Few issues are as divisive in American politics as the right to keep and bear arms. Almost everyone has an opinion, and the issue often gets parsed with no gray: You either see an escalation of violence in society and believe access to guns needs to be restricted, or you look at the very same situation and see a crying need for individuals to be able to defend themselves.
Yet violent crime is actually down even as the number of guns sold grows exponentially. FBI data show that violent crime is lower today than at any time since 1970, while the murder rate is the lowest it's been since the early 1960s. At the same time, gun ownership and demand to purchase guns have seemingly rarely been greater.
The Pew Research Center found recently that 44% of all U.S. homes had a gun in them, while the pace of the FBI's criminal background checks of those wanting to buy a gun is set to break all-time records this year.
Still, the number of "mass shootings," where four or more people are wounded or killed is also growing by leaps and bounds. Over the past seven years, there have been 35 mass shootings documented, more than the number of incidents recorded during the previous 16 years.
As Election Day nears, the presidential candidates have laid out where they stand on this hot topic. Because the next person to occupy the White House will have a big say on whether gun rights are restricted or expanded, today we'll take a facts-only look at how Republican Party presidential nominee Donald Trump says he'll address the contentious issue.
1. Uphold the Constitution
To begin, Trump sees the meaning of the Second Amendment as being unambiguous. He says the language declaring "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed" is clear-cut, and that the Constitution didn't create the right, but exists to prevent the government from taking it away.
He notes in a campaign document: "[T]he Second Amendment's purpose is to guarantee our right to defend ourselves and our families. This is about self-defense, plain and simple."
These themes are echoed in Pew research, with 58% of the public believing gun ownership in this country does more to protect people from becoming victims of crime than to put people's safety at risk. Pew found in 2013 that almost half (48%) of gun owners had their weapon(s) for protection. That was a big change from 1999, when 49% said the reason they owned a gun was hunting.
2. Defend "America's first freedom"
Where the framers of the Constitution enumerated in the First Amendment many important, individual rights, including freedom of religion, speech, and the press, they followed that with a means by which the people could protect them: the Second Amendment and the right to own guns.
Trump points out that the U.S. is the only country in the world that has expressly protected its citizens' right to own a gun, which is why it has long been called "America's first freedom" -- it protects all the other rights and freedoms we enjoy.
Trump then lays out four ways he will continue to protect that freedom.
3. Shape the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court has a lot of leeway in determining just how far our rights go and with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia earlier this year, the next president will be appointing at least one justice to the court, and his or her views on gun rights will play a pivotal role in being nominated.
Scalia was an ardent defender of gun rights. His landmark opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller established the absolute constitutional right of individuals to purchase and own firearms, but Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has called the Heller decision "wrong." Trump says his court nominees (and he's provided a list of candidates he would consider) "will abide by the rule of law and the Constitution of the United States that includes upholding the Second Amendment."
4. Revamp the mental health system
In his campaign document, Trump promises to "fix our broken mental health system," stating in that section: "All of the tragic mass murders that occurred in the past several years have something in common -- there were red flags that were ignored. We can’t allow that to continue. We need to expand treatment programs, because most people with mental health problems aren’t violent, they just need help. But for those who are violent, a danger to themselves or others, we need to get them off the street before they can terrorize our communities."
Trump calls for expanding treatment programs and reforming the laws to make it easier to take preventive action.
5. Enforce existing laws
One of the hallmarks of the gun-control debate has been the push for so-called "common-sense gun laws." Yet there are numerous laws on the books already that go unused, whether because they're considered too vague, the bar for proof is too high, or there's a lack of resources to prosecute using them. Trump says it's not that more laws are needed, but rather that we need to use the ones we have more effectively.
Trump also says he wants to bring back and expand programs such as Virginia's Project Exile, which made it mandatory that a person serve at least five years in jail for crimes committed with a gun. He notes that former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder dismissed such laws as an ineffective "cookie-cutter" approach to crime, but Trump deems it a success when murders committed with a gun plunge 60%, as he said happened in Richmond, Va.
6. Defend existing gun owner rights
The most popular firearm sold today is the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. While attempts to ban its sale have been attempted, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives under President Barack Obama tried a different tack and sought to ban the 5.56 mm M855 "green tip" round, one of the most popular rounds for the weapon. It's been suggested that by banning the ammunition you can effectively ban the gun, too.
Trump says the type of ammunition and the size of the magazine that can hold it should not be dictated to law-abiding gun owners. Moreover, the current background check system isn't really useful in deterring crime, according to Trump, since criminals often don't get their guns through legal channels. A better system is needed, one that also ensures the states are maintaining their criminal and mental health records, says the candidate, who said he owns a gun and has a concealed-carry permit. Trump also calls for a national right-to-carry law that would make a concealed-carry permit valid in all 50 states.
Will he do it?
Trump's positions on gun rights have changed over the years. Whether he's "evolved" or is pandering to position himself opposite of his opponent, only time will tell.
But in his 2000 book The America We Deserve, he praised a ban on so-called assault weapons, though he now opposes it, while also calling for longer waiting periods before being able to buy a gun and saying people on no-fly lists should also be unable to buy guns. His platform is silent on those positions today, though he does, as noted, believe the current background check system is ineffectual.
There are fewer than two weeks before voters decide whether these positions are good for the country. Depending upon who is elected, it could be a very different world for gun owners come next January.
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