Why has gun control become such a contentious issue in American politics?

Seminar Paper, 2004

12 Pages, Grade: 75


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

2. The History of Guns in America

3. Gun Control
3.1.1. Proponents
3.1.2. Opponents

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The question why gun control has become such a contentious issue in American politics has to be lighted up from different perspectives, both historically and politically.

America is undoubtedly one of the countries with the largest private firearms arsenals, and very likely the leading one worldwide. There are 250.000 federally licensed firearms dealer in the country, 20 times the number of McDonald restaurants.[1] Estimates of private firearm ownership in the U.S. run from 192 million in a recent Justice Department Study, to 230 million according to the U.S. NRA, to a figure of 250 million put forward by the FBI.[2] This would mean one firearm for every American, from infant to senior citizen. In a typical week there are more people killed with guns than in all of Western Europe in a whole year. Or to carry this example to extremes, there are more U.S. firearms homicides in a single day than in a year in Japan.[3] Thus, the debate over gun control lasts for decades and has intensified ever again, not least because of the link between violence and the availability of firearms. Furthermore, periodic assassinations and assassination attempts as well as mass shootings like the Columbine High School massacre in April, 1999, focused national attention and have pushed the debate and governmental regulations over gun control. The question which arises at this point is why the United States do not have stringent gun laws in order to reduce crime.

Referring to this question, a close look on America’s gun history is needed in order to understand why firearms play such an important role in America’s history which distinctly diverges from the rest of the world.

Nevertheless, American citizens and their views on the gun control issue are split into the policies of gun control proponents and their opponents which are resembled in interest groups who play an important role in the United States political procedure. Thus, it is of interest in how far the policies of both sides diverge and how successful they are in influencing the legislative process.

2. The History of Guns in America

“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 Second Amendment [Right to Bear Arms] of the United States Constitution. –

“The powers of the sword are in the hands of the yeomanry of America from sixteen to sixty. […] Who are the militia? Are they not ourselves…[…]Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birth-right of an American…

[T]he unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the state governments, but, where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people.”

- Tench Coxe, Pennsylvania Gazette, February 20, 1788. -

In 1791, the United States of America ratified the Second Amendment. Therewith, they became, until the present day, the only country in the world which codified the right to bear arms in their constitution. The following historical incidents and processes gave way to the enactment.

In the early days of the republic, firearms were essential to survival for the people who would be called “Americans”. Because frontiersmen had to hunt their food and defend themselves against Indians, “civil military uses of firearms dovetailed as they had not generally done in Europe.”[4] Historian Daniel Boorstin notes, “Shooting small game with a bow or a gun and throwing a tomahawk became lifesaving skills when Indians attacked.”[5] The special demands of the American gun markets led to major innovations in firearms production. The invention of the handy revolver and colt allowed to hold more shots and simplified shooting while mounted on a horse.[6] It gave, as historian Carl Russell states “the white man superiority.” The war between Indians and Whites laid a foundation for America’s attachment to the gun, but does not entirely explain America’s affection towards guns, long after the danger of an Indian attack has passed.

The militias, as alluded in the amendment, existed from the first days of white settlement, for many colonies were sometimes in a permanent state of war. Although the British were supposed to protect the colonists, in practice the colonists protected themselves.

The milita amounted more than one third of men fighting against Great Britain in the War of Independence. Apart from George Washington’s Continental Army, militias comprised the able-bodied males in the township or county. Their contribution was to defend the community with their own firearms. In contrast to the army soldiers, militiamen wore no uniform, but their “gun offered the sole emblem of an individual militiaman’s commitment.”[7] Because of the war with the Indians, American whites were already proficient gun users, comfortable with using violence to get what they wanted. In most households, the gun was the most advanced piece of technology. Firearms fascinated many Americans, including their first president, who had a personal collection of over fifty guns, a third of them handguns. The War of Independence reinforced the existing admiration of firearms and violence. Moreover, it justified the democratic ideal of the armed man as the “embodiment of republican virtue.”[8] And favoured the philosophy that “noble ends justify violent means”.[9]

Although the War of Independence was over, a European invasion of at least some part of the nation seemed still possible. Thus, the country was not disarmed as one may conclude.

In order to strengthen the nation, Congress was authorized to call the militia into the national service, but could not be sent overseas. Furthermore, they were allowed to execute the law, suppress insurrection, and repel invasion. In the late 19th century, the Supreme Court stated that even if there were no Second Amendment, state laws which disarmed citizens would be unconstitutional because they would deprive the federal government of its militia. Nevertheless, a risk existed that the armed people might revolt against the Constitution itself, and also may overthrow it. But the potential for armed revolution was seen, also later, as a safeguard. When anti-federalists argued that the proposed Constitution could turn the central government into a dictatorship, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison replied in their Federalist Papers that “as long as a militia existed, no national dictator could long endure.”[10] Madison predicted that the European governments, who were “afraid to trust the people with arms”, would be “speedily overturned” if ever opposed by a popular militia directed by locally controlled governments and officers. In this view, the people were the ultimate check in the system of checks and balances. Still, the anti-federalists feared any involvement by the new government. At the Virginia ratifying convention, George Mason warned that the government might gradually increase its power “by totally disusing and neglecting the militia.” Anti-federalist Patrick Henry agreed and said “The milita, sir, is our ultimate safety…. The great object is that every man be armed….everyone who is able may have a gun.”[11] Because of these protests, a Bill of Rights was added, including what is now known as the Second Amendment. As the Supreme Court has stated repeatedly, the amendment guarantees the right of individual citizens to bear arms. In a 1939 decision, the Supreme Court noted the historical understanding of the militia: “The Militia comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense…Ordinarily when called for service these men were expected to appear bearing arms supplied by themselves and of the kind in common use at the time.”[12] The modern definition of militia corresponds with the Supreme Court and historical definition. The United States code states: “The militia of the United States consists of all able-bodied males at least 17 years of age and…under 45 years of age.”[13] The next section distinguishes between organized militia and unorganized militia. The Second Amendments phrase “a well-regulated militia” is sometimes said to mean “a militia subject to nearly unlimited bureaucratic regulation.”[14] Hence, gun controls not amounting to prohibition would be restrictive towards a “well-regulated militia.”


[1] Renner, Michael. Small Arms, Big Impact: The Next Challenge of Disarmament. WorldWatch Paper 137. Worldwatch Institute, Library of Congress. Washington, DC, 1997. 21.

[2] Ibid. 21.

[3] Ibid. 22.

[4] Kopel, David B. The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy. Should America Adopt the Gun Controls of Other Democracies? Prometheus Books. Buffalo, New York 1992. 309.

[5] Ibid. 309.

[6] Ibid. 310.

[7] Kopel, David B. The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy. 312.

[8] Ibid. 316.

[9] Ibid. 317.

[10] Ibid. 318.

[11] Robertson, David. Debates and Other Proceedings of the Convention of Virginia. (2nd edition, 1805).

[12] United States vs. Miller (1939).

[13] 10 United States Code §311 (a).

[14] Kopel, David B. The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy. 319.

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Why has gun control become such a contentious issue in American politics?
University of Reading  (Department of Politics)
American Government and Politics
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This essay was written in a seminar called "American Government and Politics" during my year at the University of Reading, GB.
American, Government, Politics
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Katrin Gischler (Author), 2004, Why has gun control become such a contentious issue in American politics?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/47128


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