Balancing Rights and Responsibilities: The Role of Government and Citizens in Combatting Gun Violence

Published date01 November 2022
AuthorMichael R. Ulrich
Date01 November 2022
Subject MatterOpportunities for Gun Violence Prevention
292 ANNALS, AAPSS, 704, November 2022
DOI: 10.1177/00027162231171474
Rights and
The Role of
and Citizens in
Gun Violence
1171474ANN The Annals of The American AcademyBalancing Rights and Responsibilities
Congress passed the first federal legislation on firearms
safety in decades at nearly the same moment that the
Supreme Court issued its first major Second
Amendment decision since 2008. It will take time to
assess the effects of these actions on both gun safety
and Second Amendment rights, but, with gun violence
skyrocketing across the country, it is clear that finding a
balance between rights and safety is desperately
needed. The public is ill-equipped to protect itself
against the broad harms of gun violence, so the govern-
ment has a central role to play in addressing those
harms and the racial disparities that come with them.
Gun owners, too, must recognize their obligations to
fellow citizens, not only to act responsibly with fire-
arms, but to accept the limitations of their constitu-
tional protections. An evidence-based path forward can
be forged that mitigates the harm of gun violence while
minimally burdening the rights and interests of those
who own firearms.
Keywords: Constitution; rights; public health; safety;
duty; gun violence; Second Amendment
Two events occurred within days of each
other that will have a significant impact on
efforts to tackle gun violence in the United
States while also protecting Second Amendment
rights: President Biden signed into law the first
major piece of gun legislation in decades, and
the Supreme Court issued its first substantive
Second Amendment ruling since 2008. The
Bipartisan Safer Communities Act narrowed—
but did not fully close—the boyfriend loophole,
broadened the definition of sellers that are
Michael R. Ulrich is an assistant professor of health
law, ethics, and human rights at Boston University’s
School of Public Health and School of Law; and
Solomon Center Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Yale
Law School. His scholarship focuses on the intersection
of public health, constitutional law, and bioethics,
emphasizing social justice through examining the law’s
impact on health outcomes of marginalized and under-
served populations.
required to do background checks, created opportunities for expanded back-
ground checks of purchasers 18 to 21 years of age, and increased penalties for
straw purchases. The impact of these changes is debatable—especially given
external limitations such as background checks’ reliance on voluntary participa-
tion in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)
system—but passing any federal law related to firearms may show some progress
toward the potential for common ground. And perhaps the greatest impact will
result from the increased funding in areas such as community violence preven-
tion programs, financial incentives for states to pass extreme risk protection order
laws, and suicide prevention and trauma services.
In New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen (2021), the Supreme
Court provided its most significant Second Amendment decision since declaring
an individual constitutional right in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008). In
Bruen, the Supreme Court struck down New York’s “proper cause” restriction,
which required residents who wished to carry a firearm in public to demonstrate
that they had a specific need to carry a concealed weapon. In striking down this
law passed in 1911, the Court emphasized how it infringed on the right of self-
defense—which Heller held as underpinning the Second Amendment—for “law-
abiding citizens.”
The lasting impact of each will take time to assess, but both may have impor-
tant lessons in the effort to strike a balance between tackling gun violence and
protecting Second Amendment rights. In the case of the Safer Communities Act,
the willingness to directly connect gun safety legislation and mental health is
disconcerting. While increased funding and resources for mental health are
sorely needed and may help to reduce suicide by firearm, this link perpetuates a
false narrative that gun violence is largely caused by those with mental illness.
This notion has zero empirical support, and, in fact, data show that individuals
with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of gun violence than perpetra-
tors (Metzl and MacLeish 2015). Thus, while the mental health resources may be
beneficial, the long-term impact of their inclusion in this federal legislation—a
response to mass shootings and not the suicide crisis—may be to enable the con-
tinued use of mental illness as a scapegoat, which could prevent more balanced,
effective future legislation.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bruen appears to be an explicit
rejection of balance. The “proper cause” restriction on public carry is an effort to
limit the number of firearms in public without eliminating the ability to carry a
gun for self-defense for those who are more likely to need it. While the Court
could have ruled that the enforcement and approval process was operating too
strictly—an as-applied ruling—the Court instead chose to strike down the law in
its entirety by focusing strictly on the right to carry. This decision generates an
expansive ability to carry firearms in public but, more important, ignores the
state’s interest in protecting and promoting public health and safety.
A narrow focus on the right alone casts doubt on the judiciary’s willingness to
consider state justification for firearm restrictions in the future, suggesting courts
may completely ignore the increasing gun violence we see now. This eliminates a
standard constitutional analysis, which looks at the burdens a law places on the

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