Guns in America
(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 nearly 40,000 people annually in the U.S., 60% 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, for decades persuaded courts and lawmakers to relax gun restrictions and to prevent the enactment of new ones. A new wave of killings, however, may have ever so slightly loosened the NRA’s grip.
While mass shootings account for just a fraction of U.S. gun deaths, they attract the most attention. Some of the deadliest such massacres in modern U.S. history have unfolded in the past few years: El Paso, Texas (22 killed in a Walmart in August 2019); Virginia Beach, Virginia (12 killed at a municipal building in May 2019); Pittsburgh (11 killed at a synagogue in 2018); 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). As the toll has mounted, public opinion has shifted modestly in favor of tighter gun controls: In a 2019 Pew Research Center poll, 60% of those surveyed said laws should be more strict, compared with 52% in 2017. The Parkland murders gave voice to a new group of activists — students — whose demands for tougher controls produced some results. Gun rules are largely determined by the states, and in the two years after Parkland, 137 new gun restrictions were enacted in 32 states and Washington D.C. The measures strengthened requirements for background checks on gun purchasers, banned the use of attachments that enable a semiautomatic rifle to fire faster, and aimed to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. The 2018 mid-term elections saw candidates running, and winning, on platforms of stronger gun curbs. But movement toward stricter controls has not been uniform. In 2019, legislatures in four states voted to allow people to carry hidden guns in public without a permit.
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. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the amendment also protects the gun rights of individuals. Beyond the legalities, the gun is a cultural icon in the U.S. It was a necessary instrument of soldiers in the Revolutionary War and cowboys roaming the Wild West. More recently, semiautomatic guns that fire bullets in rapid succession — also called assault weapons — have gained popularity among law-abiding gun owners and mass killers alike. Mass shootings in other countries, although less common, have also led to debates over regulation. A massacre of 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand in early 2019 prompted an overhaul of gun laws there.
Gun owners, many of whom live in rural areas, view gun controls as an attack on their way of life. The NRA has argued that criminals simply ignore gun regulations. Many NRA-backed lawmakers have said shootings don’t prove the need for new regulations and that it’s better to arm more people, including teachers, so they can defend themselves and others. They’ve noted that after Congress let a ban on assault weapons expire in 2004, shootings in the U.S. declined. Gun-control groups (some backed by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, who is campaigning for the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination) say the drop — part of an overall decrease in violent crime — occurred for other reasons, notably improved policing. They credit strict gun laws enacted in Australia after a 1996 killing spree that left 35 people dead with all but ending mass shootings there.
The Reference Shelf
A Council on Foreign Relations report compares gun laws in the U.S. to those in other wealthy democracies.
The Small Arms Survey compares rates of private gun ownership by country.
A Department of Justice report shows gun-related crime generally falling from 1993 to 2011.
A Law Library of Congress 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.
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