The deal with US gun laws
On 14 December, 2012 the second-deadliest mass shooting in American history took place–a gunman murdered twenty-six people with an automatic weapon on the campus of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Since then, gun-control has become a hot-button in American politics. So what is the deal with gun laws in America?
American gun laws: a summary
“The right of people to keep and bear arms” is protected under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution; however, the meaning of this has been debated throughout the history of the United States. Currently in effect are laws that restrict gun ownership and the types of firearms that may be sold. Licensed dealers are held by federal law to perform background checks on their prospective customers to make sure they do not fit into the category of those not allowed to own a gun. Private individuals, however, are not required to perform a background check before exchanging firearms, though it is illegal to knowingly deliver a gun to an individual who fits the restrictive criteria (to name just a few: one declared mentally unstable, one convicted of a felony for which the sentence exceeds one year, one convicted of domestic abuse).
The international stage
The people of the United States own the most guns out of any other country in the world: 270,000,000. The next highest number goes to India, with 46,000,000 guns. The United States exhibits one of the most relaxed gun control policies of any developed country, while Britain exhibits one of the harshest. Britain requires those purchasing a gun to hold a license. Importantly, the application for this requires that the person give a good reason for wanting to own a gun. In the United States, the need for a permit at all varies from state to state, sometimes county to county.
Both sides of the firearm debate want to reduce deaths and crime in general. The side for stronger gun control cites the fact that in areas where there are more guns, there are more homicides, while the side for weaker gun control cites the fact that areas with concealed carry laws have seen a decrease in crime. Neither side can prove causality. While gun murders in the U.S. are currently at their lowest rate since 1981, non-fatal gun injuries and assault are at their highest rate since 2008. The statistics are ambiguous at best.
Regardless of the laws that are in place now, it has been proven too frequently that they are not enough to prevent mass killings such as Sandy Hook and the Aurora, Colorado shooting earlier in 2012. Technically, both gunmen acquired their weapons legally. Gun rights advocates support what they see as the right of civilians to own military-grade weapons, and claim that the deaths over the past year could have been prevented by another man with a gun and better mental healthcare programs. Gun control advocates are putting forward legislation to ban assault weapons and high-round magazines while also supporting a stronger mental healthcare system. President Obama has put forward suggestions to congress to support the two former policies, as well as policies to strengthen the background check system and training programs for first responders. These new pieces of legislation will undoubtedly face resistance from the gun lobby and the far right.