America’s struggle with gun violence

It is difficult for non-Americans to understand the United States’ relationship with guns. Even those who know about the Second Amendment are perplexed by the insistence of gun rights supporters that a clause with several caveats written over two centuries ago in a particular political environment could be seen today as a blanket endorsement of gun ownership with no limitations. More puzzling still is the gap between public opinion — which shows majority support for some restrictions on the ability to purchase a gun — and a political system that has proven unable to take any action to that end.

That inaction is even more incomprehensible given the scale of the tragedy created by the easy availability of guns. It is estimated that there are 40 million more guns than citizens of the U.S., or more than 350 million guns. More than 100,000 people have been killed as a result of gun violence over the past decade in America, and millions more have been the victim of assaults, robberies and other crimes involving a gun. During that same period, hundreds of thousands of other people committed suicide with a gun and nearly half a million people suffered other gun injuries. Gun control advocates note that guns in the home are 22 times more likely to be involved in accidental shootings, homicides or suicide attempts than acts of self-defense.

The alarming growth in the number of mass shootings has focused attention on the need for action. Depending on the criteria used, there were either four or six such incidents in the U.S. in 2015. While any attack of this type is tragic, the most horrific incident was the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012 which claimed the lives of 26 people, 20 of them children. The shooting of 14 people by two Islamic State supporters in San Bernadino, California, last month forced U.S. President Barack Obama to take action.

Earlier this month, Obama announced a series of executive actions that aim to reduce gun violence. The measures include the requirement that anyone who sells firearms must get a license and conduct background checks on buyers; additional funding for tracking illegal online gun trafficking and conducting background checks; and $500 million to improve mental health services. While clearly frustrated by the failure to address this problem, Obama acknowledged that the primary responsibility for dealing with it rests with legislators, and that he can only fill gaps. Indeed, much of the reaction to the announcement has focused on how limited the steps are and how small the impact will likely be.

In fact, one of the chief criticisms of any gun control measure is that it will not keep guns out of the hands of criminals; as the bumper sticker reads, “when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” Apart from the tautology of that bon mot, the logic is weak. All laws are broken, but that does not mean societies have no use for laws.

It is telling that the National Rifle Association (NRA), the relentless defender of gun rights and opponent of any gun restrictions, was not present at a televised Town Hall meeting that Obama held before the announcement, even though its headquarters were nearby the meeting place. Officially the organization chose not to participate in “gun control theater,” but the likely real reason is the organization’s understanding that its shrill rhetoric and conspiracy theories — it insists that any gun control is a first step toward confiscation of all guns and Obama’s true goal is a gun-free country— are effective only when the object of its extremism is not present to challenge those assertions.

U.S. inaction is even more inexplicable given that the vast majority of Americans — including a majority of gun owners — back limited steps to address this problem. A poll taken before the president’s Town Hall meeting showed that two-thirds of Americans, 63 percent of gun owners, and even 51 percent of Republicans favor the proposed executive actions on gun control.

The problem with those numbers — and they are consistent with countless other polls — is that they do not register salience — the intensity of an issue to voters. So, while large numbers of voters back restrictions on gun ownership, that issue does not determine how they vote. For gun rights supporters, however, no issue matters more. This difference in interest explains how the NRA manages to maintain, in Obama’s words, “a stranglehold on Congress,” despite the popularity of some restrictions.

The immediate reaction to the president’s announcement has been a rush to buy more guns; this occurs each time there is a mass shooting or some similar incident. This happens not because people feel a need for protection but because they fear the dam may break and they may lose access to firearms. To protect themselves against that eventuality — no matter how far-fetched — a growing number of jurisdictions are loosening restrictions on carrying weapons, in the belief, again frequently found on bumper stickers, that “the best protection against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Sadly, and it says a great deal about the U.S. today, such simplistic reasoning counts for more than a steadily mounting number of tragedies and an appalling body count.

  • skillet

    Guns offer us freedom and protection. The USA has more thugs than any country in the world. And drug cartels. Yet, my middle class neighborhood is safe.

    The reason is simple. If you break into an American’s home, you might get shot. It is a high risk strategy.

    I recommend everybody not drink the Kool-aid of gun control. Guns make us much safer.

    Guns could solve many social problems in Japan, also. Firing a rifle stimulates the production of male hormones and testosterone. Cures low libido.

    Manly men with guns would help increase the low birthrate in Japan.

    • Bernadette Soubirous

      The definition of Thug:

      A member of a religious organization of robbers and assassins in India. Devotees of the goddess Kali, the Thugs waylaid and strangled their victims, usually travelers, in a ritually prescribed manner. They were suppressed by the British in the 1830s.

      • skillet

        Aren’t you clever !?!

    • Paul Johnny Lynn

      If someone breaks into an American’s home, said homeowner is more likely to shoot themself. If they haven’t already used their handy weapon to suicide, or their toddler hasn’t accidentally shot them.

  • TexTopCat

    We should expect more “terrorist killing” in the US, namely because in the last few years the world has changed it’s view of the US from a strong country to a weak one. The attempts by this administration to hide terrorist actions, like calling them “workplace violence” or “gun violence” merely increases the probability of more of the same. Certainly, allowing vista’s to expire and taking no action is a big problem. The unsecured borders is also a giant problem Bringing in known Islamic extremists is also a big mistake, and to make it worse we call them “refugees”.
    Time for a big change in direction if the US is to survive.
    Time for our good citizens to be armed and trained.

  • GBR48

    It is not that guns are obtained by criminals, but that they enable people to become criminals so easily, and that the United States is awash with the things. A tool whose only purpose is to hurt people has been consumerised.

    Adam Lanza had no criminal record until he killed 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook school, as well as his own mother and himself.

    Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik did not have criminal records before the San Bernadino shooting.

    The US has at least 350 million guns in circulation. Every weapon is an opportunity for lethal criminal activity. People have a bad plan, they get drunk, they get depressed, they get angry, or they get radicalised. Add the ready availability of guns to any situation and it will get worse. America has created an arms race between its own citizens.

    An armed America also changes the nature of policing. There are plenty of TV programmes screened around the world on how different forces combat crime. The fear of, and expected presence of guns in the US, makes US policing different to that in Europe, Japan or Australia. US police officer begin with their fingers on the trigger, fearing the worst. In a nation full of gun owners, lethal force is expected.

    Additional background checks will make no difference. America is heavily militarised with weaponry, and that is what makes it unsafe. Short of civilian demilitarisation, things are only likely to get worse.

    Given the desire of a substantial chunk of the US population to party like its 1787 and live to the letter of a hopelessly out-of-date constitution, there is no real chance that civilian demilitarisation will happen. With every incident, fear increases and more people buy guns.

    All we can do in the rest of the world is look on the US and learn from it. We can see what happens when a whole nation takes the wrong road and just keeps on going, and tighten our own gun control laws still further. And be very thankful our own countries are not awash with guns like America.

  • GBR48

    It is not that guns are obtained by criminals, but that they enable people to become criminals so easily, and that the United States is awash with the things. A tool whose only purpose is to hurt people has been consumerised.

    Adam Lanza had no criminal record until he killed 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook school, as well as his own mother and himself.

    Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik did not have criminal records before the San Bernadino shooting.

    The US has at least 350 million guns in circulation. Every weapon is an opportunity for lethal criminal activity. People have a bad plan, they get drunk, they get depressed, they get angry, or they get radicalised. Add the ready availability of guns to any situation and it will get worse. America has created an arms race between its own citizens.

    An armed America also changes the nature of policing. There are plenty of TV programmes screened around the world on how different forces combat crime. The fear of, and expected presence of guns in the US, makes US policing different to that in Europe, Japan or Australia. US police officer begin with their fingers on the trigger, fearing the worst. In a nation full of gun owners, lethal force is expected.

    Additional background checks will make no difference. America is heavily militarised with weaponry, and that is what makes it unsafe. Short of civilian demilitarisation, things are only likely to get worse.

    Given the desire of a substantial chunk of the US population to party like its 1787 and live to the letter of a hopelessly out-of-date constitution, there is no real chance that civilian demilitarisation will happen. With every incident, fear increases and more people buy guns.

    All we can do in the rest of the world is look on the US and learn from it. We can see what happens when a whole nation takes the wrong road and just keeps on going, and tighten our own gun control laws still further. And be very thankful our own countries are not awash with guns like America.

    • Clayton Forrester

      I’d like to respectively dispute one MINOR point: “live to the letter of a hopelessly out-of-date constitution”
      The Constitution includes the phrase “well-regulated militia” but somehow that part doesn’t count. I’m not a legal scholar, so I can’t tell you why.

      • GBR48

        Traditionally a militia would be a group of private citizens authorised to support a standing or regular army in time of need by national or local government.

        Modern American militia groups do not appear to be officially authorised. If they are not called together by federal, state or locally elected officials then they are just armed gangs. Such groups have no place in a modern, civilised society and are indistinguishable from domestic terrorist organisations. Few other first world governments would tolerate them, but in America, they appear to be a natural and legal consequence of the ready availability of weapons and political dissidence.

        In other countries, a group with a political agenda and a large assortment of weapons would be regarded as a terrorist threat and dealt with by the state. In the US, they can accumulate a huge arsenal of weapons but only become terrorists after they start killing people. That doesn’t make America a safer place. Quite the opposite.

        It is difficult for people outside the United States to understand how Americans can live in the 21st century but behave as if they were living in the 18th century.

      • GBR48

        Traditionally a militia would be a group of private citizens authorised to support a standing or regular army in time of need by national or local government.

        Modern American militia groups do not appear to be officially authorised. If they are not called together by federal, state or locally elected officials then they are just armed gangs. Such groups have no place in a modern, civilised society and are indistinguishable from domestic terrorist organisations. Few other first world governments would tolerate them, but in America, they appear to be a natural and legal consequence of the ready availability of weapons and political dissidence.

        In other countries, a group with a political agenda and a large assortment of weapons would be regarded as a terrorist threat and dealt with by the state. In the US, they can accumulate a huge arsenal of weapons but only become terrorists after they start killing people. That doesn’t make America a safer place. Quite the opposite.

        It is difficult for people outside the United States to understand how Americans can live in the 21st century but behave as if they were living in the 18th century.

      • YoDude12

        It, the US Constitution, 2nd Amendment, also states; “…the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

      • GBR48

        In the eighteenth century the caveats of criminal behaviour and mental health issues were rarely included in sweeping political statements. Which is pretty much my point. It is out of date.

      • GBR48

        In the eighteenth century the caveats of criminal behaviour and mental health issues were rarely included in sweeping political statements. Which is pretty much my point. It is out of date.

    • YoDude12

      I take slight issue with you saying, “Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik did not have criminal records before the San Bernadino shooting.” They may not have been convicted, but they were criminals, even before the shootings.

      • GBR48

        Wikipedia is pretty definite: ‘Neither shooter had a criminal record’, which is presumably what background checks search for.

      • YoDude12

        Malik was a criminal in that she lied on her visa application, thus broke the law, therefore is a criminal. As well, she was a criminal prior to the shooting in San Bernadino in that she was plotting terrorism, along with her husband. Criminals, both of them. They haven’t gone to court yet and been convicted have they? Are they innocent of any and all crimes?

      • GBR48

        Background checks don’t pick up on ill intent. I think it is fair to say that if they had not been able to obtain the weapons, they would not have shot people. With 350m+ weapons in circulation and ready availability of them as consumer goods, American gun laws have made gun-violence and terrorism easier than it might have been in America.

        I’ve never found Americans to be worse people than the citizens of other developed nations, and yet only in the US do people seem to feel the need to walk around with a gun to protect themselves. For anyone who isn’t an American, it’s just really weird.

      • GBR48

        Background checks don’t pick up on ill intent. I think it is fair to say that if they had not been able to obtain the weapons, they would not have shot people. With 350m+ weapons in circulation and ready availability of them as consumer goods, American gun laws have made gun-violence and terrorism easier than it might have been in America.

        I’ve never found Americans to be worse people than the citizens of other developed nations, and yet only in the US do people seem to feel the need to walk around with a gun to protect themselves. For anyone who isn’t an American, it’s just really weird.

      • GBR48

        Wikipedia is pretty definite: ‘Neither shooter had a criminal record’, which is presumably what background checks search for.

  • Clickonthewhatnow

    What do you mean “struggle with”? That would insinuate they are doing something to curb or stop gun violence. This will never happen, so most Americans look at it either as another problem “masquerading as gun violence”, or just see it as a byproduct of living in America. If you live in Japan, you have a high chance of experiencing an earthquake (in before some of the usual posters come along and replace earthquake with racism) or typhoons. If you live in Canada, you have a high chance of experiencing cold temperatures, for the most part. And if you live in America, you have a high chance (for a first world country) of experiencing gun violence.

  • Clickonthewhatnow

    What do you mean “struggle with”? That would insinuate they are doing something to curb or stop gun violence. This will never happen, so most Americans look at it either as another problem “masquerading as gun violence”, or just see it as a byproduct of living in America. If you live in Japan, you have a high chance of experiencing an earthquake (in before some of the usual posters come along and replace earthquake with racism) or typhoons. If you live in Canada, you have a high chance of experiencing cold temperatures, for the most part. And if you live in America, you have a high chance (for a first world country) of experiencing gun violence.

  • PuyiGoroIgor

    A little dictatorship may help here. Just blanket -ban the darn guns, people may cry in the interim but will certainly see the benefits later. The 2nd amendment served its purpose in the era it was enacted,I guess they couldn’t envisage the lethality of guns a century down the road. Their ‘wait-till-you-see-white-of-the-eye” before pulling the trigger weapons are a far cry from todays’ in a tyros hands.

  • GBR48

    That’s interesting but would seem to be little more than legal sleight of hand.

    • skillet

      They used to actually meet as volunteers. But there were people, glorified hobby-ists who acquired rank of captain or general with little effort. And started demanding that regular army people salute them. There were other issues too.; So they became inactive.