America's Divide Over Guns Making Us Safer or Less Safe By Luke Perry
School shootings are a uniquely American problem, making analysis of gun policy a complicated and sensitive topic. Like many national issues, deep divides between rural and urban Americans help explain Congressional inaction.
I have lived throughout rural America for nearly 20 years, including cattle country in Nebraska and the deserts of Utah. Guns are widely accepted and utilized for hunting and defense, including from natural predators who attack livestock and hikers.
Both states allow students at public colleges and universities where I taught to carry firearms on campus with a concealed weapon permit. Utah even has an official state gun.
Most people who legally possess firearms, including here locally, consider themselves safe gun owners who take seriously the social responsibility that accompanies owning and operating a deadly weapon. I have experienced this firsthand target shooting.
At the same time, I have lived in urban communities, including some with deadly challenges from gun violence. When guns are fired at friends and family, as I have also experienced, they are dangerous and horrifying.
My current students include those who have lost loved ones to gun violence. The last thing they want is more guns in their communities.
Our society has an estimated 265 million civilians guns, far more than any other country. Americans experience more gun violence than any other Western democracy.
America also has a written constitution that uniquely protects the right to bear arms. This right has been maintained by the courts, even though the original impetus of ensuring “a well-regulated militia” dissipated with the creation of a permanent military.
All freedoms have limits. Citizens are never free to do whatever they want, whenever they want. This applies to guns, speech, assembly, religion and the rest of the Bill of Rights.
Governments most often limit freedoms in the interest of public safety, their primary concern. This is where things get sticky.
Public health scientists know that having a gun in one’s home increases the risk of being the victim of gun violence. Far more Americans kill themselves with a firearm than are murdered by one.
That said, it’s understandable that gun advocates want to protect constitutional rights, particularly those who have broken no laws and consider themselves no danger to themselves or anyone else.
It’s equally understandable that citizens at large want to better protect public safety, particularly of children, who are being killed and traumatized.
While both sides want gun violence to end, the problem is lack of widespread consensus over whether the prevalence of guns in society makes us safer or less safe.
America’s two party system is split along this divide. Republicans tend to believe that high levels of gun ownership make people safer. Democrats tend to disagree. Each party advocates for its views, fueling gridlock.
Electorally, most members of Congress represent solidly conservative/liberal constituencies respectively. They are reluctant to budge on this issue, fearing a primary challenge from the far right or far left.
The president has used executive power to prohibit bump-stocks and called for strengthening background checks. High school students in Florida were instrumental in this development by effectively advocating for change through social and national media. Trump then proposed arming teachers.
Attitudinal differences between urban and rural communities are stark and run deep. Without greater understanding and acceptance on both sides, any policy response is likely to be minimal.
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Chair and Professor of Government at Utica College.