University Union holds forum on gun control

By Jon Decker

(Gretchen Keller/ Daily Collegian)

The University Union at the University of Massachusetts Amherst held a small forum on the topic of gun control Wednesday night in Herter Hall.

The forum’s speakers included Leah Libresco, a journalist and statistician, and Dr. Akhil Amar, a professor at Yale Law School, considered to be one of America’s leading interpreters of the Constitution, according to the event’s webpage. They were invited by the president of the University Union, Mostapha Massaee, a junior biology student.

“I’m an absent-minded professor,” Dr. Amar joked when he realized he forgot a visual aid he meant to bring to the event. The joking tone quickly faded as the event progressed. Amar opened saying that he lives one town over from Newtown, Connecticut, home of the infamous Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting. He was out driving the day of the shooting. As Amar waited in his traffic jammed car, he turned on the radio. That’s when he heard the news.

“They’re talking about this horrible gun incident at a school. They’re not naming the school. And I’m thinking, is it my kid’s school?” said Amar.

It wasn’t his child’s school, but one of the victims, a seven-year-old girl, who was tutored by the same man who tutors Amar’s children.

Despite his proximity to the tragedy of Sandy Hook, Amar, who identifies as a liberal, does not bear a fully anti-gun sentiment. “I believe, for better or for worse, there is a right to have a gun in your home for protection,” he said.

Amar repeatedly stated that there needs to be understanding on the reasons people want their guns and that understanding is key to making progress on gun control. And by control, Amar does not mean a ban on all firearms in the United States. Even if a ban was successful, according to Amar, the process of authorities acquiring all the firearms in the U.S. “would make Prohibition look like a walk in the park.”

As a journalist, Libresco worked on an article with FiveThirtyEight, a website that focuses on polls and statistics, to discuss the issues of gun control.

“We ran into the problem horrifyingly often where there would be sudden breaking news of a mass shooting,” she said. Instead of reactionary news, FiveThirtyEight decided to do a more in-depth piece on gun violence. Libresco and her team went to work.

“We took a look at the CDC’s data on gun deaths. There are 33,000 gun deaths per year in the United States,” Libresco said.

According to her report, of those 33,000 deaths, two-thirds are suicides. Of these suicides, 85 percent are male, and half of those men are over 45. One third of the 33,000 are homicides. Half of those homicides are young men. Two-thirds of those young men were African American. The remaining deaths are attributed to domestic violence, and finally, mass shootings.

“My ignorance about guns was a really big stumbling block to wanting to do anything about guns,” said Libresco. “For me guns were hypothetical. I’ve never held a gun, until I went to college.”

According to both her and Amar, a lack of understanding of firearms by the left has made it more difficult to create proper gun control laws. The “assault weapons” ban was used as an example.

“I learned that ‘assault weapons’ are not a real category in any sense,” said Libresco. “What an ‘assault weapon’ is, is a gun that has too many features bolted to it at point of sale. This loose term meant the ban was largely ineffective, as people could just by the features somewhere else and install them themselves.”

“It’s a real problem when politicians do it [speak with ignorance on guns] because they are alienating people and spreading fake information,” Libresco said.

After the speakers finished, there were very few questions as students exited the room. Despite the lack of discussion, Massaee, who helped organize the event, was positive.

“I thought the event was very productive and worth attending. As a student, I had the opportunity to hear the opinion of two academics approaching the controversial topic of gun control,” said Massaee.

Jon Decker can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @jon_H_Decker.