Why Is It So Hard to Stop Gun Violence in America?
Gun violence in America is a serious problem. What is keeping our country from addressing it effectively?
On the night of March 29, 2021, a man was shot to death on a Philadelphia street, making him the 119th victim of gun-related homicide in that city alone this year. Even more tragic is that the man, 55-year-old Anthony Merriett, was there to interview family members of gun violence victims for an anti-gun video produced by Netflix. Welcome to another day of gun violence in America.
In 2020, a year when the last thing America needed was more untimely deaths, mass shootings rose 50 percent from 2019. And while mass shooting incidents have decreased to some extent during the first quarter of 2021 as compared to the same time period in 2020, this year has, nevertheless, brought with it no shortage of gun-related deaths in the United States. According to the Gun Violence Archive, as of April 9, 2021, there were already 5,000+ gun-related homicides in the United States.
Is the gun-violence problem really unique to America?
The United States has the 32nd-highest rate of deaths from gun violence in the world, according to the latest information culled by NPR using data from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), which, according to its website, “tracks lives lost in every country, in every year, by every possible cause of death.” In 2019, the latest full year for which information has been made available, the United States saw 3.96 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people. That’s 100 times more gun-related deaths than in the United Kingdom, where access to guns by members of the general public is strictly regulated.
It can’t be mere coincidence that the United Kingdom, boasting some of the strictest gun regulation in the world (they have banned civilian ownership of handguns since 1997, following a tragic elementary school shooting), has far fewer gun deaths per person; especially when you consider that crime rates in general for the United States are roughly same as the crime rates for all democratic nations and almost precisely at the average for all nations in the world.
No matter how you might feel about the right to bear arms versus the need for gun control in the United States, it’s clear from these facts and from these gun violence statistics in the United States that too many Americans are losing their lives to gun violence. So, the question really is: what is stopping the United States from regulating the possession and use of firearms in a manner that would effectively stop the rise of gun violence in America while still permitting Americans to bear arms?
First things first: It’s not the Second Amendment
With a single sentence, the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants to Americans the right to bear arms: “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.” As archaic as its language may be, and as much as its intricacies have been debated by historians and linguistics experts, the intention remains clear after 200+ years: Americans shall not be denied the right to own and use guns.
Although some may blame the Second Amendment for gun violence in America, that’s simply not accurate, according to Joseph Blocher, Esq, Duke University School of Law professor and constitutional scholar. The Constitution doesn’t require or encourage gun ownership. Rather, the Second Amendment simply defines the parameters by which the validity of gun laws is to be scrutinized. What the Second Amendment accomplishes is merely to ensure that no law infringes on the American right to bear arms.
The federal government has not passed gun control legislation in 25+ years
Over the last several decades, gun control has become so overwhelmingly partisan that Congress has simply not been able to get legislation on the issue accomplished. In fact, no significant federal gun control legislation has been enacted since 1994, when President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, popularly known as the “Assault Weapons Ban.”
However, the ban expired in 2004 and since then, all attempts to renew it have failed. The most notable attempt was the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children and six educators were murdered by a lone gunman. Even with bipartisan support, the bill was defeated in the Senate with 41 Republican Senators joined by four Democrats voting against it (it required at least 60 votes to pass). Since that time, all Democrat-led efforts to pass tougher gun control laws have failed.
“Political dynamics have done a great disservice to attempts to come up with effective legislation to curb gun violence in America,” Blocher says.
By contrast, states have passed various gun control legislation
“Another important story is what’s happening—and what’s possible—at the local level,” Blocher tells Reader’s Digest. “The costs and benefits of guns look very different in urban and rural areas, and historically guns have been regulated much more heavily in cities. Even the infamous cow towns of Dodge City and Tombstone [of the late 1800s Wild West] prohibited gun-carrying in city limits. And still today, openly carrying a rifle in the woods during deer season means something very different than doing the same thing in Manhattan during rush hour.”
Although there has been a lot of legislative activity with regard to guns at the state level in recent years, especially after the school shootings in Newtown and Parkland, Florida, some have been to increase gun safety measures, while others have reduced restrictions. States such as Connecticut, New York, and California, have tightened their gun laws; Arizona, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kansas, Idaho, Kansas, and the Dakotas, have further deregulated guns.
Americans are more in agreement on gun regulation than anyone might realize
Putting aside the smaller picture of state and local America, and leaving Congressional deadlock out of the picture for the moment, the fact is that Americans, overall, may not be in nearly as much disagreement as political rhetoric paints them to be. “If you ask people whether it’s more important to prioritize gun rights or gun regulation,” the gap between parties would appear to be enormous, and higher than for just about any political issue,” Blocher explains.
However, when the question is phrased a different way, one that presumes the right to bear arms does, will, and must exist in the United States, you get a completely different response. “Many people who don’t identify as gun control advocates nonetheless favor expanded background checks” in advance of gun purchasing,” according to Blocher. In fact, a majority of Americans support stronger gun control laws, including background checks, according to a USAToday/IPSOS poll.
The “intensity” factor appears to play a role in thwarting meaningful action toward new gun legislation
The polarization of American politics is another reason policy has stalled on the national level. On the one hand, there is the “long tradition of gun ownership in America, combined with an ideology of mistrust of government, and a belief in individualism,” says Robert Spitzer, PhD, a political science professor at the State University of New York at Cortland, author of The Politics of Gun Control. And, there is the NRA, which, according to Spitzer, “promotes an extremist, apocalyptic vision of government and society that has had the effect of hardening much of the gun community to any idea of participating in the construction of sensible gun laws that could address many of the nation’s gun problems.”
On the other hand, you have what Spitzer calls “consistent majorities supporting stronger gun laws.” However, while there certainly are motivated and vocal supporters of gun control—including the vast number of parents who have lost children to gun violence who passionately advocate for stronger gun laws—casual gun control advocates tend to be far less mobilized than the average gun owner. And as Spitzer points out, a highly motivated minority can often win the day over a large but fairly apathetic majority. There’s even a name for the phenomenon: the “intensity gap.”
There are signs, however, that this may start to change, Blocher suggests. We may already be seeing some of the seeds of this, especially in the past ten years, with the growth of gun violence prevention groups such as Brady, Moms Demand Action, and Everytown for Gun Safety.
The paradox of gun control, on the one hand, and crime control on the other
As much as increased gun control may be needed to curb gun violence in America, the paradox appears to be that loosening restrictions for civilians to carry guns has been helpful at reducing crime, according to Spitzer. However, appearances can be deceiving. While gun-toting civilians patrolling their neighborhoods may be able to discourage break-ins, they have no impact whatsoever on crimes involving gun violence—except to the extent that they, themselves, are causing those numbers to increase. And indeed, they have. As gun restrictions have loosened for civilians, gun violence has increased, including suicides. Moreover, “states with more permissive gun laws and greater gun ownership had higher rates of mass shootings,” according to a 2019 study published in BMJ.
So where does that leave Americans? Apparently, as a nation, if we are making headway in the war against crime in general, we are still doing so at the expense of a significant and disturbing number of human lives.
What can the United States learn from other nations?
In the wake of the recent mass shooting in Boulder, Colorado, President Joe Biden implored lawmakers to impose background checks on gun buyers and to ban assault-style firearms. Some in support of those measures point to steps other democratic nations have taken in response to gun violence. For example, after a mass shooting in 2019 that left 51 religious worshippers dead in New Zealand, where gun regulation had long been somewhat relaxed and whose gun lobby was known to be particularly powerful, lawmakers swiftly enacted gun legislation, including the creation of a firearms registry that requires gun-license holders to update their status whenever they buy or sell firearms.
While it’s too soon to tell how New Zealand’s actions will impact gun violence in the long term in that country, there is reason to be hopeful because it appears that imposing more rigorous gun control is something nations with low gun violence death rates all have in common. In fact, an analysis by the University of Wisconsin of violent gun deaths in democratic nations revealed that among the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada, and India, the United States, which has the least restrictive gun control laws by far, had the highest rate of violent gun deaths.
Here’s what we can learn from an ex-gunman on what it will take to stop the next mass shooter.
Where does that leave us?
The fact remains that the United States is not likely to ever embrace gun control laws that are as restrictive as, say the United Kingdom’s. However, we may benefit from looking to Italy as an example. Italy has a significant gun culture, and yet mass shootings are not a problem there. The reasons for that are complicated, but one fact is quite simple: anyone over the age of 18 can legally own a gun in Italy as long as they apply for a license, take a firearms safety course, and stay on the right side of the law (i.e., those with criminal records cannot obtain a weapon or, if they already own a gun, it must be surrendered). Further, they must obtain a certificate from their doctor to the effect that they do not suffer from addiction or mental health issues. And all of this is true no matter how a gun is acquired, whether by purchase, gift, or bequest.
According to both Spitzer and Blocher, there is something to be said for this approach. “Expanded background checks are a sensible place to start,” Blocher says. “That’s a proposal that’s overwhelmingly popular, plainly constitutional, and eminently sensible—it’s a way to keep guns from getting into the wrong hands in the first place.” And as Spitzer points out, what President Biden is asking for could, indeed, help mitigate the problem of gun violence in America. While nothing on the table can be seen as a panacea, “better analysis and monitoring of gun sales and qualifications for ownership have demonstrable value.”
While Congress continues to debate the issue of universal background checks, the White House announced on April 7, 2021, that it will begin to take executive actions to curb the epidemic of gun violence in America. These include rules and measures aimed to help stop the proliferation of “ghost guns” (i.e., guns that are not manufactured commercially, but rather put together at home and are harder to trace) and stabilizing braces that can effectively turn a pistol into a short-barreled rifle (such as the one the alleged shooter in the recent Boulder mass shooting appear to have used); developing model “red flag” legislation that allows family members and law enforcement to petition the court to remove someone’s firearm if they present a danger to themselves or others; and more. It is expected that President Biden’s executive actions will face legal challenges from advocates of gun rights.
- Gun Violence Archive
- NPR: Gun Violence Deaths: How The U.S. Compares With The Rest Of The World
- World Population Review: Crime Rates by Country
- Joseph Blocher, Esq, Duke University School of Law professor and constitutional scholar
- Robert Spitzer, PhD, a political science professor at the State University of New York at Cortland, author of The Politics of Gun Control.
- IPSOS.com: Americans favor stricter gun laws, though support has declined from 2019