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JCC forum explores gun control’s history

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The National Rifle Association was started in 1871 to improve young men’s marksmanship skills after its founders were appalled by Union soldiers’ poor aim during the Civil War.

This and other contextual tidbits about the history of guns and gun control in the United States punctuated a presentation given Thursday night at Jefferson Community College’s Sturtz Theater by Robert J. Spitzer, SUNY Cortland’s political science department chairman.

Mr. Spitzer’s anecdote about the NRA provided the transition between the historical background and the issue’s contemporary political landscape in his presentation, “Civic Engagement and Gun Control.”

From colonial times to this week’s debate in the Senate that saw gun-control efforts shot down, Mr. Spitzer asserted gun control has always existed, though the nature of the discourse has been influenced by different factors through the years, including changing definitions of military service, popular perceptions about gun violence and shifts in the U.S. Supreme Court’s constitutional interpretations.

After Mr. Spitzer finished his presentation, Raymond E. Petersen, director of JCC’s Center for Community Studies, unveiled a survey of 388 Jefferson County residents meant to reflect their attitudes about gun control.

According to the survey, 86 percent of Jefferson County residents supported mandatory background checks for the purchase of assault rifles at a gun show while 11 percent opposed them, 75 percent of residents supported mandatory checks for other types of firearms at gun shows while 22 percent opposed them and 81 percent backed mandatory background checks for firearms sold between individuals while 15 percent opposed them.

The survey showed 50 percent of Jefferson County residents thought the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013 had gone too far, 15 percent thought it had not gone far enough, 26 percent thought it was about right and 9 percent said they were not sure.

The survey’s full results will be available in June.

Several audience members alleged the survey was skewed for various reasons, including: focusing too much on gun violence instead of all types of violence, introducing confusion by referring to certain firearms as “assault rifles” and not polling from a representative sample.

Discussion of the survey, which was calmly defended by Mr. Petersen, gave way to a lively question-and-answer period, which began with a rendition of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” that caught the professors off guard.

Bart S. Bonner, Watertown, used the poem to mark the event’s 238th anniversary, which occurred April 18, 1775, and drive home his point about the importance of citizens maintaining their right to keep and bear arms.

In the Revolutionary War’s early battles, including Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill, “every single one of the men who fought there were civilians,” according to Mr. Bonner.

“That’s not exactly right,” Mr. Spitzer said, asserting that to label them as such would be to impose a modern-day notion of warfare onto an earlier period.

“These are men who thought of themselves as a militia,” Mr. Spitzer said.

“Civilians!” Mr. Bonner called from the audience.

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