May 13, 2009

Student readings review the origins of the AK-47, the 10-year federal ban on assault weapons, President Obama's views on guns, and the NRA's political clout. Discussion questions and an inquiry-oriented plan for "constructive controversy" follow.

To the Teacher:

Recent news, including a series of AK-47 killings, has once again brought the American love/hate affair with guns to the forefront. The first student reading below reviews the origins of the AK-47 and the 10-year federal ban on assault weapons, and offers competing views of the ban's effectiveness. The second reading reports on a renewed ban effort, President Obama's view on guns, and the political clout of the National Rifle Association. Following the readings are discussion questions and an inquiry-oriented plan for "constructive controversy."

See also in high school section of TeachableMoment two other sets of materials on gun issues: "The Second Amendment & Guns" and "Three Lessons on Guns & the Constitution."


Student Reading 1:

Semi-automatic assault weapons

"Deadly Ambush in Stanton Heights
Claims the Lives of 3 City Police Officers"

April 4: Three Pittsburgh, PA, police officers investigating a domestic dispute "were fatally shot by...Richard Poplawski, 22." Poplawski, a discharged Marine, had expressed fears that his right to own guns would be revoked. "He apparently lay in wait, armed with an AK-47 assault-style rifle, a .22 caliber rifle and a revolver and wearing a bulletproof vest." (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,, 4/5/09)

Other April stories about AK-47 killings appearing on the website of the Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence (

Liberty City, Florida. April 26, 2009: "Four teenagers and a 22-year-old were wounded when someone shot at them from a car with an AK-47 assault rifle as they were standing outside a home." (Miami Herald, 4/27/09)

New Orleans, Louisiana. April 27, 2009: "A man with an AK-47 assault rifle shot into a car carrying a man and his two children, hitting the 10 year-old-boy in the arm, after the father stopped to ask for directions." (AP, 4/28/09)

Marrero, Louisiana. April 30, 2009: "A 14-year-old boy died after being shot in the head with an AK-47 assault rifle." (WDSU-TV, 4/30/09)

Mikhail Kalashnikov created the AK-47 for the Soviet Union during World War II. It was developed further over the years and today there are millions and others like it available worldwide. The weapon is semi-automatic and will automatically load the next round, so that the shooter can continue to fire as long as the gun's trigger is depressed. The gun can empty a 30-bullet magazine in five seconds.

The Federal Assault Weapons Act, banning the sale of semiautomatic military style assault weapons, was passed in 1994. According to the Brady Campaign, the Act "led to a dramatic decline in the incidence of assault weapons traced to crime." For five years before the law took effect, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE), semi-automatics made up 4.82% of crime guns. After the Act was passed, they made up just 1.61% of the guns BATFE traced to crime. Nevertheless, when the law expired in 2004, it was not renewed.

The Brady Campaign, a leading advocate for gun control in the U.S., supports reinstituting a ban on military-style semi-automatic assault weapons. "These dangerous weapons have no sporting or civilian use and their only purpose is to kill many people in a short amount of time. We support legislation to ban all assault weapons...Traditional guns designed for use in hunting and recreational activities should not be affected." (The Federal Assault Weapons Act exempted 670 types of hunting rifles and shotguns.) (

According to the Brady campaign at least 15 police officers have been killed and 23 wounded with semi-automatic since the Federal Assault Weapons Act expired. "Our communities are less safe today than they were four years ago, when devastating weapons like AK-47s were not readily available to thugs and other dangerous people," Brady President Paul Helmke say.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) disagrees. The NRA objects to the term "assault weapon," which it says was invented by gun control groups to apply to "certain semi-automatic firearms which, though designed for civilian use, look like modern fully-automatic assault rifles used by the military."

"Semi-automatics," the NRA argues, "are used to defend against crime more often than to commit [crime] and, as with other types of firearms, the vast majority are owned by people who don't commit crimes...

"Crime reports and felon surveys showed that 'assault weapons' were used in only 1-2 percent of violent crimes before the ban; crime victim surveys indicated the figures was 0.25 percent," according to the NRA. "In the 10 years before the ban, murders committed without guns outnumbered those with 'assault weapons' by about 37 to 1.44. Also, most crimes committed with such guns could be committed with other guns, and some could be committed without guns.

"Moreover, violent crime, which began decreasing three years before the ban, continued decreasing as the number of firearms, including 'assault weapons' and other semi-automatics increased." (

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What is the difference between a rifle and a semi-automatic gun?

3. What statistics does the Brady Campaign cite to support its position? The NRA? How would explain the conflict in these statistics?


Student Reading 2:

Renewal of the assault weapons ban?


A New York congresswoman, Carolyn McCarthy, has introduced new Assault Weapons Ban legislation in the House of Representatives. "The Assault Weapons Ban is supported by virtually every federal, state and local law enforcement agency," Rep. McCarthy writes. "The large majority of Americans support the ban. Shortly before the ban expired, a National Annenberg Election Survey poll found that 68% of the American public supported the renewal of the ban. Even in households with guns, 57% supported renewing the ban. Unfortunately, the dialogue on this issue continues to be dominated by the vocal and well-funded minority." (, no longer active)

A new assault weapons issue has emerged in recent months in border states like Texas. The New York Times reported that "Mexican officials have repeatedly asked the United States to clamp down on the flow of weapons" to drug cartels in their country. The Times reports that Mexican cartels are sending buyers into American stores to stocked up on AK-47s. ("Buying Weapons in U.S. Gun Smugglers Supply Mexican Drug Cartels," New York Times, 4/15/09)

While visiting Mexico the following day, President Obama was asked, "As a candidate for office, you said that you wanted to see...the ban on assault weapons reinstated...But we haven't heard you say that since you took office. Do you plan to keep your promise?"

President Obama: "I have not backed off at all from my belief that...the assault weapons ban made sense. And I continue to believe that we can respect and honor the Second Amendment rights in our Constitution, the rights of sportsmen and hunters and homeowners who want to keep their families safe to lawfully bear, while dealing with assault weapons that, as we now know, here in Mexico, are helping to fuel extraordinary violence—violence in our own country, as well.

Now, having said that, I think none of us are under any illusion that reinstating that ban would be easy. And so, what we've focused on is how we can improve our enforcement of existing laws, because...sending [weapons] across the border is illegal."

A major reason why the president is not "under any illusion that reinstating that ban would be easy" seems to be, in general, the strong pro-gun lobby in America and, in particular, the power of the National Rifle Association.

Associated Press writer Julie Hershfeld Davis wrote of the NRA, "The 138-year-old group derives its influence from a large and motivated base of members, particularly in rural areas and the South. Its much younger political arm, set up in 1975, wields a carefully honed system for grading lawmakers and candidates based on how often they side with NRA's legislative priorities.

"Their lobbyists tell lawmakers that they will be 'scoring' specific bills-the equivalent of saying, 'We're watching you, and if you vote the wrong way, there will be consequences.' That scoring system helps determine which candidates the group supports in campaigns. That decision can be an important factor in elections.

"The group's political action committee spent $15.6 million on campaign donations during the past two years, according to disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission. The lion's share of the money went to challenging gun control advocates, especially President Barack Obama. The rest went to support strongly pro-gun candidates." ("The Influence Game: NRA Sways Policy Agenda," 3/30/09)

The Center for Responsive Politics, a "nonpartisan, independent and nonprofit organization" that tracks money in U.S. politics, agrees. "The NRA goes to great lengths (and spends a huge sum of money) to defend the right to bear arms. It is opposed to virtually every form of gun control, including restrictions on owning assault weapons." (

In a brief history of itself, the NRA writes, "While widely recognized today as a major political force and America's foremost defender of Second Amendment rights, the NRA has, since its inception, been the premier firearms education organization in the world. But our successes would not be possible without the tireless efforts and countless hours of service our nearly four million members have given to champion Second Amendment rights and support NRA programs." (

New York Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert thinks the NRA view is profoundly wrong. He opens a recent column with an account of meeting a woman in Pittsburgh on the steps of the home where Richard Poplawski murdered three police officers. "Reluctant to talk at first, the woman eventually whispered, 'I'm the grandmother of the kid that killed those cops.'"

Moved by this experience, Herbert writes, "So what if eight kids are shot to death every day in America. So what if someone is killed by a gun every 17 minutes. The goal of the National Rifle Association and a host of so-called conservative lawmakers is to get ever more guns into the hands of ever more people."

He concludes: "But all the expressions of horror at the violence and pity for the dead and those who loved them ring hollow in a society that is neither mature nor civilized enough to do anything about it." ("The American Way," New York Times, 4/14/09)


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why do you suppose that the assault weapons ban was allowed to lapse in 2004?

3. What is President Obama's view of gun ownership? Of assault gun ownership? What seems to explain his reluctance to push for an assault gun ban?

4. Why does the NRA have so much influence on congressional gun legislation?

5. What does the NRA mean by Second Amendment rights?

6. Where do you stand on Herbert's concluding sentence? Why?


Constructive Controversy

Constructive Controversy is similar in some respects to the old debate model. It offers a structured plan for studying a controversial issue, emphasizing information-gathering, small-group work, preparation of arguments from more than one point of view and group consensus. David and Roger Johnson developed Constructive Controversy.

Before students begin their work, review or teach necessary collaborative skills:

  • active listening skills, particularly paraphrasing and summarizing another's position
  • being able to disagree with ideas while respecting those who hold those ideas
  • building on others' ideas to achieve consensus

1. Pairs study: Assign students to groups of four. Within each group, one pair will develop an argument opposing the McCarthy bill to ban ownership of assault weapons, and the other pair will develop arguments supporting the bill. Give the students several days to study the readings here and search other print and internet sources to support their position.

2. Pairs present: Each side presents its case; others listen, except for clarifying questions.

3. Pairs switch: Each side now prepares a new set of arguments and presents the strongest case it can for the opposite side of the argument.

4. Group discussion: The group decides which arguments are most valid from both sides and seeks a consensus that incorporates the best thinking of the group as a whole.

5. Groups report: Each group prepares a written or oral report for presentation to the class. If no consensus can be reached, they can prepare a minority report as well, and/or a report on areas of agreement and continuing disagreement.

Assessment after all work is completed

  • Invite students to reflect on what they have learned, both on the issue and in terms of group skills.
  • Ask students to consider strengths and weaknesses of their work
  • Give special recognition to examples of creative synthesis of opposing positions.
  • Have students set goals for improving their group process work next time.



This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: