caused and lives are lost due to the availability of firearms?
  • Should the government have the right to restrict or regulate gun ownership?

People on both sides agree that the gun lobby is among the most effective and organized single-issue political groups in the United States. The National Rifle Association is the largest and best-known pro-gun advocacy group. Originally a shooting-sports association made up of small, local clubs, it became a powerful lobbying force during the 1970s when gun control first became a national issue. There are several other pro-gun advocacy groups who serve gun enthusiasts who see some of the NRA's positions as extremist.

Gun owners have benefitted from the broad Republican gains at federal and state levels during the last two election cycles. While gun control is not strictly a partisan issue, there is more support for gun control in the Democrat party than the Republican party. Traditionally, regional differences are greater than partisan ones on this issue. Southern and Western states are predominantly pro-gun while California and the Northeast favor gun control. Other areas, including the Midwest, are mixed.

Some questions of regulatory policy include:

  • Types of firearm –Should some types of firearms be regulated differently to others?
  • Criteria of eligibility – Are there criteria that disqualify a person from owning firearms? (Possible criteria include age, mental competence, firearm training, and felony conviction)

  • Background checks – Should there be background checks made to verify eligibility to own a firearm? Who should make them, and should there be a waiting period before a firearm can be sold?
  • Registration – Should all firearms and firearm owners be registered? If so, how may the registration information be used, and who should have access to it?
  • Concealed weapons – Should carry a concealed weapon be regulated? If so, should concealed carry be regulated separately from ownership, and if so, how?

The field of political research regarding firearms suffers from the same contention as the issue of firearms itself. Almost every prominent researcher has seen their works attacked by those uncomfortable with their conclusions, and some have had their work investigated as academic fraud. Nonetheless, some influential individuals include:

Gary Kleck[?]
Arthur Kellermann[?]
John Lott
David Mustard[?]
Michael Bellesiles
Clayton Cramer[?]

Some prominent advocacy organizations in this field:

National Rifle Association (http://www.nra.org/)
Handgun Control (http://www.handguncontrol.org/)
Gun Owners of America (http://www.gunowners.org/)
Center to Prevent Handgun Violence (http://www.cphv.org/)
rkba.org (http://www.rkba.org/)

Gun Politics in Canada

In Canada, gun control is a controversial issue, but less contentious than in the United States. There are groups who defend the possession of guns, arguing that they are necessary for hunting and farm use, especially. The pressure that led to the current gun-registration law began with the Ecole Polytechnique Massacre in Montreal on December 6, 1989. The present law requires all firearms to be registered. In December 2002, the Auditor-General Sheila Fraser revealed that the project, originally budgeted to cost $2 million, is now expected to cost taxpayers $1 billion by 2005. Additionally, it is estimated that nearly 900,000 gun owning Canadians have refused to register their firearms. These facts have proved highly embarrassing for the Canadian Government and have increased the calls for the registry's dismantlement. Currently, eight provinces are in opposition to the registry. Supporters of the firearms registry point out that it makes no sense to abandon the project at this point, as it would mean throwing away all the funds that had been spent to date.

Gun Politics in the UK In the United Kingdom, handguns are completely banned for private ownership (exceptions to the ban include pistols of antique and historical interest, starting pistols and shot pistols for pest control). following legislation passed shortly after the Dunblane massacre, 1996. There was relatively little resistance to the legislation, although it had opponents on both sides of the argument (those who felt it was too weak, and those who felt it went too far).

Since the 1996 ban, violent crime rates in the UK have soared (http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/allnews/page.cfm?objectid=12518284&method=full&siteid=50143), according to some commentators. The Home Office disagrees, with its statistics showing a drop in violent crime. Additionally, the contribution that the ban may have made to changes in crime rates is open to debate.

Gun Politics in Australia

Gun control in Australia was, before 1996, largely an issue for state governments. Historically, Australia has always had tough restrictions on handguns (requiring shooters to be members of registered gun clubs, and conducting extensive police checks on pistol shooters), whilst rifles and shotguns were considerably less restricted, with the only real restrictions on fully-automatic rifles.

Two spree killings in Victoria in the 1980s (the "Hoddle Street" and "Queen Street" massacres) saw several states require the registration of all guns, restrict the availability of semi-automatic rifles and shotguns. Gun laws in several states, including Queensland and Tasmania, remained quite relaxed.

Things changed drastically with the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. The killing of 35 people saw an outcry around the country and gun control advocates used the popular support to push for the nationwide banning of semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, and more stringent requirements to obtain a gun license. Several states, most notably Queensland, objected to the changes, believing them to be too restrictive (for instance, restricting the ownership of semi-automatic small-calibre weapons that represent a relatively low threat to human life) and that gun-control advocates were exaggerating the effectiveness of the changes (because in the hands of a competent shooter a bolt-action rifle can be just as lethal as a semi-automatic). Shooters advocates also opposed the changes on this basis, as well as their belief that owning guns was a fundamental right.

Newly elected Prime Minister John Howard, already known to be an advocate of gun control, sought a national agreement to tighten laws, eventually threatening recalcitrant states with the possibility of a constitutional referendum (which, in the climate, would almost certainly have passed) to transfer power over gun laws to the Commonwealth. The American National Rifle Association endeavoured to intervene in the issue by supporting gun advocates, but their involvement was not well-received by the Australian public. Eventually, agreement was reached between the states and the changes went through. The Howard Government introduced a 1% levy on income tax for a period of one year to finance the buy back semi-automatic weapons from gun owners. This scheme was subject to criticism in its implementation (there were allegations that some of the relinquished weapons ended up on sale in gun shops), but, on the whole, televised images of large numbers of rifles and shotguns being crushed by heavy machinery was well-received by the Australian public.

Laws remained static until 2002, when a pistol-owning student killed two fellow students at a Victorian university, prompting a reexamination of handgun laws (which are already quite strict). Agreement has not yet been reached on such laws.

Whilst a vocal minority has consistently opposed the tightening of gun laws in Australia, a large majority of people have been in favour of consistent tightenings. Shooter advocacy organisations have never approached the strength of the NRA in the United States.

Concern has been raised about the amount of smuggled pistols reaching Australia, particularly in New South Wales.

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