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Pay the price for personal rights? Guns vs. safety in the United States

Recent events such as the February 2018 Florida school massacre (Chavez & Almasy 2018) and the 2017 mass shooting at a concert in Las Vegas (BBC 2017) once more call for stricter gun laws in the United States. Evidence for a safer country through stricter gun laws comes from numerous statistics and research (e.g. McCarthy, Bechett & Glensa 2017; Preidt 2016 or Statista 2018b). But why haven’t these laws been changed yet and what precisely must be done to increase the safety of U.S. citizens? This paper will explain the difficulty of change by highlighting the historical development of gun laws in the United States. Further, it will address current gun laws, including their issues, providing statistical facts regarding gun safety and concluding with examples that could help increase overall safety.

To begin with, I’d like to present some historical perspective on this issue. The event that legitimizes an U.S. citizen to buy (and further own) a gun dates back to the year 1791, when the U.S. Congress ratified the 2nd amendment of the Bill of Rights. In its original text, the amendment 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.” (Cornell University Law School 2018). Therefore, historically, the purpose of gun possession was to protect the state with armed people/groups (so called “militia”); the United States feared losing their independence from Great Britain, which they had fought for. Discussions about the contemporary interpretation of the term “militas” led the Supreme Court to allow citizens to buy/possess guns for self-defense ( 2017).

This seems like a reasonable thought, if guns would indeed provide higher safety for their owners. Unsurprisingly, the subjective feeling of safety for most gun owners is higher with a gun (Hemenway, Solnick & Azrael 1995). But statistics demonstrate that this impression is wrong. The FBI, for instance, identified 64 percent of homicides caused by guns in the year 2016 (BBC 2017). Statistics in The Guardian reveal that more than 100,000 people in the United States are shot each year and the risk of being killed by a gun is 25 times higher in the United States compared to other developed countries (McCarthy, Beckett & Glenza 2017). This list could easily be continued, for instance, with numbers about mass shootings or the percentage of legally obtained guns involved in such events (Statista 2018a and Statista 2018b). Facts like these illustrate that safety, which should supposedly be achieved by owning guns, is actually endangered. In my opinion, stricter laws for purchasing a gun would be a logical first step to increase safety. The existing laws exclude only mentally ill people and criminals from buying a gun (Cornell University Law School 2018). Additionally, tolerant age regulations limit gun purchases on a federal basis (e.g. a minimum age of 18 to buy a gun from an unlicensed person). Those federal laws are in some cases tightened by particular state laws (Gifford 2018). Possible adjustments to current gun laws could involve better background checks and a gun-license (e.g. for people who complete a course about gun safety, etc.) as a requirement for buying a gun. This would complicate the purchase for assassins and has the potential to reduce the number of tragic events. Additionally, such a change would also address critiques supported by statistics about massacres; legally purchased weapons have been involved in 69 of 97 mass shootings taking place between 1982 and 2018 (Statista 2018b).

A different critique, going beyond gun purchase, addresses possession. One problem created by federal law is a missing age limit for owning long guns and ammunition (Gifford 2018). Another phenomenon is that 42 percent of U.S. households have a gun (Statista 2018d), which puts its residences into danger considering statistics about gun safety (e.g. Hemenway, Solnick & Azrael 1995; McCarthy, Beckett & Glenza 2017 or Preidt 2016). In terms of suicides, statistics reveal this threat through shocking numbers. A study by Grinshteyn and Hemenway from 2010 (Preidt 2016), for instance, compares the suicide rates of the United States with other high-income countries. Almost every second suicide in the United States is caused by a gun, whereas, for instance, in Austria, it is roughly every fifth and in the Czech Republic, every eighth suicide (BBC 2017 and Preidt 2016). This sad statistic once more demonstrates the potential risk of guns in our homes. Stricter gun laws could reduce this number of firearms and make homes safer.

This paper has already highlighted numerous events and statistics, which clearly show the risks of guns and support the argument for stricter gun laws. But such modification needs the support and volition of people living in the country. The current U.S. population is still divided concerning their attitude towards gun policies. Resistance comes also from certain politicians and pressure groups with interests that do not support stronger gun laws. A study in 2011 (Statista 2018c) illustrated a separated U.S. population with 47 percent of its citizens wanting their gun ownership to be protected and 49 percent expressing the need for better control. But the survey becomes more compelling when comparing the different age groups. This reveals a slight tendency among younger adults to seek more regulated ownership compared to older generations, who tend to protect current laws. Fifty-five percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 30 (labeled as Millennials) supported controlled gun possession, whereas 47 percent were against it. The Baby Boomer generation (citizens between 47 and 65 years old), illustrated a different impression. This age group tended to protect their gun ownership (50 percent), whereas only 44 percent argued for more control (Statista 2018c). Comparing those numbers, I think that it’s difficult to change the population’s attitude towards gun laws, but there’s a chance through the rethinking of younger generations.

Concluding, I think that a plausible debate about safety and guns must necessarily lead to changes in current gun laws in the United States. This obviously can occur only through little steps. The first one, in my opinion, must be the stricter regulation of gun purchases (e.g. with gun-licenses, psychological tests and qualitative background checks) followed by a gradual reduction in gun ownership (linked with handing back existing guns, if their owners do not fulfill certain requirements). The question will be if the current population is ready for such a change, or if it will need some more time, or another generation, to realize this step. Anyway, I think it’s important to maintain the discussion about gun laws to cause a rethinking among the population and politicians, and to prevent a repetition of the events in Florida or Las Vegas.

Martin Klein is a PhD student of Sociology

Article was proofread and edited by professor Nadya Jaworsky





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