The 27 words of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution have inspired innumerable court cases and civic debates over the right of people to own firearms. But that hasn’t prevented 96 Americans from being killed every day by gun violence, according to the Brady Campaign, a nonprofit group that advocates for firearm controls.
At the same time, gun rights advocates counter that twice that many people use their firearms defensively each day to protect their lives and property.
KET’s Kentucky Tonight discussed gun laws and related issues with David Burnett, a registered nurse and former president of Students for Concealed Carry; Rev. Jason Crosby, co-pastor of Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville; Ken Pagano, an NRA-certified instructor and former Louisville pastor; and Anthony Smith, executive director of Cities United, an organization that seeks to eliminate violence that affects black males in American cities.
The Public Health Debate
The Brady Campaign says shootings kill more than 35,000 Americans a year. That’s comparable to auto fatalities but far fewer than overdose death numbers in recent years.
But some demographic groups feel the toll of gun violence more than others. Anthony Smith says seven black males between the ages of 14 and 24 are killed every day in shootings. Rev. Jason Crosby adds that an African American man is 13 times more likely to be shot than a white man.
Smith says people who illegally possess a gun commit most of those homicides. That’s why he says it’s imperative to keep illegal weapons out of inner-city neighborhoods.
“We believe that if we can figure out a way to have more gun regulations, especially for some of the urban communities that we live in, then we can probably reduce the number of young people that we’re losing to gun violence every day,” he says.
Smith says city leaders should be able to enact tougher gun laws for their jurisdictions even if state legislators prefer less restrictive regulations. He also wants to end a practice whereby law enforcement can confiscate guns but then sell them at auction. He says that results in many of those guns ending up back on the streets. As for other firearm policies, Smith contends it doesn’t infringe on people’s Second Amendment rights to require them to undergo a background check or face a waiting period on gun purchases.
Gun control advocates say such restrictions will not only help prevent homicides but reduce the number of self-inflicted gunshot wounds as well. Rev. Jason Crosby says two-thirds of all gun deaths are suicides.
“The data has revealed that in states where there are comprehensive background checks in place that suicide rates go down,” Crosby says. “When people have to be on a mandatory wait list before they are about to take possession of a gun, suicide rates go down.”
Gun rights proponents contend gun violence does not rise to the level of a public health crisis. Ken Pagano says that’s simply way for gun control groups to make an “end run” around Second Amendment rights. He also opposes setting the minimum age for all firearms purchases at 21 and enacting stricter background checks, saying current policies don’t prevent guns from getting into the hands of criminals and tougher laws will do no better.
As for the disproportionate toll shootings take on African Americans, Pagano says firearms are not the core issue.
“There’s a problem with violence in the black community and guns just happen to be tools that are used,” he says. “If you take away the tool, are you still going to have that problem? That’s something you have to honestly answer.”
Overall, firearm homicides are at some of the lowest rates since the 1960s, according to FBI statistics cited by David Burnett. He says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control also puts youth homicides at a 30-year low. Despite the number of deaths by firearms, he says defensive use of guns save lives and protect property six times more often.
Burnett agrees that violence in black communities must be addressed, but he argues restricting firearms is not the answer.
“For every gun control law you pass, you reduce access for law-abiding citizens,” Burnett says. “Every gun control law that you pass disproportionately impacts minorities who might have a greater need to be able to protect themselves if they can’t get off the streets or can’t get out of the inner cities.”
Banning Sales of Assault Weapons
Gun control advocates frequently call for an assault weapons ban, especially after mass shooting incidents that involve such firearms. Assault rifles or assault-style weapons can be a number of different weapons, including guns with semi-automatic or fully automatic firing capability and detachable bullet magazines.
Much of the debate around these weapons focuses on limiting civilian access to a widely sold gun known as the AR-15, which was used by assailants in mass shootings in Parkland and Orlando, Fla., San Bernardino, Ca., and Newtown, Conn.
The federal government defines a mass shooting as an incident in which at least four people are killed by gunfire. Using that definition, David Burnett says that AR-15s or other semi-automatic refills are used in less than 20 percent of mass shootings. He says AR-15s are “low-hanging fruit” for gun control advocates who want to go after the “scary gun.” But he contends banning them won’t prevent mass shootings.
“If that was a solution that worked… if I thought criminals would comply by that, I would be more on board with it,” Burnett says. “If you’re really wanting to focus on the tools used in mass shootings, you need to look at handguns, which are used in 80 percent of the mass shootings.”
Rev. Jason Crosby agrees that smaller weapons can generate high body counts, but he contends the largest mass shootings – including ones at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School earlier this year – have involved AR-15s. He contends the weapon is terrifying children and destroying lives.
“If the AR-15 cannot be sold in the United States and that protects children at school, I regret that some people may not be able to shoot a deer with it, but I think it’s worth it overall as a nation and a community to put limitations on guns such as those,” says Crosby.
The Value of Gun Education
Despite its powerful lobbying presence, the National Rifle Association remains primarily focused on gun education, says Pagano. The organization offers a range of training and safety programs for adults and children as young as pre-kindergarteners.
“There’s a lot of other things that the NRA does that people may or may not like, but they are the biggest dog on the block and so I do throw my support behind them,” Pagano says.
He and Burnett question why NRA programs for school students have met with such stiff resistance from some parents and educators.
“It’s ironic to me that the same people who talk about sex education in school, they say that the children are going to engage in risky behavior, so it’s best to teach them how to do it safely,” says Burnett. “When we introduce the idea of very simple firearms education, they take an abstinence-only approach, and I think that’s inconsistent.”
Burnett also questions why more people don’t support training and arming teachers so they can protect their students from mass shootings at schools. He says critics reject the idea outright without even being willing to debate how much training school personnel could be given to make opponents feel comfortable with the idea.
When it comes to legislative initiatives, the NRA sends tens of millions of dollars each year to lobbying groups, political action committees, and directly to candidates, according to Crosby. He contends the NRA isn’t just an educational organization but a “mouthpiece” for the gun industry, which nets $17 billion in revenues, according to the market research firm IBISWorld.
“I support the NRA’s efforts to educate and train and equip people to use firearms safely,” says Crosby, “but I don’t think that [NRA Executive Vice President and CEO] Wayne LaPierre is making millions of dollars a year teaching Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts how to shoot rifles at summer camp.”
Firearm training for adults and gun safety classes for kids don’t do enough to address the concerns of people of color, according to Smith. He says arming teachers would create a threatening school environment for black children. And he says being a licensed gun owner carries risks for black adults. For example, Smith cites a 2016 traffic stop in Minnesota in which a police officer shot and killed Philando Castile, an African American man who had a permit to carry a gun.
“I’ve got my two older boys [ages 28 and 30], they own guns, they’ve got concealed carry” says Smith. “I still fear for their lives when they even have their legal rights to carry guns because… they are a black man carrying a gun. In this country, my rights are not the same as your rights.”