After a string of mass shootings over the year, the harsh reality of gun violence cannot be downplayed. The inability of the United States to create comprehensive reform on gun control has enabled tragic violence. Policy change is needed for a safer America, as stricter gun control laws are long overdue. Although opponents of strict gun control laws point to their Second Amendment rights for support, the U.S. government’s refusal to protect its country from gun violence is allowing a shameful mass violation of human rights.
There were approximately 13,286 people killed in the U.S. by firearms in 2015, according to the Gun Violence Archive, and 26,819 people injured (1). These statistics include 372 mass shootings, killing 475 people and wounding 1,870 people (2). So many people die annually from gunfire in the U.S. that the death toll between 1968 and 2011 eclipses all wars ever fought by the country (3). Although the statistics alone are enough to provoke disgust, numbers can be dehumanizing. One must remember that the loss of a life due to gun violence is the loss of someone's brother, mother, or friend. The thousands who died in 2015 were all humans who had lives, jobs, and families. Guns not only take lives everyday, but also irrevocably damage the lives of countless others.
Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other developed countries (4). Compared to 22 other high-income nations, the U.S. gun-related murder rate is 25 times higher (5). The number of gun murders per capita in the U.S. in 2012 –– the most recent year for comparable statistics –– was nearly 30 times that in the UK. Of all the murders in the U.S. in 2012, 60% were by firearms compared with 31% in Canada, 18.2% in Australia, and just 10% in the UK (6). Studies show that the U.S has the most guns per capita in the world, and suffers disproportionately from gun violence compared to other high income countries (7). Even though many cling to the belief that guns are necessary to protect citizens, the statistics support the argument that more guns are resulting in more deaths, not helping citizens be safer.
Intertwined with a history of terrorism, racism, and bigotry, the issues that create gun violence can be complicated. Current racial tensions in the United States have resulted in gun violence and the unnecessary loss of human life. Police brutality and racial profiling have led to the deaths of many African Americans, like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. The Black Lives Matter activist movement has campaigned against systemic racism toward Black people and has called for more transparency and accountability from law enforcement. The UN Working Group has repeatedly expressed its concern to the U.S. government about police killings of African Americans and called for justice, claiming that the root of the problem lies in the lack of accountability for perpetrators of such killings, despite the evidence (8).
Despite efforts for peaceful protests, a sniper attack in Dallas led to the death of 5 police officers on July 7 (9). A spokesperson for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Secretary Ban condemned the killing of the police officers in Dallas and said there was no justification for such violence (10). He also said that the killings must be the subject of a thorough and impartial investigation (11). During such a politically charged time period, it is important that people remember that supporting Black equality does not mean one is anti-police. Both Black lives and police lives deserve equal respect, value, and protection, according to human rights norms. Additionally, it is important to remember that gun violence isn’t just a result of current political tensions. Gun violence is seen in Black on Black crime, White on White crime, domestic violence, and countless other criminal scenarios.
The United Nations has not been shy in its condemnation and outrage over gun violence in the U.S. and has emphasized the need for more anti-discrimination efforts. After a fact-finding mission to the country in July, a United Nations human rights expert concluded that the United States is struggling to live up to its ideals in the area of racial, social, and economic equality, thus negatively affecting the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association (12). With the ease of access to dangerous weapons, political and social tensions can result in horrific acts of violence.
Although gun control is a controversial, partisan issue, gun violence is still a violation of human rights, no matter one’s political party. Under the assumptions of the classical liberal paradigm and the ideals upon which the United States Constitution were built, all persons are born equal, sharing the same natural rights. These rights include the right to life, liberty, and security of the person. Amnesty International has labeled gun violence as a human rights crisis (13). At a review of U.S. compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, held in 2014, the United States was admonished for its failure to comply with international obligations on protecting the right to life (14). Again, the U.S. was reminded of these recommendations during the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of the U.S. in May 2015 (15). Even with these recommendations, the U.S. Congress has not taken any meaningful steps to bring its gun laws into compliance with its international obligation to protect the right to life (16). Government has a duty to protect its citizens and their human rights. Currently, the United States is failing.
In contestation, originalism and strict interpretation of the Constitution have been used to attack efforts at gun control reform. Many Americans are afraid that stricter gun laws are a violation of their 2nd Amendment rights. Yet, when the Founding Fathers enacted the “right to bear arms,” arms were very different and did not include automatic guns that produce mass shootings. In cases such as this, political analyst Yuval Levin, has argued, “[We] must not look to history, but to our new understandings of nature and the principles of justice and society” (17). Instead of relying on outdated laws, politics must adapt to address current issues. Hence, as Thomas Paine argued, “Every age and generation must be free to act for itself” (18). Government decisions need to consider modern day society in order to reach a greater good.
Additionally, current gun laws make it far too easy to purchase a deadly weapon. Only 13 states require a background check to be performed no matter how a gun is sold or what kind of gun it is. Of guns sold in the U.S., 40% are sold with "no questions asked,” and many guns are sold privately or anonymously over the Internet (19). Currently, there are few laws designed to keep guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous people who should not be allowed to own a deadly weapon (20).
Consequently, many dangerous people do end up with guns. Although it is impossible to predict every potentially dangerous situation, there is no law stopping those on the FBI watch list and no-fly list from purchasing firearms (21). Omar Mateen, who had a history of violence and was previously under investigation by the FBI for suspected terrorism ties, was able to legally purchase the assault weapon that led to the death of 49 innocent people in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history (22). This act of terrorism and hate crime happened only months after a terror attack in San Bernardino, CA, that left 14 people dead. Yet, Congress has not acted on gun control.
In January 2016, President Barack Obama enacted an executive order on gun control that includes background checks, increased access to mental health care, exploring gun safety technology, and the aggressive enforcement of current laws (23). This announcement received praise from human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International (24). Amnesty International USA Interim Executive Director Margaret Huang highlighted Congress’ responsibility to create measures to prevent and end gun violence (25). She also noted that the President and Congress must come together to find solutions that comply with international human rights obligations and save lives (26). Despite this, Obama’s executive order received a lot of criticism, including that from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who argued that the order was unconstitutional.
It is time that Congress puts human rights ahead of partisan politics and special interests. Gun violence in the United States is an international embarrassment. If the government continues to refuse to rein the violence in, thousands of innocent human lives will be lost every year.
(1) "Guns in the US: The Statistics behind the Violence." BBC News. N.p., 5 Jan. 2016. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.
(4) Templeton, Casey. "How U.S. Gun Deaths Compare to Other Countries." CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 3 Feb. 2016. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.
(6) "Guns in the US: The Statistics behind the Violence." BBC News. N.p., 5 Jan. 2016. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.
(7) Templeton, Casey. "How U.S. Gun Deaths Compare to Other Countries." CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 3 Feb. 2016. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.
(8) "UN Condemns This Week's Deadly Gun Violence in US." UN News Centre. United Nations, 8 July 2016. Web. 06 August 2016.
(12) "Racism in US Casts 'dark Shadow' over Rights to Free Assembly, Association – UN Expert." UN News Center. United Nations, 28 July 2016. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.
(13) Simon, Mandy. "Amnesty International USA Reacts to President Obama's Gun Control Announcement." Amnesty International USA. N.p., 5 Jan. 2016. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.
(14) "Mass Shootings and the U.S.’s International Obligation to Protect the Right to Life." Compliance Campaign. N.p., 02 Oct. 2015. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.
(17) Levin, Yuval. "Burke, Paine and the Great Law of Change." The Point Magazine. N.p., 2011. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.
(19) Fieldstadt, Elisha. "Buying a Gun Is So Easy 'It Doesn't Make Sense.'" NBC News. N.p., 5 Jan. 2016. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.
(21) Parlapiano, Alicia. "How Terrorism Suspects Buy Guns — and How They Still Could, Even With a Ban." The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 June 2016. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.
(22) Templeton, Casey. "How U.S. Gun Deaths Compare to Other Countries." CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 03 Feb. 2016. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.
(23) Simon, Mandy. "Amnesty International USA Reacts to President Obama's Gun Control Announcement." Amnesty International USA. N.p., 05 Jan. 2016. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.
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Erin is from Chicago, a junior at USC and plans on graduating in May 2018. She is a political science major with minors in psychology and business law, currently studying abroad at the University of Cape Town.