AMERICA’S GUN OBSESSION (maybe) explained
The country’s Constitution protects the ‘right of the people to keep and bear arms’, but this needs to change
’’ Making more guns more accessible means more guns, and more guns mean more deaths
Last Sunday night, it happened again – a mass shooting in the US. In Las Vegas, a shooter opened fire on thousands of people attending an open-air country music concert, killing 58 and injuring more than 500 others. The shooting has already led to discussions about gun control. Americans have heard these types of calls before. After every mass shooting, the debate over guns and gun violence sparks up again. Maybe some bills get introduced. Critics respond with concerns that the government is trying to take away their guns. The debate stalls.
It has become an American routine in the aftermath of a mass shooting in the country.
So why is it that, for all the outrage and mourning after these horrendous events, nothing seems to change?
To understand that, it’s important to grasp not just the stunning statistics about gun ownership and gun violence in the US, but the country’s unique relationship with guns – unlike that of any other developed country – and how it plays out in their politics to ensure, seemingly against all odds, that the culture and laws continue to drive the almost routine gun-related violence that marks American life.
AMERICA’S GUN PROBLEM IS UNIQUE
No other developed country in the world has anywhere near the same rate of gun violence as the US. The country has nearly six times the gun homicide rate as its neighbour Canada, more than seven times as Sweden and nearly 16 times as Germany.
The US has by far the highest number of privately owned guns in the world.
In 2007, it was estimated that the number of civilianowned firearms in the US was 88.8 guns per 100 people – almost one privately owned gun per American and more than one per American adult. The world’s second-ranked country was Yemen, a quasi-failed state torn by civil war, where there were 54.8 guns per 100 people.
Another way of looking at it is that Americans make up about 4.43% of the world’s population, yet own roughly 42% of all the world’s privately held firearms.
MORE GUNS MEAN MORE GUN DEATHS
The research on this is overwhelmingly clear. No matter how you look at the data, more guns mean more gun deaths.
Opponents of gun control tend to point to other factors to explain America’s unusual gun violence, such as mental illness.
Jonathan Metzl, a mental health expert at Vanderbilt University, said this was just not the case.
People with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims, not perpetrators, of violence. And while it’s true that an extraordinary number of mass shooters (up to 60%) have some kind of psychiatric or psychological symptoms, Metzl points out that other factors are much better predictors of gun violence in general – alcohol and drug misuse, poverty, history of violence and, yes, access to guns.
Another argument is that fewer people would die during these mass shootings if even more people had guns, thus enabling them to defend themselves during the shooting.
But, again, the data shows this is simply not true. High gun ownership rates do not reduce gun deaths, but rather tend to coincide with increases in gun deaths.
Experts widely believe this is the consequence of America’s relaxed laws and culture surrounding guns. Making more guns more accessible means more guns, and more guns mean more deaths.
Researchers have found this is true not just with homicides, but also with suicides, domestic violence and even violence against police.
WHERE ARE THE LAWS?
If you ask Americans how they feel about specific gun control measures, they will often say that they support them.
According to Pew Research Centre surveys, most people in the US support a federal database to track gun sales, background checks, bans on assault-style weapons, bans on high-capacity ammunition clips and bans on online sales of ammunition.
So why don’t these measures get turned into actual law?
That’s because they run into another political issue – Americans, increasingly in recent years, tend to support the abstract idea of the right to own guns.
This is part of how gun control opponents are able to kill even legislation that would introduce the most popular measures, such as background checks that include private sales (which have 85% support, according to Pew). They’re able to portray the law as contrary to the right to own guns, and galvanise a backlash against it.
THE GUN LOBBY IS RELATIVELY RECENT, BUT ENORMOUSLY POWERFUL
The single most powerful political organisation when it comes to guns is, undoubtedly, the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA has an enormous stranglehold over conservative politics in America.
The NRA was, for much of its early history, more of a sporting club than a serious political force against gun control, and even supported some gun restrictions.
The NRA fears that popular and seemingly commonsense regulations, such as banning assault-style weapons or even a federal database of gun purchases, are not really about saving lives, but are in fact a potential first step towards ending all private gun ownership in the US, which the NRA views as a violation of the second amendment of the US Constitution.
So any time there’s an attempt to impose new forms of gun control, the NRA rallies gun owners and other opponents of gun control to kill these bills.
OTHER DEVELOPED COUNTRIES HAVE HAD SUCCESSES WITH GUN CONTROL
In 1996, a 28-year-old man walked into a café in Port Arthur, Australia, ate lunch, pulled a semiautomatic rifle out of his bag and opened fire on the crowd, killing 35 people and wounding 23 more. It was the worst mass shooting in Australia’s history.
Australian lawmakers responded with new legislation that, among other provisions, banned certain types of firearms, such as automatic and semiautomatic rifles and shotguns. The Australian government confiscated 650 000 of these guns through a gun buyback programme, in which it purchased firearms from gun owners.
It established a registry of all guns owned in the country and ensured that all new firearm purchasers required a permit.
The result was that Australia’s firearm homicide rate dropped by about 42% in the seven years after the law passed, and its firearm suicide rate fell by 57%.
MASS SHOOTINGS ARE A SMALL PORTION OF ALL GUN VIOLENCE
There are anywhere from a dozen to a few hundred mass shootings in the US each year.
Yet other, less covered kinds of gun violence kill far more Americans than even these mass shootings. Under the broadest definition of mass shooting, these incidents killed about 500 Americans in 2013. That represents just a fraction of total gun homicides – more than 11 200 that year. So, while politicians often lean on mass shootings to call for gun control, the problem goes far beyond those incidents.
Even the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut – in which a gunman killed 20 young children, six school personnel and himself – catalysed no significant change at the federal level.
Since then, there have been, by some estimates, more than 1 300 mass shootings. And there is every reason to believe there will be more to come.