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The gun control debate in the US

James B. Jacobs (NYU) interviewed by Claire Richard


I do not own a gun, I only held a gun when I was in the army.

James B. Jacobs, New York University Law Department

Well, it is a very… what we would say a “hot button” cultural issue, that is very ideologically charged.

The gun controlers, those who want European type controls, they believe that the guns are the cause of many problems, and especially crime problems and of course massacres.

The gun owners they recognize that guns are used in crimes, and they are in favor or very strong criminal laws, and they are in favor of very strong laws against those who commit crimes, but they do not believe that regulating or even prohibiting the right of individuals to keep and bear arms will have any effect on criminals obtaining firearms and using them to victimize unarmed victims.

What makes gun control so complicated ?
First, there are different definitions of “gun control”

When people say they are for gun control, it’s often unclear what kinds of criminal or administrative, regulatory, or licensing ideas they have in mind. In the US has very strong criminal laws against committing crimes with guns. And indeed we make it a crime for any person who has ever been convicted of a crime, whether with a gun or not, to ever possess or own a gun for the rest of his life. If a previously convicted person does violate that law, they are subjects to 10 years in prison. That is, perhaps surprisingly, a very strong gun control law. Other people mean by gun control the absolute prohibition of ownership of firearms. An dyet other people have ideas like registering all firearms or licensing all firemars owners, or taxing ammunition and firearms… So there is a wide range of policies that might be included under the umbrella terms of “gun control”.

Having guns is a constitutional right… that has several interpretations.

The Second Amendent says that a well disciplined milicia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right to keep and bear arms shall not be abridged.

For many years there was a debate on the meaning of the Second Amendment. Those who wish to restrict the private ownership of firearms said that the constitutional right only applied to the militias, to organzied military formations, and only they and the State’s right to organize such militias, was referred to in the Second Amendment.

On the other side, the gun rights groups and individuals argue strenuously that the amendment should be understood as guarantying the rights of individuals to keep and bear arms.

The link between gun ownership and crime is disputed.

The individuals and organization that advocate strong control, believe that gun cause crime. that the very availability of guns, causes people, or at least facilitates people to get those guns and use them to commit crimes. The gun owners believe the opposite ; they believe that guns deter crime, that if criminals know that the civilian population is armed, or that many people are armed, there will be less burglary, less armed robbery, fewer rapes, and people will be safer.

We have a lot of empirical research that goes on in the US about the relationship between firearms and crime, some of which would be surprising to Americans as well as to Europeans. For one thing, if you look at the States in the United States and you look at how the degree to which the population is armed in different states… you find there is no relationship between the level of gun ownership in a State and the crime problem in a State. Vermont, for example, has one of the most, or perhaps the most guns per thousand of population, but it has the lowest crime rate in the United States. Other State have a high density of firearms and a high crime rate : there is no overall trend. Most people who own firearms never commit any crimes with them : it is only a small percentage of people, especially homicide, which is a fairly rare behavior. Maybe we have 10 000 firearms homicides a year : that sounds like a lot in the United States, with a large population where we have 300 millions firearms in private hands in the United States… The vast maojority of the people who own firearms never commit crimes with them. And the people who do commit crimes with firearms overwhelmingly own them illegally.

I do not believe that there is a correlation between firearms density and homicide, or between firearms density and suicide in the United States. But perhaps there is empirical disagreement and different studies showing different things.

Practically, gun control is difficult to enforce, because…
… there is now a huge number of both legal and illegal guns in circulation.

People who commit crimes overwhelmingly obtain their firearms on the black market. The criminals get their firearms on the street from drugs dealers or other who sell firearms. And perhaps 500 000 firearms a year are stolen and those feed into the black market. There are 300 millions estimated firearms in private hands in the United States, one for every man, woman and child living in the United States. And to, at this stage, create an effective regime of regulation and safety over those 300 millions of firearms seem to me an insurmountable challenge.

… and the law now protects the right to bear arms.

The US Supreme Court, in 2010, ruled that American have a constitutional right to keep and bear arms. And while the Court said that this does not mean that all regulation is impossible = in other words, some reasonable regulation is possible – still, the right protects the basic right of individuals to own firearms, to keep them in their homes, even to carry them with them.

On top of that, the gun lobby is extremely powerful.

There are many gun owners, there is a large segment who are one issue voters, who will vote against a candidate solely because of their position on firearms. That is the decisive issue for a significant number of voters, and therefore politicians are wary of taking a strong gun control position.

The NRA is the most powerful single issue lobby in the United States, and there is much misunderstanding of what that means. Some people think that the NRA is this evil organization that operates on its own to scare politicians. But what has to be understood is that the NRA’s strengths comes from the number of people it represents, and that the NRA would not be a powerful organization without the fact that millions of Americans are willing to join, and pay membership fees and support the goals of the NRA, and welcome its representation.

Given all that… Can gun control work ?

I consider myself a gun control skeptic. I do not believe, at this point in our history, with 300 millions firearms in private hands, and a constitutional right to keep and bear arms, and a political situation in which there is a very very small number of politicians who are willing to take a strong position on firearms, that there is a serious potential for regulatory controls. I don’t think that will happen.

There is no magic bullet, if you can excuse the phrase, that will change American violence, but the good news is that it has been reduced substantially over the last 25 years. We have had a tremendous reduction in violent crime, including gun crime, since 1990. Overall, there is 25 to 30 per cent fewer homicides now than in 1990 – and in New York City 75 per cent fewer homicides now than in 1990.

So this current debate about gun violence ought to consider the fact that gun violence has gone down, and all violence has gone down, in the United States, to an amount that nobody imagined could happen over the last 25 years.

Pour citer ces ressources :

James B. Jacobs / Claire Richard. 04/2014. "The gun control debate in the US".
La Clé des Langues (Lyon: ENS LYON/DGESCO). ISSN 2107-7029. Mis à jour le 26 septembre 2016.
Consulté le 25 novembre 2017.
Url :

En complément sur nos pages
Gun Nation: A Journey to the Heart of America's Gun Culture, un documentaire du Guardian sur la culture des armes aux Etats-Unis.
Mise à jour le 26 septembre 2016
Créé le 8 avril 2014
ISSN 2107-7029
DGESCO Clé des Langues