“Gun ownership is as old as America,” Robert Spitzer, a leading expert on gun control, explained to a crowded McDonald Lecture Hall this past April. “But what is less well understood is that gun regulations are equally as old.” Spitzer’s visit to campus came less than a month before Cazenovia’s Great Debate looked at the reinstatement of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. Maureen Louis, the coach of the debaters, spent nearly a year deciding on this topic.
“I choose a topic based on what’s being covered in the news,” she says. “Something that’s pretty competitive on both sides.” According to Robert Spitzer this issue fits these guidelines well. “The Federal Assault Weapons Ban,” he says, “currently represents the leading edge of what gun control supporters have been pursuing.” This ban was originally enacted in 1994, but expired after ten years. Spitzer says that this was not a time period associated with any drops in crime, but the use of assault weapons in crime did go down. Therefore its effectiveness can be debated by either side.
Spitzer explains that recently the call for gun control has been fueled by mass violence and assassinations. “They rouse the public,” Spitzer says, “who then press the government to take action.” In 1934 the National Firearms Act was passed in response to a rise in gang-style mass violence. According to Spitzer, this act was “remarkably successful in keeping automatic weapons out of the hands of both citizens and criminals.” Thirty-two years later the Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed, regulating the purchase of firearms following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. These were two notable successes for gun control advocates.
On the gun rights side, the 2008 District of Colombia vs. Heller case proved a victory as the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution protects an individual’s right to own a gun for personal use. According to Spitzer, this ruling “reframed the debate” on gun control because it turned the discussion to the right of the individual.
Since these rulings, however, there have been several tragedies that have grabbed the public’s attention. “With the Colorado shooting I knew this would be on everyone’s minds,” Maureen Louis said, referring to the shooting at the Aurora movie theater that killed twelve people this past July. “And how horrified was I with the Newtown shooting!” In the case of the Newtown shooting, one of the weapons that Adam Lanza had was a .223 Bushmaster rifle. This is a semi-automatic firearm, meaning that it is self-loading. When one round is fired, the shell is ejected and the next round loaded automatically. This is the type of firearm considered an “assault weapon,” and one that would be regulated under the Federal Assault Weapons Ban.
Whether or not this ban should be reinstated remains a question to be debated across the nation, but this year’s Great Debate laid out the arguments for the campus to hear. “It’s very intense and a lot of work,” Maureen Louis says, “but it lets the students see their best work.”