(Bloomberg) -- Each new mass shooting in the U.S. reignites debate over the country’s treatment of gun rights as virtually sacrosanct. Americans own more guns than anybody else on earth, even adjusted for population. (Yemenis are second.) Firearms are involved in the deaths of more than 33,000 people in the U.S. annually, about two-thirds of which are suicides. Guns are also integral to the story of the nation’s founding. The National Rifle Association, the dominant pro-gun group, has been on a decades-long winning streak, convincing courts and lawmakers to loosen gun restrictions and to prevent the passage of new ones.
Some of the deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history have unfolded in the past few years: Parkland, Florida (17 killed at a high school in 2018); Sutherland Springs, Texas (26 killed in a church in 2017); Las Vegas (58 killed at a concert in 2017); and Newtown, Connecticut (26 killed at an elementary school, plus one at home, in 2012). With each incident, gun-control groups call for strengthening federal laws, such as expanding background checks or limiting access to semiautomatic weapons. Congress has largely refused, with many lawmakers instead emphasizing the importance of improved mental-health services and agreeing with gun-rights advocates that shootings don’t prove the need for new regulations. Some say it’s better to arm more people so they can defend themselves. Public opinion may be shifting against such arguments: In a Quinnipiac University poll of likely voters taken after the Parkland school shooting, 66 percent said they backed stricter gun laws, up 19 percentage points from 2015. President Donald Trump, a gun-rights ally, ordered a ban on gun accessories known as “bump stocks” that allow semiautomatic rifles to be fired more rapidly. He also said he was open to strengthening background checks. Earlier in his presidency, Trump signed a law to rescind a rule adopted by his predecessor, Barack Obama, aimed at preventing people with serious mental-health problems from buying guns. Gun rules are largely determined by the states. In recent years, states led by Democrats have moved to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally unstable and closed background-check loopholes. But a majority of states weakened restrictions, and many now permit guns in more places, including schools, restaurants, churches and public buildings.
The U.S. is one of three countries to include gun-ownership rights in its constitution. (Mexico and Guatemala are the others.) The right “of the people to keep and bear arms,” enshrined in the Second Amendment, was established in the 18th century to allow states to form militias to protect themselves against oppression by the federal government. Interpretation has evolved, and in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the amendment protected the gun rights of individuals, not just militias. Beyond the legalities, the gun is a cultural icon in the U.S. — a necessary instrument of soldiers in the Revolutionary War and cowboys roaming the Wild West. AR-15 style semiautomatics that fire bullets in rapid succession have gained popularity among law-abiding gun owners and mass killers alike. (It’s easier to buy one than a handgun in Florida, where the Parkland shooter obtained his legally.) The number of guns in private hands is now thought to exceed 310 million. Although less common, mass shootings in other countries have also led to debates over regulation. Australia enacted strict gun ownership laws after a historic massacre that left 35 people dead in 1996; since then, there have been zero mass shootings, and the firearms homicide and suicide rates have plummeted.
The Parkland massacre has sparked impassioned pleas for stricter regulations from a newly vocal constituency: students themselves. They join gun-control advocates (some backed by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News) who say limiting weapons and closing legal loopholes, such as one allowing gun sales between private parties without conducting background checks, will drive down gun-related crimes and suicides alike. They say Trump lacks the legal authority to ban bump stocks and that the background-check changes he seeks would be insufficient. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence says states with weak gun laws have higher per capita gun-death rates. The well-funded NRA and its allies argue that criminals simply ignore gun regulations, which only hurt law-abiding gun owners. They note that since Congress let a ban on assault weapons expire in 2004, violent crime in America has fallen significantly, while fatal and non-fatal shootings also declined.
The Reference Shelf
Council on Foreign Relations report compares gun laws in the U.S. to those in other wealthy democracies.
Small Arms Survey compares rates of private gun ownership by country.
Data showing non-fatal gun-related crime falling from 1993 to 2011.
Report summarizing gun control laws in 18 industrialized countries and the European Union.
Mother Jones calculates gun violence costs the U.S. $229 billion a year.
First published Oct.
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