Magazine article New York Times Upfront

The Gun Debate: December's Tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, Is Prompting a New Look at the Nation's Gun Laws

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

The Gun Debate: December's Tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, Is Prompting a New Look at the Nation's Gun Laws

Article excerpt

Gun dealers say it's the most popular rifle in America. The AR-15 semiautomatic comes in black, tan, and camouflage, and with a wide variety of stocks, grips, sights, and barrels. It's a favorite among target shooters, hunters, and people buying guns for self-defense.

It's also the weapon used in December by 20-year-old Adam Lanza to kill 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. (Lanza also killed his mother at her home.)

The massacre--the second-worst school shooting in American history and the third mass killing with the AR-15 in five months--left an entire nation grieving and wondering how and why such tragedies happen. It also reignited a national debate over whether U.S. gun control laws need strengthening.

President Obama, who largely sidestepped the issue during his first term, has now indicated a willingness to tackle gun control, even with Democrats and Republicans generally far apart on the issue.

"No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society," Obama said at a memorial service for the victims in Newtown. "But that can't be an excuse for inaction."

The debate over guns in America goes back to 1791, when the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, was adopted. Long one of the Constitution's most disputed passages, the Second Amendment reads, in its entirety: "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."

In 2008, more than 200 years after the Framers wrote the Second Amendment, the Supreme Court finally ruled on what it means: The Court said it applies to individuals, not just militias. That case, District of Columbia v. Heller, struck down a handgun ban in Washington, D.C., and established an individual's right to keep a handgun at home for self defense. (A 2010 Supreme Court ruling, McDonald v. Chicago, applied the Heller decision, which technically affected only Washington, D.C., to all the states.)

Long History of Gun Control

The rulings do not mean that all gun-control laws are unconstitutional. In fact, gun control has a long history in the U.S. at the federal, state, and local levels. The nation has often stiffened gun laws following notorious shootings. After the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert E Kennedy, Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968, which prohibited mail-order sales of rifles and shotguns and banned felons and drug users from owning guns.

The 1994 Brady law, spurred in part by the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, created a national system of background checks for gun purchases.* Also in 1994, Congress passed a D-year ban on assault weapons that covered 18 specific semiautomatic guns, including some versions of the AR-15, and high-capacity clips. The ban expired in 2004 because there weren't enough votes in Congress to extend it.

The AR-15 rifle that was used in the Newtown shooting is the civilian version of the military's M-I6 and M-4 rifles. It's been used repeatedly in recent mass shootings: the killing of 12 people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, in July, and the killing of two people in a Portland, Oregon, shopping mall in early December.

The semiautomatic rifle Lanza used belonged to his mother, a gun enthusiast who kept a collection of guns in her home. It was legally purchased and registered in Connecticut.

Gun-rights groups--the most powerful of which is the National Rifle Association--have long argued that restrictions on gun ownership infringe on the rights of law-abiding citizens and make it harder for them to protect themselves against criminals. The vast majority of gun owners, the N.R.A. says, use firearms responsibly.

"Guns are why we're free in this country, and people lose sight of that when tragedies like this happen," says Scott Ostrosky, who owns a gun range in Newtown. …

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