Orlando June 12th 2016, Las Vegas 1st October 2017, Sutherland Springs November 5th 2017, Parkland 20th February 2018, Santa Fe May 10th 2018, Pittsburgh October 27th 2018 and Thousand Oaks November 7th 2018. All of these dates and places represent a US shooting where 10 or more people have been killed since the start of 2016. Since the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, where 20 children and 6 adults were killed, there have been another 1,897 mass shootings. These have killed at least 2,123 people and left more than three times that injured. It looked like change was coming following Sandy Hook; it seemed as if the country was ready to engage with the problem of guns. What has changed since Sandy Hook? In reality, all that has changed has been a handful of modest executive actions but broadly speaking, nothing at all.
It looked like change was coming following Sandy Hook
The problem is not improving on its own either, of the 10 highest casualty gun shootings of the past 25 years, 5 of them have happened since Sandy Hook. Worryingly, mass shootings only account for around 2% of all gun deaths in the USA per year. Roughly 15,550 people were killed by guns in the USA in 2017 (this number does not include suicides, which increases the number by around 22,000 per year). This is not just a large number due to a large population either, the USA has about 5% of the world’s population and about 31% of global mass shootings.
A closer correlation, unsurprisingly, is found between the number of shooting deaths and the number of guns. Americans are believed to own 48% of the global civilian-owned guns. Even more scary is that when the number of guns is calculated per 100 residents, it works out at 88 guns per 100, which is easily enough for each adult to have a gun. About a quarter of Americans actually own a gun, which means those who do, have more firepower than could ever be needed for personal safety or hunting. So, how after all the shootings, are there still so many guns in America?
The answer to that question is on one level very simple, yet on another very complicated. The simple answer is that the Second Amendment to the US Constitution reads: “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.” The right to bear arms is therefore enshrined as a constitutional right, which makes it harder than the average law to change and also imbues it with a historic tradition. Whilst it can be argued that the amendment does not guarantee individual rights to bear arms, rather the rights of a militia, the Supreme Court held up the individual interpretation in 2008. This has also meant any attempt to control what guns can be bought or by who is a highly controversial topic, particular areas of controversy being banning military grade guns and implementing background checks on gun pruchases.
The right to bear arms is therefore enshrined as a constitutional right
Implementation of both has been partially successful – machine guns are mostly banned, though how well enforced the ban is would be more questionable; other military grade guns, such as assault rifles and .50 calibre guns, are currently far less regulated. In terms of background checks, anyone who buys a gun from a store has to undergo a very basic check, however, buying from a private individual or from a gun show provides easy ways for those that wish to circumvent background checks to do so. To further complicate matters, different states have different laws as well, the Giffords Law Center (named after Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Congresswoman shot in 2011) rates each state for the tightness of their gun control laws with 25 of the 50 states earning an F (the worst available ranking).
The powerful gun lobby in America further complicates the issue. Many Americans genuinely believe that they need guns to protect themselves and their liberty. Thus there is a very powerful group called the NRA (National Rifle Association) who are seen as one of the most important lobby groups in Washington D.C. They rate politicians on their support for gun rights and spend a lot of money on supporting their preferred candidates in elections, as well as lobbying on legislation. They suggest that the reason for gun violence is the “evil” people (the word of NRA VP Wayne LaPierre) who ends up with them, and thus have a solution, more guns, for example adding armed security guards to schools to prevent school shootings.
With America as polarized as it is, a pro-NRA livewire President, a conservative Supreme Court, and an organisation in favour of guns that literally ensures their desired candidates are elected, wholesale change is unlikely. There seemed a time and impetus for change in the aftermath of Sandy Hook in 2012, yet the overwhelming majority of attempts to tighten gun control, from the minor to the serious attempts, were rejected. A constitutional change would require two-thirds of both houses, in a Congress which seems determine to divide on party lines on pretty much everything as America get more divided. Minor changes, particularly at state level, are possible, but it must be asked how many more will suffer before the country finds some way of addressing its gun violence problem.