What To Know On Gun Reform
A little background on the issue...
The recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, forced America once again to confront its unique problem with gun violence: the gun death rate in the U.S. is far higher than in most other nations, particularly developed nations.
In 2017 gun-related deaths in the U.S. were at their highest in just over two decades, with 12 gun deaths per 100,000 people on a per capita basis. The gun murder and gun suicide rates are both lower today than they were at their peak in the mid-70s, but as these figures show, they're beginning to creep back up again.
What’s more, firearms are now the second leading cause of death amongst children and adolescents in America, just below motor vehicle crashes. In 2018, there were 97 shooting incidents at K-12 schools in the U.S., more than any other year on record.
The United States also has the highest total and per capita number of guns per person, with 120.5 guns per 100 people, or about 393,347,000 guns in total. That means there are more guns than there are people in the U.S., and implies that Americans alone own 40% of all guns in the world. For context, the U.S. is followed by Yemen, which has 52.8 guns per 100 people. At the other end of the scale sits Japan and Indonesia, both of whom have fewer than 1 firearm per 100.
According to analysis by news outlet Mother Jones, states with a higher percentage of gun ownership, such as Alaska and Arkansas, tend to have a far higher number of gun deaths (including homicides and suicides) than those with fewer guns, like New York and New Jersey. They also tend to have a higher number of gun-related police deaths while officers are on duty. Meanwhile, states with more stringent gun control laws tend to have fewer gun-related homicides.
While the U.S. is an outlier when it comes to gun-related deaths, this is not true of its overall level of non-violent, or even violent, crime. It just has more lethal violence.
What the public thinks...
According to the Pew Research Center, public opinion has shifted over the past two decades away from supporting greater gun control, and towards more support for protecting “the right of Americans to own guns”.
However, support for tighter gun controls varies according to party affiliation. According to a recent Quinnipiac poll conducted in May 2019, while 61% of Americans support stricter gun laws overall, this breaks down into 91% of Democrats, 59% of Independents, and 32% of Republicans [in favor of more gun laws].
Understanding the scale of mass shootings in America...
While the scale of gun violence in America is indisputable, the role played by mass shootings is harder to define. That’s because the U.S. government has never actually defined “mass-shooting” as a standalone category. The FBI used to categorize a mass-murder as an instance in which four or more people were killed during one event, regardless of what weapon(s) were used. Then, in 2013, President Obama's administration lowered this threshold to three or more victims killed.
Some argue that the federal definition is too narrow, and excludes serious instances in which a lot of people are shot, but few actually die, such as the shooting earlier this year at a theater in Lafayette, La, which left two dead and nine wounded.
Gun Violence Archive (GVA), a mass-shooting tracker which uses up to 6,500 active sources to collect its data, and has become a primary resource for near-daily information about shootings in the U.S., has adopted a broader definition. It lists all shooting incidents in which four or more people are “shot or killed, not including the shooter” by gunfire. They “don’t exclude, set apart, caveat, or differentiate victims based upon the circumstances in which they were shot” and they believe that “equal importance is given to the counting of those injured as well as killed in a mass shooting incident”. This broader definition, which makes the GVA's mass shooting numbers much higher than the number given by other sources, is, they say, intended to be "fully inclusionary of disparate elements of gun-related incidents” for the purpose of providing a complete picture of gun violence in America. Nonetheless, their approach has generated some criticism.
For some, like researcher and gun-rights proponent John Lott, the GVA’s definition includes too broad a spectrum of gun-incidences, with too wide a variance of causes that he thinks, ought to be considered separately. For others, such as criminologist, James Alan Fox of Northeastern University, the tracker is misleading and such an overly broad definition just adds fuel to a misinformed and growing public panic around shootings in the U.S.
So why does any of this matter? Well, how we define mass shootings clearly has a big impact on how we assess the frequency with which these instances occur, how current numbers compare to previous years and, ultimately, how we approach gun reform.
In the aftermath of the El Paso and Dayton shootings, numerous media outlets published headlines saying the attacks took the overall number of mass shootings in 2019 up to 251, meaning there were more shootings than days in the year. They were basing their numbers on the GVA’s data. But, if you’re to look elsewhere, this number is much, much lower.
According to Mother Jones, for instance, which defines a mass shooting as an incident in which 3 or more people are killed by guns, and excludes incidents that may stem from other crimes, there were a total of 7 mass shootings in the first 216 days of 2019. According to ABC News, which used a similar criteria, but didn’t exclude shootings related to more conventional crimes, there were 17 deadly mass shootings over this same time period.
As numerous studies have shown, mass shootings represent a small fraction of the overall causes of gun-deaths in America - a number which is driven primarily by suicides and other homicides. While mass shootings tend to occupy the focus of the media, what seldom makes national headlines is the regularity with which shootings occur in places like Chicago. By example, over the course of the weekend in which the El Paso and Ohio shootings took place, 7 people were killed and 46 wounded in Chicago shootings.
What about the Second Amendment?
At the heart of the legal debate around gun reform in America sits varying interpretations of The Second Amendment, which 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.”
Some believe that this establishes an individual, constitutional right for U.S. citizens to own guns and thus renders restrictive regulations around gun ownership unconstitutional. According toJustice Antonin Scalia, LLB, in the 2008 District of Columbia et al. v. Heller US Supreme Court case, "The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home."
Others, however, focus on the prefatory language "a well regulated Militia" to argue that this was only intended to prevent Congress from legislating away a state's right to self-defense, and therefore did not create an individual right to bear arms. In the same Supreme Court case cited above, Justice Scalia also noted that "Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited…” acknowledging a need for certain restrictions around who can possess a firearm, and in what circumstances.
In the aftermath of the recent mass shootings, efforts to enact new gun control measures have started to gain bi-partisan support. Amongst the proposals set to be considered by Congress when lawmakers return from summer recess are “red flag” laws, which prevent those deemed a threat to themselves or others from possessing firearms, greater background checks for the sale of firearms, and bans on large-capacity magazines or assault-style firearms.
Gun Reform: A Primer
With Congress set to debate new gun reform legislation after the summer, how effective would these new measures be in helping to tackle America’s problem with gun violence? And how do these proposals fit into the broader policy debate around gun reform?
In this episode, No Jargon puts America’s gun reform debate into context with a brief overview of the history of its gun laws, and a reflection on where we are now. It’s a great primer for delving into this key issue.
Rinse And Repeat
Every time there is a mass shooting in America, there follows a reinvigorated and now well-worn debate around the country’s gun laws. And then? Not much changes. But why is gun reform such a polarizing issue? And how did we end up becoming stuck in this political deadlock regarding an issue of such great importance, making responding to rising gun violence appear so problematic for lawmakers?
This FiveThirtyEight episode has some answers. Recorded just after the Parkland shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School last year, the podcast delves into the history, and context, of America’s gun reform debate, looking at shifting public opinion on the issue, the political process surrounding gun legislation - and specifically, the successes of gun rights supporters - and the trends we can expect to see going forwards. A useful deep dive into the hows and whys surrounding this contentious issue.
New Zealand: An Example To The U.S.?
In March this year, New Zealand experienced its worst mass shooting in modern history. Two consecutive attacks were carried out at mosques in Christchurch, killing 51 people and injuring another 49. In response, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced: "Our gun laws will change”. Days later, they did. The government rushed through a new bill outlawing most automatic and semi-automatic weapons, as well as components that modify existing weapons, and set aside NZ$150m to buy back firearms that were now illegal. 10, 242 firearms have already been handed to the police under the new scheme, which was launched in mid July, with an additional 1,269 firearms handed in under amnesty.
In this episode, The Daily examines how New Zealand was able to push through gun reform legislation so rapidly following the attacks, and what America can learn from this.