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America's Handguns Controversial, but Constitutional

Dunblane, Scotland. March 13, 1996. A man walks into a school with a number of handguns and opens fire. Sixteen kindergarten children and a teacher are slaughtered. Britain reacts with such revulsion that Parliament enacts a nationwide ban on privately-owned handguns.

Littleton, Colorado. April 20, 1999. Two students at Columbine High School enter with a number of weapons including a modified semi-automatic handgun. The pair opens fire, killing twelve fellow students and a teacher. In the aftermath, the most significant change enacted is the placement of metal detectors at many U.S. schools. Private handguns remain plentiful in America.

Handgun owners say the U.S. Constitution’s second amendment clearly protects them and their weapons. It states "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." Attorney Stephen Halbrook, who has defended gun ownership rights before the U.S. Supreme Court, says the constitution’s second amendment was drafted in reaction to events just before the War of Independence. "With the growing dissention of the colonists against British rule, the British seized firearms of all kinds – handguns and long guns - particularly in 1774 to 1775. And that was one of the reasons leading to the American Revolution," he says.

Contentious arguments have ensued over the years regarding the second amendment, with gun opponents asserting that the framers of the constitution meant the right to collective self-protection, not the right of an individual to amass an arsenal of weapons. Yale University law professor Daniel Kahan says the arguments both for and against handguns reflect fervently held beliefs.

"The people who support more gun control believe that when people can have more ready access to handguns, there is going to be more violent crime and there are going to be more gun accidents." Mr. Kahan adds "The opposing position is that when ordinary citizens have ready access to guns, they are able to more effectively defend themselves. They’re less likely to be threatened in the first place."

In the U.S. state of Virginia, a group called the Virginia Citizens Defense League is aggressively pushing for greater rights to carry handguns openly. Its president, Philip Van Cleave, insists they are the best means for keeping crime at bay. "The handgun is a portable means of defense, much more portable than a rifle or a shotgun. And therefore, it can go with you virtually everywhere discreetly or not discreetly."

But statistics from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation show that handguns overwhelmingly are an instrument of murder, not a tool of self defense. In 2003 the FBI recorded 7,700 handgun murders nationwide, but only 163 are considered "justifiable homicide" or self-defense. These killings compare to less than 850 murders attributed to rifles and shotguns in 2003.

Underpinning the pro-handgun movement are a huge U.S. firearms industry and many gun rights groups. Mary Leigh Bleck, with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, says Capitol Hill and statehouses nationwide are their focus. "We have a very strong and powerful gun lobby," she says, adding "And they were very effective to kill any legislation that is brought before a state or our Congress."

In 2002, Fortune magazine named the National Rifle Association the most powerful lobby group in Washington. The Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics says the NRA and similar groups have spent at least $75 million over the past 15 years promoting their positions. By comparison, anti-gun forces spent only $4.1 million in the same period. The lobbying also spills over into presidential politics. The NRA strongly backed President Bush’s recent re-election campaign after his administration showed considerable support for the second amendment and opposition to tighter gun controls.

Then there is the impact of mass culture. First, Wild West books and movies portrayed handguns as equalizers or tools of justice. Then came spy movies showing James Bond types in tuxedos brandishing guns. Most recent are the "rap" music videos equating handguns with power and status. Author Richard Slotkin says this media saturation has had a notable effect. "It prepared us to accept guns in some sense as a normal part of life. So that if even in principle people are opposed to handguns, we at least understand the mystique in the handgun."

As is true with other controversial issues, Americans both for and against handguns each consider their side of the argument to be right - and essentially non-negotiable. While handgun opponents point to the legal, medical, and social costs of shootings, supporters say the U.S. tradition of strong individual rights, including the Constitution's Second Amendment, must not be surrendered.