De-gunning: Strategies for Increasing Gun Safety
America prides itself for its belief and practice of individual freedom. Almost anyone can go into a gun shop and buy a gun. Here are some facts:
· Today there are more guns in the U.S. than people. In 2018, there were approximately 390 million civilian-held firearms in the U.S., or 120.5 firearms per 100 residents. Yemen, which has the world’s second-highest level of gun ownership, has only 53 guns per 100 residents; in Iceland, it’s 32.
· There are super owners of guns who average 17 guns each.
· About 42 percent of American households owned guns in 2021.
· Many states are now pressing to permit persons to carry their guns wherever they are.
Many countries have stricter laws on gun ownership than the U.S. Why is it legal for almost anyone to buy a gun in the U.S.? There are two answers to this.
One is that a gun culture is part of U.S. history. As Americans moved West, they had to confront hostile Indians or bandit gangs. They would settle in small towns lacking legal institutions or law enforcement. Guns were one way to settle disputes or carry out robberies. The American Civil War taught citizens both in the North and South about owning and handling guns. America’s engagement in two World Wars further deepened normal families with gun knowledge and ownership.
The other answer is that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Later the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” In earlier years, the Supreme Court placed its emphasis on “militias.” More recently, the Supreme Court has moved the emphasis to “individuals.” Today, a large portion of the American public holds that all individuals have the right to own a gun.
America has a gun culture. When a U.S. mass shooting occurs (defined as an episode of killing 4 or more persons), more Americans immediately act to buy more guns. When other countries experience a mass shooting, the country’s government immediately works to tighten up gun control.
How Extensive are Gun Killings in the U.S.?
In 2020, 45,222 people died from gun-related injuries in the U.S. Slightly more than 54% were suicides and 43%, or 19,445, were murders. Every day, 120 Americans die at the end of a gun, including suicides and homicides. The overwhelming number of murders occur in streets or in home and normally the public hears little about them. The US has a much higher gun homicide rate and suicide rate than other countries. The number of persons murdered in mass shootings account for a small percentage. Yet the mass shootings are so upsetting that the media gives them extensive long term coverage and it raises the public’s interest in passing more legislation to regulate gun ownership.
Consider the following mass shootings that occurred in 2022:
· Walmart in Chesapeake, Virginia
· LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at a gay nightclub killing ten people and wounding 17.
· University of Virginia football team
· Highland Park, Illinois, Fourth of July parade, largely Jewish neighborhood
· A hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma
· Uvalde, Texas, an elementary school
· Buffalo, New York, at a supermarket, killing 10 people and targeting black people.
Note that some of the mass shootings aimed at particular groups such as gays, blacks, and jews. Some experts say that shooters seem to be moving more to semiautomatic handguns and rifles, especially in hate and dispute cases.
Mass shootings in the U.S. steadily increased from 2018 (336), 2019 (417), 2020 (610) and 2021 (690). Then in 2022, there were 617. Hopefully, this may mark the beginning of a downward trend.
After decades of inaction, in June 2022, Congress passed new national gun legislation. Firearms can be denied to anyone deemed a threat to public safety. New mental health programs are funded and enhanced background checks are required on gun buyers aged 18 to 21. Many Democrats tried to ban semi-automatic weapons but this was opposed by many Republican lawmakers who warned that “Democrats are coming after law-abiding American citizens’ Second Amendment liberties.”
What Measures can Congress, States or Cities Take to Reduce Gun Violence?
In spite of mass shootings, Congress remains slow in passing new gun safety legislation. The slow response is due to the opposing attitudes of the two major political parties. Also the National Rifle Association (NRA) plays a significant role. NRA makes major donations to politicians who will resist further legislation or regulation. The Republican Party (GOP) is a large opponent of gun control. Any Republican who favors gun control legislation will immediately lose the largess and the respect of Republican colleagues. The Democrats are more liberal and concerned with gun violence and only a few of them accept money from the NRA.
How Has the Supreme Court Affected Gun Safety in the U.S.
The Supreme Court in a 5–4 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) held that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm. It reasoned that “good guys with a gun” could stop “bad guys with a gun”.
Justice Antonin Scalia in this case claimed that an “inherent right of self-defense has been central to the Second Amendment right.” He completely ignored that the Second Amendment’s purpose is to preserve “a well-regulated Militia,” not to allow individuals to use their weapons for personal self-defense. In a latter case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, the Supreme Court further expanded the Second Amendment, providing that persons can carry guns outside of the home. This made it possible for the overwhelming majority of gun murders to proliferate on American streets rather than within family homes.
What Has to be Done?
U.S. President Joe Biden, after a deadly U.S. school shooting that killed 19 children and two adults at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, cried out: “For God’s sake, how much more carnage are we willing to accept? How many more innocent American lives must be taken before we say enough is enough?”
No other high-income country has suffered such a high death toll from gun violence. The US has lots of guns, and more guns mean more gun deaths. Countries such as South Korea, the UK, and Australia have few guns per 100 people and few gun-related deaths per 100,000 people. Consider the following:
· In Australia, the federal government banned rapid-fire rifles and shotguns, and passed unifying gun owner licensing and registrations across the country. The government’s 1997 buyback program of 650,000 firearms led to an average drop in firearm suicide rates of 74% in the five years that followed.
· South Africa. The Firearms Control Act of 2000, went into force in July 2004. The new laws made it much more difficult to obtain a firearm. Gun-related deaths almost halved over a 10-year-period after new gun legislation.
· New Zealand. Just 24 hours after the 2019 Christchurch Mosque shootings in which 51 people were killed, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government banned all military-style semi-automatic weapons and passed a buyback scheme as well a restricting semi-automatic weapons and they later established a firearms registry.
· Britain. The government banned most private handgun ownership after a mass shooting in 1996, that was followed by a drop of murders by almost a quarter over a decade.
· Canada banned military-style assault weapons two weeks after a 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia.
To reduce shootings in the U.S., experts see 10 key actions that would reduce shootings and increase public safety:
1. Carry out more thorough background checks, especially of gun buyers under 21 and ex-convicts and those with domestic violence convictions.
2. Earlier confiscation of guns from people who display warning signs of violence.
3. Banning assault weapons would mass shootings less deadly.
4. Building a national data base of information collected on every gun owner and how many guns they have under license.
5. Strengthening the gun laws in every state and city with weaker gun laws and higher rates of gun deaths.
6. Passing a law placing a maximum number of guns that a private household could possess.
7. Increase the punishments to end the thriving black market in ghost gun trades.
8. Start “buy back guns” programs.
9. Survey the super collectors of guns. Watch out for pro-Nazi groups, Proud Boys, who collect and possessed many guns.
10. Prohibit the carrying of guns near or in schools and churches and government agencies.
Will Anything Be Done?
The reality of a divided Congress makes it highly unlikely that anything will pass over the next two years. Many Democrat-led states are busy trying to enhance gun laws while Republican-led states are seeking to challenge or eliminate existing gun restrictions. Democrats believe that more guns will lead to more deaths and many Republicans believe that more guns will lead to less deaths.
Republicans argue that if robbers knew that every household has a gun, robberies would stop. If every public meeting included some citizens with their guns, mass murders would decline. They point to three countries — Switzerland, Israel and Singapore — where many persons have guns and the crime rate is low.
Democrats point out that the murder rates per 100,000 populations are highest in heavy gun states such as Mississippi, Wyoming, New Mexico, Alabama and lowest is low gun states such as New York, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. This seems to support the idea that the more guns in a place, the more gun deaths. Clearly, more research is needed on whether more guns in a place reduces or increases the number of murders.
The problem is that the two political parties have adopted opposite positions and demand that all party member accept their position. This freezes open discussions and compromises. Hopefully, more talk will take place if the term “gun safety” is used rather than “gun control.”
The basic problem is that America has built a gun culture. As the country undergoes more social isolation, mental instability, and pressing economic and health problems, the situation can easily worsen. We have to hope that some wise persons in Congress, the Supreme Court, gun reform groups, and among law abiding citizens in the states and cities put pressure to examine and pass gun-enabling legislation that increases public safety.