There is a stereotype of Americans as gun-crazy. Sensational stories of citizens going into stores and restaurants with enormous guns strapped to their backs or slung over their shoulders may lead people to think you will run into gun-toting cowboys on every street. Although there are some gun rights activists who flaunt their gun ownership in a few areas of the U.S. where open-carry laws are in place, the majority of Americans do not own or use guns. In most parts of the country, you are unlikely to see a gun during your entire stay in the U.S.
Gun ownership rights and restrictions are a hotly contested issue in American society. Passions run high on both sides of the debate as it involves interpreting our foundational documents and ideas. At the extremes, there are those who believe that the constitution guarantees unconditional gun ownership by American citizens, and those who feel that we should legally ban all firearms. Most Americans' views fall somewhere in between.
Banning guns outright is highly unlikely to happen anytime in the near future. Romantic images of U.S. history often feature men defending themselves or their country with guns and they are deeply imbedded in the American imagination. From cowboys to soldiers, most of our heroes carry guns. Should everybody be allowed to, though?
Right to Bear Arms
Many Americans, led by the NRA (National Rifle Association), point to the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to defend rights of gun ownership. This amendment reads:
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.
They claim that this is a straightforward guarantee to rights of gun ownership. This amendment can be seen as advocating both personal and national security. Since this document was written during a period when the United States were using local militias and widespread gun ownership to fight Europe's most formidable army, national security was certainly a major concern for the men who wrote the constitution. Early Americans also often lived in areas of danger, with many wild animals and periodic conflict with Native Americans, which led many to feel that gun ownership was necessary for survival.
Today, these circumstances have changed somewhat, but advocates of gun ownership believe that personal and national security concerns are still important aspects of the right to bear arms debate. They often refer to the widespread use of guns by criminals, who may not be deterred by gun control laws. Having equal access to firearms may help people defend their homes and their families. The "right of the people to keep and bear Arms," was not only useful for fighting the British in the War of Independence, but could also be used to stop tyrants from taking control of the U.S. in the future.
Citing high levels of gun crime and firearm-related accidents, many Americans advocate stricter regulations on gun ownership. This ranges from longer waits on gun purchases to outright bans on all firearms. Mass shootings in public spaces, particularly schools, have led to a movement asking for stricter controls on firearm sales. They want more thorough background checks and longer waiting periods. Some feel that this is more likely to weed out people who may not be responsible enough to handle gun ownership and prevent crime.
In response to arguments that the right to bear arms is guaranteed by the constitution, they argue that the constitution was referring to weapons being used within a well regulated militia, which would provide a kind of regulation. Another objection is that other amendments to, and sections of the constitution have been reformed when the majority of Americans feel that it no longer applies to modern society. Since the United States now has a military and police force and is no longer under threat from outside forces, individual citizens do not need to carry arms or form militias. They also point out that weapons have become far more deadly since the constitution was written. Many proponents of gun control focus on banning the most deadly weapons from civilian ownership, while allowing less deadly weapons for personal protection and hunting.