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'American tragedy': Professors discuss gun violence in the US at Tuesday event

Last Valentine's Day, a gunman barged into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., taking 17 lives. 

On Tuesday night, first-year Carlee Goldberg, a Parkland resident, moderated a panel on gun violence to discuss the repercussions of the shooting and the future of firearms in America. The four panelists concurred that the nation is failing to adequately protect its citizens under current firearm statutes. 

“If there’s a misunderstanding about guns in this country, it’s the thought that the Second Amendment cannot coexist with regulation," said Darrell Miller, Melvin G. Shimm professor of law. "Constitutional law doesn’t work that way.” 

Philip Cook—ITT/Terry Sanford professor emeritus of public policy studies—grew up in rural North Carolina and noted that American gun culture has shifted substantially from viewing firearms as only relevant to hunting and sport. He asserted that the National Rifle Association, in dominating the gun debate for 40 years, has shaped popular opinion to minimize the number of gun restrictions. 

Miller agreed with Cook's point, citing his own experience.

“We had fire drills when I was in school, but the idea that a school shooting could occur was inconceivable,” Miller said.

He then criticized the manner in which federal law can supersede local gun laws. Miller explained that although a community may wish to outlaw handguns, the Second Amendment is able to override even overwhelming public support. Such was the case in the neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., before the decision of the District of Columbia v. Heller Supreme Court case in 2008. 

Although the conservative majority of the Court did not abolish local regulation entirely, it obscured the extent to which local lawmakers can pass laws restricting constitutional gun rights, he said.

Joseph Blocher, Lanty L. Smith professor of law, went on to identify three hallmarks of successful gun legislation: effectiveness, popularity and constitutionality. He noted that popular gun control legislation that successfully curbs gun violence must still abide by the Second Amendment in order to retain its power. 

Blocher said he did not disagree with this stipulation but respected the function of the Second Amendment within a free state and suggested that liberty and safety need not be at odds. Just as the First Amendment does not protect slander, he said, the Second does not necessarily extend to assault weapons. 

Jeffrey Swanson, professor in psychiatry and behavioral science, spoke to discredit the association between mental illness and gun violence. 

“We learned in our research that the overwhelming majority of people with mental illness are not violent," Swanson explained. "Flash forward to now, and now we focus on mental illness and gun violence, when those cannot truly be correlated.”

Swanson pointed out that two-thirds of firearm-caused deaths are suicides. He described it as an "American tragedy" that gun stores in states with less stringent requirements on background checks likely sell firearms to domestic abusers and people with suicidal histories.

He recommended that audience members vote as often as possible and encourage others to follow suit. Swanson also pointed out that baby boomers are among the strongest supporters for gun possession and American gun control discourse will likely shift as millennials take their place. 

Cook encouraged audience members to seek out volunteer groups such as the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham—a private, community-driven group which has driven meaningful progress in gun control discourse.

Miller concluded by stating that gun control affects everyone, regardless of geography or socioeconomic status—children in both Chicago, Ill., and Newtown, Conn., are privy to the catastrophes guns can cause when mishandled. This unifying factor, Miller reasoned, will eventually lead to national bipartisan agreement on gun control legislation.  

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