Yale Law, Public Health professors weigh in on new gun control measures
As debates about gun control rage in the wake of multiple mass shootings, professors from the Yale Law School and School of Public Health share their opinions.
Tim Tai, Staff Photographer
With a string of recent mass shootings reigniting a push for gun control legislation, experts from Yale Law School and the School of Public Health remain divided on the most effective ways to curb gun violence.
In the wake of mass shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo that killed a combined 31 people and wounded 20, President Joe Biden called for an assault weapons ban and restrictions on the sale of high-capacity magazines, while Congress passed a bipartisan gun control bill Thursday that enhances background checks for gun buyers under 21 and provides federal funding for state-run red flag programs as well as mental health and school safety programs.
The bill, negotiated by Senators Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) is the first major piece of federal legislation in 30 years to curb gun violence and was signed by President Biden early Saturday morning. The United States is on pace to meet or exceed last year’s record for the greatest number of mass shootings on record.
“Maybe it’s changing, but there has been a real deadlock in Congress since the early nineties when we got a ban on large magazine weapons that was then allowed to expire,” Phillip Bobbit, Visiting Professor at Yale Law School, told the News. “A lot of our paralysis is due to a kind of weaponized rhetoric where I depict what happened in one way, you depict it happening in another way and different legislative or regulatory consequences flow from that.”
While most Americans agree that gun violence is a problem, there is a partisan divide on the problem’s scale and causes. More Democrats view gun violence as a “very big problem” than Republicans, and only 39 percent of Republicans believe the ease with which people can obtain weapons legally contributes to gun violence, compared to 76 percent of democrats.
Bobbit attributes the rift to political messaging following mass shootings. Both sides of the political spectrum are prone to telling “half truths” in the wake of shootings, Bobbit said, either attributing the shooting solely to guns or solely to mental health.
“When either side thinks a very simple answer is the key to a complex problem, it’s usually because they’re trying to weaponize [it],” Bobbit told the News.
Guns remain the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 18, beating car accidents and cancer, leaving many, including YSPH Professor Howard Forman, believing gun violence is a “public health issue.”
Forman compared the spread of gun violence to the spread of an infectious disease, in that “my personal decision impacts others.”
“The harms from guns and gun violence extend well beyond those who choose to own or use guns,” Professor Forman wrote in an email to the News. “My freedom to enjoy life, health, and wellbeing is directly impacted by someone else’s unfettered access to various guns and weapons of war.”
On May 26, following the Uvalde and Buffalo shootings, YSPH released a statement decrying the “senseless loss of life” caused by gun violence.
The school also called for policies to address the spread of violence.
“There is a rippling effect that gun violence wreaks upon our communities and psyches,” the YSPH statement reads. “Toting military-style assault weapons and gear, individuals with extreme hatred, feelings of alienation, and/or mental disturbance are murdering our children and targeting people based on their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation. Assault weapons designed for military use are a frequent tool for mass murder.”
Yale Law School professor Robert Post told the News that he agreed with the School of Public Health’s statement. Post traced America’s relationship with guns back to the nation’s history of the frontier, which was the context in which gun rights were enshrined in the United States’ founding documents.
But much has changed in the gun industry since the U.S. constitution was drafted, he said, specifically pointing to the rise of lobbying groups like the National Rifle Association, which push for the availability of assault rifles as well as standard hunting equipment. Post explained that the polarization of gun culture driven by the NRA paired with the country’s growing diversity in the last 30 years has led the debate on guns to become a proxy for race issues.
“With the rise of the NRA and its accompanying polarization with its association with questions of race, the ‘right to own guns’ is the right really to suppress inner city Blacks,” Post told the News. “It became associated with the right of individual self defense, and this was a new development in the ideology of gun ownership that occurred in the Reagan era and became dominant on the right in the 1990s.”
Post believes that the national market for guns necessitates federal gun control legislation, rather than gun control decisions being left to the states.
“If a state tries to regulate [guns], they can do something, but if it gets imported from a neighboring state, it doesn’t help much, does it?” Post told the News. “So, whenever you have a market where the externalities are such that it’s really a national market, the state can’t control it.”
But where Post sees the need for federal action, law and economics professor Ian Ayres believes that gun violence can be reduced with a “decentralized, liberarian approach.” He told Yale Law School Today that instead of imposing “one-size-fits-all rules,” that stem from the federal government, there should instead be state-level policies that prioritize the liberty of individuals and promote “a kind of self control,” like Donna’s Law, which allows individuals to suspend their ability to purchase and possess firearms.
As the debate over the best way to reduce gun violence rages, the Supreme Court grows ever more important. While Constitutional Law professor Samuel Moyn and Post both believe that the Second Amendment has been recently misinterpreted by the Court’s conservatives, others, like Constitutional Law professor Akhil Amar and Bobbit, believe there is legitimacy to the constitutional argument for personal protection.
“There is a perfectly reasonable argument that families and individuals have a right to protect themselves using firearms,” Bobbit told the News. “I don’t know how far that takes you, because we don’t think a family could start laying landmines in their front yard or using bazzookas to keep kids off the lawn. There are some kinds of munitions that are pretty clearly outside the realm of personal protection.”
Although case law regarding gun control typically centers on the Second Amendment, Amar told the News that even without the Second Amendment, gun rights are protected under the unenumerated rights “rooted in American mores, customs, practices and laws,” including the right to privacy.
“Almost all state constitutions, for better or worse, affirm gun rights,” Amar told the News.
Still, Moyn speculates that the Supreme Court, which now has a 6-3 conservative majority, could take action to expand the Second Amendment.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court struck down an over-century old New York state law requiring residents obtain a license to carry concealed handguns in public.
The Court found in its 6-3 decision, written by Justice Clarence Thomas LAW ’74, that the state’s “proper-cause requirement,” which allows residents to carry concealed handguns in public only if they have a need to do so, was an unconstitutional restriction of citizens’ Second Amendment right. While the decision leaves licensing laws in most of the country in place, it repeals the New York law and the laws of six other states and the District of Columbia with similar restrictions.
The Supreme Court’s decision came on the same day the Senate passed its bipartisan gun bill. The next day, the Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
“The conservative majority on the Supreme Court is likely to take the newly minted individual right to bear arms even further than before. The coincidence between its simultaneous decisions to offer protection of gun rights while stripping the right to bodily autonomy is striking.” Moyn told the News. “It is a reminder why we should really not want a council of elders announcing and defining what our rights are — or which ones they are prepared to invent and keep.”
Moyn suggested looking to Congress rather than the Supreme Court or constitutional amendments for action on gun violence prevention.
“Our best hope is to angle for Congress to override the Court’s decisions in this and other areas,” Moyn told the News.
The Yale Law School was established in 1824.
Correction, July 5: A previous version of this article stated that Phillip Bobbitt is a professor at Yale Law School, when he is in fact a Visiting Professor. This article has been updated to reflect this change.