December 19, 2014 13:01 UTC

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Americans Debating Gun Control

A number of recent shootings have only intensified the debate | THIS IS AMERICA

Neil Heslin, the father of a six-year-old boy who was shot and killed in the attack at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, last December testifying at a recent Senate Committee hearing
Neil Heslin, the father of a six-year-old boy who was shot and killed in the attack at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, last December testifying at a recent Senate Committee hearing

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From VOA Learning English, welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in Special English.  I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.
 
And I’m Jim Tedder. This week on our program, we talk about one of the most intense debates in America: gun control. In 2005, the Gallup research organization reported that about three in ten  Americans had a gun. Some Americans want more limits on the kinds of weapons and equipment ordinary citizens can have. A number of recent shootings have only intensified the debate.
 
“Haidya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence.”
 
President Obama named some recent victims of gun violence in his State of the Union speech to Congress and the nation in February. They included a 15-year-old girl in Chicago, a member of Congress in Arizona, elementary school children in Connecticut and people at a movie theater in Colorado. President Obama called on Congress to vote on gun control measures.
 
“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote.
 
The families of Newtown deserve a vote.
 
The families of Aurora deserve a vote.
 
The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.” 
 
But British writer Edward Davies says there is nothing simple about the issue of gun control. Mr. Davies writes about America for BMJ, the British Medical Journal. He does not favor a particular position on the issue.
 
"It’s interesting. It’s complicated, and there’s no right answer, is what’s slowly emerging as far as I can see."
 
Mr. Davies sees American history, including the Second Amendment to the Constitution, as the driving force in the dispute.
 
The Second Amendment reads: “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.”
 
Gun rights supporters -- and the Supreme Court -- say the amendment guarantees individuals the right to own a gun. Gun control activists say the amendment was meant to guarantee states the right to organize militias for defense.
 
But Mr. Davies does not see gun control as a political question. He sees it as a public health issue, like smoking or malnutrition. Mr. Davies says policy makers usually base public health decisions on scientific research. But I n the case of gun control, policy makers do not have very much research to consider.
 
"The research into gun control has not been completely free and open in recent years."
 
Mr. Davies says the last research on gun-related issues that had a “real impact” appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine in the 1990s. He says the research suggested that the risk of violent deaths was almost three times greater for people in homes with a gun. And the risk of suicide was almost five times greater, compared to homes without a gun.
 
Since that study, Mr. Davies says money for research on gun-related issues in the United States has decreased. He says pressure by the National Rifle Association helped stop government-funded gun research in the late 1990s.
 
The National Rifle Association represents at least 3.5 million gun owners and manufacturers. The NRA strongly supports gun ownership rights. It said the proposed government-supported research was an attempt to win public support for gun control.
 
Mr. Davies says there were also efforts to pass legislation to prevent doctors from asking their patients about guns in their homes.
 
“If there was freedom to do more research in this area, whatever decision might be made would be more informed. And any policy would be evidence based. And at the moment there is not the complete open freedom for that to happen.”
 
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than 31,000 people were killed by guns in the United States in 2010. That is the most recent year for which officials have made a final count. Writing in the BMJ, Mr. Davies says, “If a disease killed 31,000 people a year there would be a national outcry over such restrictions on research.”
 
One shooting that received national attention last year was that of Trayvon Martin. He was a 17-year-old high school student in Florida. Last February, he was visiting his father in the town of Sanford. A neighborhood watch volunteer saw Mr. Martin walking in the neighborhood and called the police to say he looked suspicious. The police told George Zimmerman to stay in his car and not follow him. But Mr. Zimmerman followed Trayvon Martin, and ended up shooting him. Mr. Martin was unarmed. Mr. Zimmerman said the young man attacked him and that he fired in self-defense.
 
Students at the University of Miami wanted to honor Trayvon Martin on the recent first anniversary of his death. They organized a poetry reading in his memory.
 
“Never in a thousand years would I believe death will follow me/ Corner me and end the years of my life / What an evil twist on reality.”
 
Several poets talked about how race might have influenced the case. Trayvon Martin was black. George Zimmerman is white and Hispanic. Civil rights leaders suggested that he would have faced criminal charges immediately if the teenager had been white. Mr. Zimmerman was eventually charged with second degree murder. His trial is planned for June. 
 
In January of 2011, a young man killed six people and wounded 13 others in Arizona. The wounded included Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. She survived a bullet to her head, but the severe injuries prevented her from seeking another term.  In January the former representative spoke at congressional hearings on gun control.
 
“Speaking is difficult, but I need to say something important. Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying. Too many children.”
 
Gabby Giffords was talking about the attack that has probably most focused the nation’s attention on gun violence. That is, the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. A 20-year-old man, armed with his mother's guns, killed his mother, then went to the school and opened fire on the children. The violence ended when he killed himself as police rushed to the school.  
 
Since the Sandy Hook shootings, several groups have suggested measures to reduce gun violence. Some activists are pushing for a ban on certain kinds of guns, such as the military-style assault rifles used at Sandy Hook and in other mass shootings. Activists also want to ban ammunition magazines that hold a large number of bullets. They argue that ordinary citizens do not need these kinds of weapons, even for hunting animals or for their own safety.  
 
Yet gun rights advocates say guns are not the problem.
 
“A gun is a tool. The problem is the criminal. Criminals operate outside the system.”
 
Wayne LaPierre is a top official at the National Rifle Association. He has said he will not support any of the proposed limits on guns. Instead, Mr. LaPierre has called for more guns, especially in schools, for self-defense.
 
Gary Ward is a gun rights advocate.
 
“If there was one teacher or one principal armed that could have come in and ended the violence with one shot—with one shot could have saved dozens of children.”
 
 Erich Pratt with the group Gun Owners of America agrees. He says more armed citizens would help prevent tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Mr. Pratt says if a gunman enters a building, no one has time to wait for police to come.
 
“If I had a kid in that school, I would want an adult, a good person with a gun. I would want them to take care of the situation if they could.”
Bob Krupicka is a lawmaker from Virginia. In his state, in 2007, a 23-year-old student with a history of mental illness killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, then killed himself.
 
“I think instead of arming our teachers with guns, we should be arming our teachers with tools to identify mental health issues in their school community.”
 
After the Sandy Hook school shootings, a coalition of mental health experts wrote to President Obama and to Congress. They asked the elected officials for immediate health policy reforms and new protections against acts of violence. They also called on Congress to expand mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.
 
But New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer says any solution to gun violence has to include some measures against guns.
 
“Trying to prevent shootings in schools without talking about guns is like trying to prevent lung cancer without talking about cigarettes.”
 
However, Republican Se nator John Barrasso from Wyoming says he is not sure that limiting access to guns is the right answer. He says he does not expect Congress to pass gun control legislation, despite all the recent attention on gun violence.
 
“We need real solutions to a significant problem in our country, and I’m not sure that passing another law in Washington is going to actually find a real solution.”
 
Mr. Barrasso says he wants President Obama and Congress instead to consider other ways to limit violence in American society and culture.
Our program was written by Onka Dekker and produced by Kelly Jean Kelly. I’m Jim Tedder.
 
And I’m Kelly Jean Kelly. To read, listen and learn English with our programs, go to voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.
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