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The World is Watching

The following is an installment in our Trends in the Law series, which focuses on new and emerging technologies, areas or movements in the law.

A RETIRED JUSTICE SPEAKS OUT

In a rare public outreach, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens weighed in on the Second Amendment and The March for Our Lives in an Op-Ed for the New York Times on March 27, 2018. Noting that he had rarely seen the type of civic engagement demonstrated by the marchers in Washington D.C. and other cities, Stevens stated that such support demanded respect and legislative action. The action that Stevens advocated is a repeal of the Second Amendment.

Although suggesting such a drastic legislative approach may shock some people, Stevens traced the history of the Second Amendment, from its enactment in the eighteenth century to the limitations placed on firearms held to be permissible under the Second Amendment in the twentieth century, and argued that it was not until the twenty-first century Supreme Court decision District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008 that an individual right to bear arms became an unquestionable part of the Second Amendment. (Stevens and four other Justices dissented in the Heller decision.) Stevens believes that Heller has “provided the NRA with a propaganda weapon of immense power,” and overturning that decision by repealing the Second Amendment would lead to constructive gun control legislation that is currently blocked by the NRA.

Even before the Heller decision, however, there were laws that greatly impacted the gun control debate and the way in which the nation as a whole perceived the issue of gun safety. These laws, their impact, and their current status are explained below.

THE DICKEY AMENDMENT

The Dickey Amendment was authored by Republican Rep. Jay Dickey from Arkansas, and inserted into the 1996 federal omnibus spending bill. The actual language of the amendment mandated that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” This was not a ban on government funding of research, but it nonetheless created such a chilling effect on government research into gun violence that since 1996 the CDC has not funded any research into the issue.

This chilling effect and lack of federal funding for research prevented gun violence from being treated as a public health issue, despite the fact that firearm-related injuries are among the five leading causes of death for people ages 1-64 in the U.S. It also led to a dearth of facts, statistics, and evidence on the causes of and possible solutions to gun violence. With no research and studies undertaken like those done for other public health issues, there are no evidence-based conclusions to be drawn about how best to move forward in addressing such problems as 15-24 year olds in the U.S. being 49 times more likely to die from gun homicide than their peers in other wealthy countries.

Congress’ recent omnibus spending bill does not repeal the Dickey Amendment outright, but it does clarify that the CDC can allocate money for research on gun violence and its causes. The clarification is meant to narrow the amendment’s ban on “advocacy” and “promotion” and therefore remove the chilling effect the amendment has had on research for the last 22 years.

THE PROTECTION OF LAWFUL COMMERCE IN ARMS ACT

This Act shields gun manufacturers and dealers from being held liable when crimes are committed with their products. It was passed by Congress in 2005, and is often referred to as immunity for the gun industry. Defenders of the law point out that frivolous lawsuits brought against gun manufacturers for harassment purposes, or due to a need to blame someone for the tragedy of a firearm injury or death, need to be restricted. Critics of the law argue that no other industry enjoys such blanket protection from liability, and that a product that kills as many people a year as motor vehicles do should be subject to the same liability—which just might incentivize the industry to make safer products and sell them more wisely.

THE WORLD IS WATCHING

The March for Our Lives held on March 24, 2018, drew an estimated crowd of 800,000 in D.C. alone, and tens of thousands more in cities across the country and the world. London, Paris, Brussels, and Berlin were just a few of the cities that participated in marches in solidarity with the U.S.; marches took place on six continents (antarctica was the holdout).

What is particularly notable is that among all the industrialized, developed countries in the world, the U.S. is the only one to have gun violence at the level we do, the country to have the most guns per capita by far, and the only country to have failed to enact legislation to address mass shootings in their wake. (The U.K. and Australia are excellent case studies in legislative responses after mass shootings that resulted in no repeated mass shootings in those countries.)

The March for Our Lives movement—now global—is watching to see what will happen. What will the courts do? What will Congress do? What will the voters do?

The World is watching.

Categories: Firearms, gun violence, CDC
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