The ongoing debate over firearms ownership within the United States has raised a number of important issues related to gun violence. Both republicans and democrats are enmeshed in constitutional battles regarding the applicability of the Second Amendment. Local municipalities’ threatened refusal to enforce laws deemed unconstitutional have pitted political subdivisions against each other. Both sides in the debate claims their position will be effective at reducing gun violence. However, the warring parties ignore the more substantive issue of what factors contribute to gun violence. Lost in their debate is any consideration of why people are using guns to commit crimes. As such, their posturing and antics are of little value in addressing the root causes of death by firearm.
This paper will review the development of gun laws within the United States and detail those laws’ failure to reduce gun violence. Analysis of the root causes of violence and associated firearms use will suggest an alternative policy that may meaningfully address the issue of gun violence. Policy must be focused, not on the weapon, but on the individual that wields it. While elected officials have staked their political careers on arguing for or against gun rights, they have failed to create laws capable of protecting the public. This paper claims such failure is willful and made in the interest of prolonging political careers that would otherwise be cut short by taking the action truly needed to stop gun violence in the United States.
Firearms are intertwined with the history of the United States. “The settlers who migrated to America brought a variety of gun regulations with them. The individual colonies also supplemented these regulations with their own laws aimed at preserving the peace” (Cornell and Cornell, 2018). English law enforcement was community based and relied heavily upon justices of the peace who had sweeping powers consistent with laws enacted by the king. The justice’s powers included the power to detain, disarm, arrest, and imprison those who threatened the peace. (Miller, 2017; Cornell and Cornell, 2018)
Prior to American independence, the Continental Congress encouraged states to draft their own constitutions, including written declarations of rights. (Ward, 2015; Cornell, 2017; Onuf, 1982) Virginia adopted a declaration of rights prior to the other states. That declaration called for the establishment of a well-regulated militia, composed of male citizens residing in the commonwealth. The individual right to bear arms for self-protection first appeared in Pennsylvania’s declaration of rights. (Cornell, 2017) These new documents radically transformed many aspects of American law, but they did not represent a complete break with pre-existing English law, particularly regarding arms. (Cornell, 2017) “Even after the adoption of new state constitutions, some of which affirmed the right to keep and bear arms, the scope of the right was still shaped by the common law tradition, including the necessity of preserving the peace” (Cornell, 2017, p. 13).
The American Revolution dramatically impacted the application of common law across the fledging nation. (Pole, 1993; Gennaioli and Shleifer, 2007; Ammerman, 1976) Much disparity arose among the various states regarding the right to keep, bear, and travel with firearms. (Lindgren and Heather, 2002; Cornell, 2017) The 1791 ratification of the Bill of Rights included language in the Second Amendment that mirrored language in some of the original 13 state constitutions. At the time, the right to keep and bear arms was intended to support the maintenance of militias as a safeguard against an oppressive government. While the framers of the Second Amendment were wary of tyranny, they were equally fearful of anarchy. Regulations and laws were required to preserve the peace and preserve equal rights for all parties. This juxtaposition is a central component of America’s constitutional tradition. (Cornell and Cornell, 2018)
The standing Continental Army was disbanded at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. George Washington objected to maintaining a large standing army because of the threat such a force posed to people’s liberties. Washington favored maintenance of a small standing army to garrison West Point and frontier forts and guard magazines, backed up by a well-organized militia of all able-bodied male citizens aged 18 to 50 years. (Derouin, 2015) The loosely organized state militias proved woefully inadequate in the fledging nation’s next battle against Britain in the War of 1812. Inadequate training and limits on terms of service restrained the combat effectiveness of the force. It was evident that the United States would need a more robust military were it going to survive the next incursion by a foreign adversary. (Derouin, 2015) Several amendments and succeeding versions of the Militia Act were passed between 1795 and 1903 which, among other things, allowed African Americans to serve in the militia and established the United States National Guard as the lead body of organized military reserves for the nation. (Charles, 2011; Derouin, 2015)
The Second Amendment differs from many other elements of constitutional text which are more of less irrelevant to many of the political struggles presently underway within the nation. Those parties seeking to limit the power of the Second Amendment interpret the text to suggest the original intent of the Amendment was to prevent the new government from using their national military might from overpowering state militias. This interpretation holds no claim that the Second Amendment provided any personal guarantee of firearms ownership or usage. (Levinson, 1989) What constituted a “well-regulated militia” was a carefully planned constitutional military force controlled by the State and Federal governments. It is well-documented that the Founding Fathers did not equate a random assemblage of armed people as comprising a “well-regulated militia,” and instead viewed this assemblage as a dangerous mob” (Charles, 2011). This interpretation of the Second Amendment suggests that government has the power to regulate, or even prohibit private ownership of guns, save for those associated with the establishment and operation of a well-regulated militia.
Alternatively, parties supporting the individualistic interpretation of the Second Amendment contend that the right of the people to keep and bear arms is to be treated the same as the other rights spelled out in the constitution. (Barnett, 1996; Fletcher, 1988) “Qualified historians and constitutional-law scholars who have studied the subject agree the overwhelming weight of authority affirms that the Second Amendment establishes an individual right to bear arms, which is not dependent upon joining something like the National Guard” (Polsby, 1994). “Research conducted through the 1980s has led legal scholars and historians to conclude, sometimes reluctantly, but with virtual unanimity, that there is no tenable textual or historical argument against a broad individual right view of the Second Amendment” (Barnett, 1996, p. 1441).
The Supreme Court has ruled the Second Amendment contains two core rights. The right of the people to possess handguns for self-defense at home and the right to participate in well-regulated militias. (Charles, 2011) Within the context these opposing interpretations of the Second Amendment pro-gun and anti-gun advocates are waging a war on the legislative battlefield. In the 2019, November elections, democrats took control of both chambers of the Virginia legislature. In January of 2020, the Senate Judiciary Committee sent forward multiple bills impacting gun ownership. Those bills would, among other things, limit handgun purchases, expand background checks, allow banning weapons from public buildings, and establish a ‘red flag’ system to allow officials to remove guns from the home of an individual deemed to be a risk to themselves or society. (Friedenberger, 2020) The most controversial of these proposed bills, banning the sale of guns classified as assault weapons, was tabled on February 17, 2020. Since those November 2019 elections, more than 140 localities opposing further firearms regulations have proclaimed themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries.
The Virginia Citizens Defense League played a vocal role is passing the Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions. The measures vary from county to county, but most document local officials’ opposition to unconstitutional restrictions on Second Amendment rights. (Associated Press, 2019) Threatened refusal of local municipalities to enforce laws, which in their estimation, are inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution is not limited to Virginia. More than a dozen county sheriffs in Washington state are refusing to enforce a sweeping gun-control measure that passed with the support of 59% of the state’s voters in November of 2018. (Elinson, 2019) The sheriffs, elected in primarily rural, conservative counties, say they won’t enforce laws they deem unconstitutional. Other law enforcement officials across the country are refusing to enforce state gun laws, saying that they are too vague and violate Second Amendment rights. Many more say that enforcement will be “a very low priority,” as several sheriffs in Colorado put it. (Elinson, 2019)
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring was asked to render an advisory opinion on the constitutionality of Second Amendment sanctuaries within the Commonwealth. In his opinion, Herring writes, “neither local governments nor local constitutional officers have the authority to declare state statutes unconstitutional or decline to follow them on that basis. All localities, local constitutional officers, and other local officials are obligated to follow duly enacted state laws.” (2019). Virginia follows Dillon’s Rule, which declares that local governments may only exercise those powers expressly granted by the General Assembly, those necessarily or fairly implied therefrom, and those that are essential and indispensable. (Richmond v. Confrere Club, 1990) This has been affirmed in case law, the Virginia Supreme Court’s King v. Arlington County decision states, “Because local authority is subordinate to state law, local ordinances must conform to and not be in conflict with the public policy of the State as embodied in its statutes” (1954). Despite Herring’s advisory opinion, opponents of the legislature’s proposed firearms bills remain fiercely defiant.
On January 20, 2020, tens of thousands of gun-rights activists from around the country rallied peacefully at the Virginia Capitol to protest to the gun-control legislation proposed by the state’s democratic leadership. (and Rankin, 2020) As evidenced by the continued action on multiple gun control bills, most democratic lawmakers discounted the large assemblage of anti-gun control advocates. Democrats say tightening Virginia’s gun laws will make communities safer and help prevent mass shootings like the one last year in Virginia Beach, where a dozen people lost their lives in a local government office building. (Suderman and Rankin, 2020) The continued battle over gun rights assures that the Commonwealth and those municipalities that have passed resolutions establishing Second Amendment sanctuaries will remain in conflict.
An array of legal questions surrounds the transition from big government to small government. The state-national power struggle has been examined from a variety of perspectives. Less attention has been given to the conflicts and disagreements that exist between states and localities. (Newell, 2017) If localities refuse to align themselves with state law, multiple avenues exist to address these issues. States may elect to ignore infractions, issue informal warnings, threaten and/or pursue legal action, or withhold state funding to assert control over rebellious municipalities. (Newell, 2017) “Matthew J. Parlow, a law professor at Marquette University, said that some states, including New York, had laws that allowed the governor in some circumstances to investigate and remove public officials who engaged in egregious misconduct – laws that in theory might allow the removal of sheriffs who failed to enforce state statutes. But, he said, many governors could be reluctant to use such powers. And in most cases, any penalty for a sheriff who chose not to enforce state law would have to come from voters” (Goode, 2013).
New Mexico’s state government has stated that sheriffs are responsible for the enforcement of all state laws, not solely those they choose to enforce. Likewise, Washington state’s attorney general, Bob Ferguson, has warned sheriffs that they could become legally liable for any negative outcomes arising from their failure to enforce the stat’s age restrictions on the purchase of semiautomatic assault weapons. (Provenzano, 2019) “This idea that law enforcement’s job is not to enforce all the laws, but to pick and choose what they want to enforce, is a very dangerous proposition,” said Renee Hopkins, CEO of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility” (Elinson, 2019). However, many government regulations are characterized by strict rules, constant violation, and minimal enforcement. Most traffic laws fit this description, as do some tax laws, some immigration laws, and an untold number of municipal ordinances. Nonenforcement is common, such laxity is attributed to limited resources, blamed on unspecific regulations or other factors, and there are no constitutional consequences with such selective enforcement of laws. (United States v. Armstrong, 517 U.S. 456, 464; Landes and Posner, 1975)
Enforcement of any national laws across such a broad swath of the populace presents significant challenges. While it is impossible to calculate the number of firearms in circulation, most estimates place the figure above 300 million. Most gun owners are law abiding citizens. New anti-gun legislation would disproportionally impact the rights of ordinary citizens while do little to address the causes of gun violence. (Vizzard, 2015) “Access to firearms facilitates robbery, serious assault, and homicide. An examination of the circumstances of stranger homicides reveals a common pattern of young males, often under twenty-one years of age or with prior felony convictions, acting with little to no prior planning in response to challenge or conflict” (Vizzard, 2015, p. 889). Restricting access to guns would seem an effective means of reducing the incidence of violent crime, but the ready availability of firearms through illegal channels negates the effectiveness of gun control laws. The solution to gun violence may lie, not with restricting access to guns, but rather with improving the lot of those committing crimes.
Given the previously mentioned disagreements, it is unlikely that the pro-gun and anti-gun interest groups will arrive at a compromise position that satisfies both groups. “Both pro- and anti-gun control advocates tend to perceive a “risk” associated with gun control: either too little gun control that inevitably leads to intentional shootings and accidents involving guns, or too much gun control that disarms responsible, law-abiding citizens and leaves them subject to threats and predation” (Lindeen, 2010, p. 1691). Lawmakers’ pointless legislation detracts from any real efforts at creating workable policies to eliminate gun violence. “Each side wields the Constitution as a weapon whose mere invocation will somehow silence the opposition and bring finality to the debate over policy regarding guns. But, it does not. In the context of guns, debates often devolve into skirmishes about “the right” to own firearms with accusations that the other side fails to provide policy solutions to the negative externalities that accompany some forms of gun ownership” (Lindeen, 2010, p. 1673). The law sets limits on people’s behavior. Policy delves more deeply into issues of what people should or should not do. As discussed in the Heller decision, clarifying the interpretation of the law has done little to reduce gun ownership or gun violence. The law provides no mechanism to remedy the underlying issues that cause gun violence. (Lindeen, 2010)
Gun laws are ineffective at combating violence. Writing in the New Yorker magazine, Jelani Cobb condemned his fellow progressives for conflating the fight against terrorism with efforts to reduce U.S. gun violence. “Background checks, though important, won’t reduce black-market gun sales, the source of the majority of illegal firearms in Oakland, New York, and Chicago,” wrote Mr. Cobb, adding that “mass shootings constitute just two per cent of gun homicides in the United States, and assault weapons are not the weapons most commonly used by Americans to kill one another” (Riley, 2016). Politicians that expect gun laws to do the work of policy are legislating in vain.
Proponents or detractors of gun control, regardless of the validity of their constitutional claims are, from a policy perspective, missing the mark. Arguing about gun laws is using the Constitution as a means of deflecting attention from the real issue of how to reduce maiming and killing with firearms. Making real substantive progress on the issue of gun violence will require novel policy initiatives and honest dialogue on issues our elected officials have historically been hesitant to voice publicly. Without a substantial infusion of legislative courage and silencing of reactionary outcries limiting the scope of the gun violence discussion, the country is destined to continue wallowing in an unproductive mire of Second Amendment arguments.
Acknowledging the existence of a problem, the first of five steps in the rational policy analysis model, is often misappropriated by elected leaders anxious to assign blame for tragedies involving firearms. (Fischer, 1995/2005) Rather than delve into the underlying causes of what prompted the individual to use a firearm to commit violence, politicians are apt to turn their attention to how the perpetrator obtained the gun or to the type of firearm itself. Automatic politization of tragedy occurs after every mass shooting. “But one reason the positions are so intractable is that no one really knows what works to prevent gun deaths” (Frankel, 2017).
Gun-control research in the United States essentially came to a standstill in 1996, due in large part to the impact of the Dickey Amendment which claimed gun violence research was actually political in nature and as such should not receive any federal funding. “Currently, most gun-related projects at the Centers for Disease Control involve tracking statistics rather than performing policy analysis” (Lindeen, 2010, p. 1672). Further complicating the search for answers to gun violence is an inability to honestly discuss documented patterns of gun violence for fear of being labeled a racist or hate monger. Political correctness punishes people who have voiced opinions outside of increasingly limited standards of acceptability. People can be fired, threatened, chastised, or banished from their group for voicing opinions outside of those embraced by select, anointed constituencies and the media. Policy makers may be voicing facts which are backed up by available science, but they are nonetheless condemned, because they have the audacity to offend some sacred group. (West, 2018) Legislators and scholars can’t hope to investigate and comprehend the issues at hand if they are unable to openly discuss the truths laid bare by factual data. If some hypotheses are given a free pass and others labeled unmentionable, there can be no progress on the issue of gun violence. (Rubenstein, 2018) The antics of the hard left, mainstream media included, are retarding any progress on reducing death by firearms. Moderate members of academia and open-minded scholars, not seeking political favor, nor yearning for the approval of the media, but seeking only the truth, are forbidden from starting down the road toward solutions. Progress on reducing gun violence through the creation of effective policy will remain at a standstill until the media and society cease censorship of selected voices. “Allowing one side of the political spectrum to dominate, while showing intolerance towards opposing opinions, is dangerous for a number of reasons, not least that it will inevitably push the dominant side towards extremes” (West, 2018).
Parham-Payne found that the violence in inner-city neighborhoods might be widely known but is mentioned only briefly in newscasts, and even then, rarely results in a call to action. (2014). Similarly lost in the discussions about Second Amendment rights amidst the broader gun debate, is the fact that most of the people killed by guns in the United States are white men with self-inflicted gunshot wounds. “In all, gun suicide claims the lives of 25,000 Americans each year” (Beckett, 2019). The American mainstream media is failing to conduct the sort of root cause analysis that was historically the harbinger of good investigative journalism. Rather than ferret out the linkages between economic, racial, and social crises and gun violence, the media blames a lack of gun laws as responsible for mass shootings and murder. Like our nation’s legislators, the media fixates on the weapon, rather than the person that wields it.
“Prevention of violence occurs along a continuum that begins in early childhood with programs to help parents raise emotionally healthy children and ends with efforts to identify and intervene with troubled individuals who are threatening violence” (APA, 2013). Policy makers discount the link between the breakdown of two parent families in the United States and a variety of social problems. Children born into single-parent families are much more likely than children of intact families to fall into poverty and spend their adult years dependent on government handouts. While this link between illegitimacy and chronic welfare dependency now is better understood, policymakers also need to appreciate another strong and disturbing pattern evident in scholarly studies: the link between illegitimacy and violent crime and between the lack of parental attachment and violent crime. Children deprived of care at an early age have a reduced capacity for empathetic interactions with society. (APA, 2013; Fagan, 1995) Professional literature directly links adolescent and early adulthood criminal behavior to habitual deprivation of parental love and affection going back to early infancy. Criminal offenders reliably have a chaotic, unstable family life. This lack of stability often results in aggression and hostility toward others outside the family. (Fagan, 1995)
The neurological framework of the brain is well established by the age of five or six. Children deprived of parental love and supervision at an early age become hostile and aggressive and therefore have greater difficulty forming friendships with normal children. This hostility also undermines their school work and later success. (Huston, 2011; Fagan, 1995). These patterns established in early childhood carry forward into adolescence. Peer group influence during specific periods of adolescent development may increase the risk for gun violence. Research indicates gang membership in early adolescence is significantly associated with increased gun carrying in later years. (Lizotte, et.al., 2000) The impact of a lack of parental involvement, a frequent byproduct of living in poverty, was established in the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), a longitudinal study that has been following families since 1968. Without an understanding of these root causes of criminal behavior, how criminals are formed, members of Congress and state legislators cannot hope to come to grips with the fact that entire sectors of society, particularly in urban areas, are being ravaged by crime. Absent that information, informed policymaking is impossible. (Fagan, 1995)
Legislators overestimate the ability of the law to curb violence. Relying on legislation limiting access to firearms blinds policymakers to the personal aspects of crime. Moral shortcomings, an absence of personal responsibility, and the inability or refusal to enter personal relationships founded on love, attachment, and respect for peers, neighbors, and family members are usually ignored in debates about the gun violence. (Fagan, 1995) Use of firearms to commit murder and other crimes disproportionately occurs in locales subject to social and economic inequities, including concentrated poverty and racial segregation. (Santilli, et al, 2017) Contrary to the claims of those calling for more restrictions on firearms, simply owning a gun is not the problem. “According to the Pew Research Center, 51% of rural residents own a firearm, versus only a quarter of city dwellers, but urban areas have much more gun violence. Similarly, only 19% of blacks and 20% of Hispanics report owning guns, versus 41% of whites, yet gun violence among blacks and Hispanics is much more common” (Riley 2016). “In 2015, 369 people died in mass shootings in the United States; that same year, nearly 6000 African American men were murdered with guns. Although Black men make up only 6% of the population, they represent more than one half of gun homicide victims” (Santilli, et al, 2017). Ignoring the racial disparity in gun violence data shirks policy makers’ and elected officials’ responsibility to protect the public. Deeming gun violence as a racial issue poorly positions policy makers and rightly opens them to criticisms of linking gun violence to specific ethnicities. Despite data indicating that person on person gun violence is concentrated among minority populations, gun violence is not a racial issue. Gun violence is a lack of opportunity, lack of empathetic inclination, and an absence of familial and community connectivity issue. Economic difficulties and psychological issues arising from a failure/absence of the family and community to support the development of upstanding citizens combine to create little to no connection with other human beings and the broader society. Targeted violence research demonstrates that crimes were committed by desperate individuals with considerable personal problems. Amid extreme crises, these perpetrators saw no workable solution to their issues and could envision no future. (APA, 2013)
Failure to directly address these issues speaks to the hesitancy of legislators to pursue meaningful change as opposed to conveying the impression of pursuing change. When data isolates many perpetrators of gun violence among identified racial and ethnic groups, is it not logical to suggest that attitudes and behaviors within that community are more likely to contribute to the frequency of gun violence than the number of firearms in circulation? (Riley, 2016) Males with limited educational and employment opportunities, who in this country, are disproportionately African American and Latino, cannot fulfill normative expectations to provide for their families through legal employment as easily as Caucasian males. (APA, 2013) Given few alternatives to earn a living, individuals consider the “opportunity cost of choosing illegitimate work as being zero because he/she is not sacrificing any legitimate employment opportunity. The payoff from the crime does not have to be as high as it would for an individual who would consider the opportunity cost to be positive” (Melick, 2003). For individuals that have been repeatedly failed by their family, their schools, and their community, illegal activity may seem like a viable, if not the only, opportunity to earn a living. Additional gun restrictions would have no impact on the average criminal, other than raising the cost of illegally obtaining a firearm. (Lindeen, 2010) More restrictive gun laws have no impact on someone “already willing to assault, kill, rape, or steal” (Lindeen, 2010, p. 1679).
A multitude of policies and programs intended to reduce poverty, increase opportunities for minorities, and eliminate discrimination already exist. Yet, in the United States, there is no single coordinated or integrated child or family policy. Defining poverty more broadly, including its many negative externalities, may lead to more coherent and less piecemeal policies. “Even within early childhood intervention, for example, policies for prenatal and postnatal health, home visiting, child care, and early childhood education are fragmented” (Asuto and Allen, 2009). Poverty and substance abuse have a multitude of impacts across communities. Without ready access to reliable transportation, educational opportunities, consistently healthy meals, and employment skills training, people remain segregated from mainstream attitudes and opportunities. This inability or refusal to adopt normative values perpetuates dependency and poverty within entire communities. Focusing on the social exclusion aspect of poverty leads to policies designed to ameliorate the institutional sources of poverty, but places little importance on changing individuals’ attitudes and values. Granted, individuals with different abilities and attitudes respond to economic and social opportunities differently, but policy must not ignore the role individual motivation and societal values play in combating poverty. Any proposed policies intended to reduce gun violence must address both the causal agents in the society and development of individual character to be successful. (Huston 2011)
Policy Analysis – Stages approach
Agenda setting – Historically policy makers interested in reducing gun violence have focused on limiting access to specific types of firearms, prohibiting certain gun accessories, and restricting gun purchases. However, many fundamental statistics about gun violence are not readily available. Studies on what causes people to use guns in the commission of crimes or to harm others are lacking. In part, this is due to the 1996 Dickey Amendment, legislation promoted by the NRA, which claimed gun violence research was actually political in nature and as such should not receive any federal funding. (Juarez, 2019) That ban was lifted in 2018, but federal monies were not made available for needed research. That failure to provide funding speaks to the political nature of gun legislation. If those building their reputations over Second Amendment battles can “censor the explanations, then violence becomes inexplicable—senseless, or evil. Politicians can shake their heads and deploy thoughts and prayers instead of policy” (Juarez, 2019). The legislative agenda must shift from arguing about the constitutionality of gun laws to identifying and remedying the root causes of gun violence. Much of the available literature speaks to the propensity to use guns in the commission of crimes as natural outgrowth of limited opportunities for legal employment. This phenomenon, often the result of single parents struggling to survive in the face of crippling poverty has not been adequately addressed through current policy. Tumultuous childhoods coupled with the barriers poverty erects to education and job training make troubled individuals’ incorporation into conventional society a near impossibility. Identification of the factors that contribute to the commission of crimes is a first step in developing effective policy to reduce gun violence. Guns are the tools used in the commission of crimes; they are not the reason for the commission of the crime. Once the underlying causes of gun violence are isolated, work on developing policy alternatives to address those areas of need can begin in earnest.
Formulation stage – Policy alternatives to address gun violence are likely to be varied and necessarily all encompassing. According to some researchers, existing strategies such as waiting periods, prohibiting access to firearms by domestic violence offenders, and limiting concealed carry permits have reduced gun violence in the states where such measures were put in place (Juarez, 2019). Alternative studies claim neither “states’ waiting periods, nor the federal Brady Law is associated with a reduction in crime rates. “But concealed carry gun laws reduce the death rates from public mass shootings cut by an amazing 69%. Allowing law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons deters violent crime, without any apparent increase in accidental death” (Faria, 2012). Based on research conducted for this article, nearly every gun violence study has been challenged or refuted by subsequent investigations by the opposing party. Separating fact from political fiction will require a departure from past practices. To begin the development of policy that will reduce gun violence, the political and constitutional aspects of the issue will need to be removed from the equation. Both sides of the debate have proven themselves woefully incapable of such a selfless task.
Establishment of a bi-partisan committee supplemented by subject matter experts from the social sciences, law enforcement, medical community, and other stakeholders funded by dollars free from political manipulation is a first step in shifting focus away from guns and Second Amendment issues to the people committing the crimes and the communities they live in. Answers may lie in decriminalizing prohibited substances, increasing employment opportunities for disenfranchised youth, and/or improving early childhood care. Policies aimed at encouraging moral turpitude, addressing substance abuse, reducing multi-generational dependence on government programs, and ensuring children are born into environments which provide the highest likelihood of a happy and productive childhood leading into a responsible adulthood may be of value, but policy development cannot commence until sufficient research is done to isolate the root causes of the issues faced by disadvantaged communities.
Therein lies the dilemma. The type of research likely to produce the needed data to promote informed policy creation may span multiple generations. As such, the funding commitment and associated timelines for said research are well outside of a customary political cycle. There is no political value to taking the steps needed to truly address gun violence. Perhaps the bureaucracy offers the long-range continuity to see such a project to completion, but the likelihood of a decades long research program being implemented is low. It does elected officials no good if the well-reasoned, innovative policy they championed is deemed effective twenty years after they’ve been defeated in the upcoming mid-term election. The related issues of what role existing government programs play in perpetuating early incarceration, drug use, and multi-generational poverty that contribute to gun violence among constituents may be more politically charged than the gun debate itself. It is nonetheless important in arriving at practical solutions to gun violence. Until politicians and senior administrative officials confront these realities and approach gun violence from a humanistic perspective, the problem will remain unresolved as politicians continue their unproductive battle over Second Amendment issues.
Legitimation stages – Public involvement in the legitimation of any proposed policies will be central to addressing gun violence. While it has been said that, “you can’t legislate morality”, reducing the incidences of gun violence through improvement in community engagement, lifestyle choices, intact families, and increased employment opportunities in disadvantaged communities would represent a seismic upheaval of urban culture. There is zero political will to actually address the root causes of gun violence because it will result in removal from office. Democrats claim a good education is a basic right of all Americans, no matter what zip code they live in. they advocate ending the school-to-prison pipeline and building a cradle-to-college pipeline instead. (Democrats, 2020) They advocate for free community college, and debt free college degrees. Democrats call for more enrichment and care options for children in the crucial birth to 5-year time frame. They’re saying all the right things and proposing all the socially acceptable policies to address the problems identified earlier in this paper, but they fail to explain why inner cities are still rife with gun violence, why those stricken by poverty seem immobilized by their circumstances. Politicians continue to try to patch holes and enable the poor decisions of their citizens to show they care and are responsive to public needs, but to no avail. Government policies cannot solve what ails society. Community and family offer the only real solutions to these issues. Anything less than a full-scale grassroots movement would be doomed to failure. People will not respond to being told that the lifestyle choices and decisions they have made and continue to make are bad, not just for themselves, but for society as a whole. Moving toward a loving, cohesive community and intact family-based model may be an admirable start to reducing gun violence within our communities, but it would need to be embraced by the populace. The reality of such an all-encompassing transformation gripping the inner cities where gun violence is most prevalent is generally unlikely and outright impossible unless the people living in those neighborhoods ignite and maintain that fire.
Implementation stage – Likewise, effective implementation of any policies to improve social conditions and accordingly reduce gun violence will need to be implemented by the community members themselves. Government intervention and enforcement of such policies would result in social unrest, possibly exacerbating the very problem the policies were originally intended to elevate. Any policy no matter how well-crafted will fail if implementation misses the mark. Anticipated claims of social engineering also reduce the likelihood of any such policies reaching even the formulation stage.
Evaluation stage – Evaluation of policy outcomes would take decades. The political willingness to have the honest discussions that must accompany any real efforts to curb gun violence doesn’t exist. Still, the frustrations of the nation continue to simmer, albeit over different burners. The middle class has grown weary of funding someone else’s poor decisions and lifestyle choices, urban mothers are tired of burying their children, inner city residents are sick of hearing gunshots throughout the night, tired of being afraid in their own homes, but the politicians only argue about flash suppressors.
The limitations of this paper are substantial. The sheer number of studies, agencies, and existing policies involved make even starting to formulate any sort of research plan difficult. As discussed in the Formulation Stage of this piece, nearly every study on the effectiveness of gun control measures is refuted by an equally convincing, data driven report to the contrary. Arguing over the Second Amendment is big business, with billions of dollars at stake on every side of the debate. Politician’s careers and the power they wield are often tied directly to their stance on Second Amendment issues. Unseating elected officials from their battle stations surrounding the gun rights milieu would topple many of the existing party platforms and could result in societal unrest on multiple levels. Just as unsettling would be a thorough review of existing government policies to ascertain the unintended consequences that have arisen since their adoption. “Given the existing political structures and their policy decision rules – particularly interest-group politics and incremental policy-making – such intervention would not only be too costly, but it would also rest on ideological beliefs outside of the American governmental system and its political culture” (Fischer, 1995/2005, p.60).
The likelihood of policy makers and legislators being willing to embark on such an intervention, especially given the racial undertones of the issues at hand, is low. No sane public servant nor politician would bring up issues of single parent households, substance abuse, chastity, and cultural shortcomings as contributing factors to gun violence. Any outcomes would be at risk of being labeled social engineering and face opposition from a multitude of groups. As such, the development of policies that could have a real, lasting effect on gun violence within the United States is unlikely. Government is too rife with political agendas and cultural hot buttons to take on such a monumental task. Remedying the gun violence problem within this nation can only be accomplished by the people.
Combating gun violence involves addressing the sources of criminal behavior. While multiple policies were considered as part of this exercise, a strong moral compass spawned from a loving home arose as a consistent inoculation against criminality. As such, policy intended to reduce gun violence must encourage responsible reproductive choices, support two parent households, and support morally sound decision making.
Responsible Parenting and Child Welfare Policy
Encouraging individuals to postpone having children until they were able to adequately care for their offspring is key to raising children in a loving environment which ultimately combats gun violence. Policies promoting sex education, female empowerment, ready availability of birth control, and sexual abstinence may be effective at combating teen and out of wedlock births. Familial, community, and peer pressure may serve as effective deterrents to making poor decisions. Reestablishing morality within those segments of the population that glamourize sex, drugs, and conspicuous consumption is no easy task. However, the government cannot continue to serve as the safety net for constituents’ poor decisions. Responsibility for support and provision of individuals that have made flawed life choices must fall back on that individual or their families. Preventing chaotic and traumatic childhoods is a multi-faceted issue. For too long, politicians hungry for reelection have placed the bureaucracy in the role of hero and care giver. Responsibility for personal success must reside with the individual. Continuing to perpetuate underachievement and immorality through loosely administered government programs harms those individuals truly in need and inflates the cost of service provision. Government must step back from fulfilling the needs once met by family, community, and charitable groups.
Analysis Using Fisher’s Four Levels of Discourse
- Technical-Analytic Discourse: Program Verification – Policies encouraging responsible reproductive decisions and morally sound decision making would contribute positively to a parent’s ability to provide for and care for their offspring. The likelihood of children being raised in a loving environment would be enhanced if childbirth coincided with parents’ ability to adequately care for those children. As the previously cited research has indicated, a nurturing and loving environment in early childhood is central to raising well adjusted, socially adaptable citizens. Children raised in safe, stable environments are less likely to commit crimes, have stronger community and family connections, and accordingly, are less prone to use guns in the commission of crimes as adults.
- Contextual Discourse: Situational Validation – Family instability can be linked to increased exposure to violence, early sexual debut, non-marital births, and externalizing problem behaviors. (Cavanagh, et al, 2018) Chaotic childhoods lead to a lack of emotional stability and control in adulthood. Violence, drug use, and commission of crimes (including those involving firearms) are all more prevalent in communities with high levels of family instability. (Browning, Leventhal, and Brooks-Gunn, 2004) Focusing policy attention on these contributing factors to gun violence has a much higher likelihood of reducing gun violence than attempting to reduce the type and number of firearms law-abiding individuals can purchase. In most instances, residents of impoverished locales obtain their firearms through illegal channels. (Lindeen, 2010) Imposing additional restrictions on the legal purchase and ownership of firearms is pointless in combating gun violence.
- Systems Discourse: Societal Vindication – Neglect and exposure to acts of violence during childhood increases the odds of future victimization, criminality, and impaired morality. (Cavanagh, et al, 2018) The impact on society is substantial. Increased community disorder, crime, criminal justice costs, and health care costs are all documented outcomes of children being raised in unstable family environments. (Kirk and Hardy, 2012) Policy encouraging responsible parenting and the establishment of stable home environments will diminish the negative behaviors associated with family instability.
- Ideological Discourse: Social Choice – Research has established that children residing in two-biological parent households benefit from the better financial position of married financial families, in part due to the ability to reside in neighborhoods with lower levels of crime and less violence within the schools. (McLanahan and Percheski, 2008) The negative effects of disruptions to or a lack of two parent familial structure encompass all races. Published findings demonstrate that familial instability is not limited to one ethnic group. The negative externalities of neglect and non-nurturing environments are universal. (Cavanagh, et al, 2018) This information may serve to buffer the claims of racial profiling that will invariably accompany any policy that attempts to promote values and morality. While the proper place for such promotion lies within communities and the family, politicians try to insert themselves into a situation they have proven woefully inadequate in addressing. Reducing gun violence is a stated goal of politicians and communities. Those rallying to stop the violence would be well served to look at their community’s values to ascertain whether their actions are consistent with that goal.
Reducing gun violence is an admirable policy goal. Current political thinking and legislation is focused on reducing legal access to firearms. Recently passed legislation will serve to place limits on law abiding citizens ability to arm themselves but does little to actually reduce gun violence. Viewing gun violence as a predictable outcome of chaotic home environments and familial instability represents a shift from conventional thinking. Failure to address parenting deficiencies during young people’s formative years perpetuates the conditions that spawn criminality. There must a willingness within communities to speak to the value of intact families and community engagement. Circumstances and choices that diminish the ability of parents to impart love to their children must be evaluated and addressed. Perhaps, government policy is not the most appropriate mechanism to do so, but derailing the train from birth to prison for many disadvantaged youths must begin within improvements to their home environments.
The bureaucracy has been thrust into the role of breadwinner, parent, disciplinarian, and counselor. The initial motivation for most of the policies combating poverty and increasing opportunity for disadvantaged groups was genuine. Yet, in many cases programs have become so bastardized from their original intent, the policies may be perpetuating the very problem they were put in place to remedy. Thoughtful and open critique of existing policies may provide opportunities to adjust the mechanisms through which benefits are allocated. This would be no easy task, as many politician’s careers and billions of dollars of government funding are tied to these government programs. However, if the goal of the policy maker is to truly have a positive impact on the rates of gun violence in the country, such honest evaluation must take place.
While the Republican Party Platform may claim that “prosperity provides the means by which citizens and their families can maintain their independence from government, raise their children by their own values, practice their faith, and build communities of cooperation and mutual respect” (2020), existing social policies are unable to impart prosperity. Much like the law’s inability to develop sound policy, policy is unable to create strong families. That motivation must arise from within fathers willing and able to take responsibility for their families, from mothers willing to value themselves and their children enough to make reproductive decisions consistent with their ability to care for their offspring, and from communities and churches dedicated to lifting up the least among us. For too long, government has been asked to step into the roles previously occupied by family, churches, and communities. The bureaucracy is ill suited to creating well-adjusted citizens. The government may educate children, but they cannot make whole that which is irreparably broken. Politicians, despite their vigorous Second Amendment claims to the contrary, cannot legislate their way to a peaceful society, free from the negative externalities of gun ownership. That, fortunately or unfortunately, only begins at home.
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