Gun Control: A Matter of Life, Death, and Fundamental Rights

On February 14th, 2018, Nikolas Cruz went on a rampage, firing wildly at students and staff of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, ultimately killing 17 people. The massacre incited a nationwide debate surrounding gun control; a youth-led movement pushed for stricter gun laws, while a resistant movement clung to broad interpretations of the Second Amendment, claiming that enforced gun laws would violate constitutional rights. Hypocrisy undergirds the argument that tighter gun control is a violation of rights; the right to carry a weapon is in no way more fundamental than the right to security, safety, and life. 

Mass shootings demonstrate the threat of widely endowed gun rights, but, in reality, the dangers of gun violence go far beyond the mass attacks that receive the most media coverage. In the United States in 2015, an average of over 100 people died per day due to gun violence. Here in New Haven, homicide rates are at a 50-year low, but still 13 people have lost their lives to gun violence this year alone. The enforcement of so-called “gun rights” has only one effect: the loss of deeply fundamental human rights, including the right to safety in education. 

In 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), a group designated to monitoring compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, gave the United States a failing grade. The UNHRC asserted that the US fails to meet international human rights standards on gun violence, unequally applies various gun laws, and treats victims of gun violence unfairly. An 1884 Supreme Court decision underpins these issues. The resolution granted the US the authority to ignore international treaties when they conflict with domestic laws. Essentially, the US has created a loophole in defending human rights, and has used this device to justify a blatant disregard for the entitlement to security from gun violence. 

Beyond legal maneuvers, the United States has defended gun rights by denying scientific research into firearm violence. In 1993, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published a study which concluded that “rather than confer protection, guns kept in the home are associated with an increase in the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance”. In response, members of Congress fought to eliminate the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC. Although the politicians failed to terminate the organization, the members still defunded the group through the Dickey Amendment. The Dickey Amendment asserts that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the [CDC] may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” Thus, research can continue, but its findings cannot support gun control. 

The battle for gun control in the United States revolves around differing interpretations of the Second Amendment. Yale Law professor Akhil Reed Amar ‘80, LAW ‘84,  argues that “the people,” as indicated in the Second Amendment, refers to a collective mass of citizens, and not to a group of individuals. Instead, Amar considers the Ninth and Fourteenth amendments to generally enforce the individual rights that can be applied to individual gun ownership. The rights of the individual, as guaranteed by the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments, are most principally the rights of security and life. Amar argues that applying the Second Amendment to individuals infringes upon rights truly endowed to individuals while misinterpreting “the people” refered to by the Second Amendment. Following the more modest and responsive framework of the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments allows for laws better adapted to the United States’ modern democracy; both revisions concern the individual, and are therefore more considerate of fundamental human rights in their positionality on other rights and privileges . 

The difference between a “basic moral right” and a “derived right” assumes a central place in this debate. Gun rights activists often utilize this terminology, claiming that gun control would violate a “basic moral right,” therefore bypassing a constitutional violation and attacking an innate human right. Despite the ambiguous discord between these categories of rights, “we may understand basic moral rights as moral rights that (1) protect highly general interests that are vital to the prospects for living a decent life and (2) are not specifications or instances of more general rights.”. Thus, the right to physical security is undeniably a basic moral right, whereas the right to gun ownership can, at most, be considered to be derived from the right to live a good life, but even this delineation is not without conflict. It is clear to see that the right to physical security should take precedence over the right to gun ownership.

A critical legal analysis suggests the complicity of US gun policy in violations upon human rights, but this analysis offers no solution to these infringements. Perhaps the young activists who rallied for gun control in the months following the Parkland tragedy can resolve this dilemma. These students call for moderate, common-sense, gun control. Their commitment and ability to demonstrate the importance of gun control have transformed national opinion on gun rights. Although initially dramatic shifts in public opinion have receded slightly, over one-fifth of Americans still choose gun control as one of the two most important issues to them, and 75 percent of Americans supported strengthening background checks

In today’s climate of hotly contested, partisan dialogue, student voices offer a possible solution to human rights violations in America. Students can evade the lines of partisan debate and offer a rational voice before masses of resistance and ignorance. The sheer power and strength of Parkland students, who fought for gun control while mourning their friends, inspired a movement that connects to people from diverse backgrounds. It is in this energy, borne of necessity, that movements towards greater gun control gained traction and inspired wider debate. In light of recent mass shootings in Pennsylvania and California, it is now, more than ever, crucial that youth struggle against injustices in our communities. We have the agency to raise our voices above the clamor and advocate for essential human rights, so the fight of young people must continue. 


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