Different Perspectives, Similar Messages on Gun Violence and Regulation

Interdisciplinary faculty panel organized by Duke students from Pittsburgh, Parkland

After the 2018 mass shooting in his Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill at the Tree of Life synagogue, where his parents were married and his closest friends regularly attended services, junior David Frisch began planning a campus panel discussion on how to reduce gun violence. 

When Frisch left campus to study abroad this spring semester, first-year student Carlee Goldberg from Parkland, Florida, picked up where he left off. This issue is close to Goldberg as well: “I started off learning about gun violence in an academic setting: in the classroom, in debates, in the news, and through a horrible tragedy it went on to impact every aspect of a place I call home.” 

Goldberg moderated a Jan. 29 panel discussion featuring four Duke professors across disciplines.

Professor Jeffrey Swanson from the School of Medicine studies the relationship between violence and mental illness. His research has found that our current gun laws do not disqualify the vast majority of people at risk from gun ownership, necessitating a different approach to reducing gun violence.

Constitutional law professor Joseph Blocher of Duke Law is a specialist on gun regulation and the Second Amendment. Blocher emphasized three challenging characteristics that every gun proposal must have: policy that achieves an important end, political feasibility and constitutionality.

Duke Law Professor Darrell Miller’s expertise also lies in constitutional law, as well as the intersection of gun regulation with Reconstruction history and the 13th Amendment. Miller sees state and local governments as key areas in which a lot of current work in both gun regulation and gun protection is happening.

Professor Phillip Cook of the Sanford School takes a public policy approach, seeing guns as an issue of technology and markets. "Gun violence imposes a very heavy tax, if you will, on our standard of living,” Cook said. “It degrades the quality of life for everyone." 

Gun laws in the United States cannot limit access to guns broadly as in other countries. Instead, Swanson said, “We have to see what people are most at risk to limit. It’s not gun control; it’s people control.”

Swanson and the other professors see risk protection order laws as a policy measure that effectively reduces gun violence, has widespread bipartisan support, and is constitutionally sound. The laws allow families, household members or law enforcement officers to temporarily remove a person’s access to firearms before they commit violence.

Blocher addressed the misunderstanding that Second Amendment gun rights and gun regulations cannot coexist.

"People too often think you have to make some kind of choice between gun rights and gun regulation,” Blocher said, “but it's not true as a matter of history, it’s not true as a matter of doctrine at any point in American history including the one we’re in, and it’s not good policy either. Constitutional law doesn’t work that way.”

The speakers also discussed mass shootings. While Miller agreed that “mass shootings are very salient,” he noted their rarity compared to suicides and inner-city violence.

Swanson added that in the wake of mass shootings, people often demand “some kind of easy solution to it.” In reality, mass shootings make up a small portion of gun deaths, and gun regulations require much more than a “quick fix.”

In addition to gun laws, Swanson stressed the importance of changing societal attitudes surrounding gun regulation. Using the Click It or Ticket seat belt campaign as an example, Swanson affirmed that cultural norms can change over time with persistent, widespread effort.

To address gun violence, the speakers pressed students to vote and engage civically. Cook added that students could also volunteer with local groups that work with victims of gun violence.

Swanson urged students not to be dismayed by gridlock at the federal level, but to look to state and local governments for opportunities for meaningful change.

Blocher encouraged students to remain engaged, saying, “Cultural and constitutional things can change, and that will be up to people like you.”

The event was sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost; POLIS: Duke’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service; the Department of Political Science; the Office of Undergraduate Scholars and Fellows; and Duke Political Union.