In the wake of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School—where 17 students and faculty members were murdered by a 19-year-old with an assault rifle—the discourse in America has again turned to the topic of gun control. It remains one of the most divisive issues in the United States.
What can be agreed upon: The statistics of gun violence in America are chilling. In high-income nations, 91 percent of children younger than 15 who were killed by gunfire lived in the US, according to the World Health Organization. That same report found 82 percent of all people killed by firearms in high-income nations were from the United States. The United States is approximately four percent of the world’s population, and we have 42 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns.
Below, we look at important ideas relevant to the gun control debate.
If you are concerned or feel threatened by someone who has access to a gun, contact your local law enforcement agency or call 911.
The Gun Control Debate
"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." This is America's Second Amendment, and its meaning has been debated over and over again in the court system.
Four courts have decided the right to possess assault rifles—a popular weapon used in mass shootings—is not upheld by the Second Amendment. You can read more on the specific court cases here. AR-15-style semiautomatic rifles were used in the shootings in Newtown, San Bernardino, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs and, most recently, Parkland. These were five of the six deadliest mass shootings in the past six years. In Newtown, the shooter was able to fire 155 rounds of ammo in the span of five minutes.
A case frequently cited in gun control debates is District of Columbia vs Heller. In it, the Supreme Court ruled that Washington DC's ban on handguns was unconstitutional. This is important, because it sets the precedent that the right to own a gun is an individual right, versus only a right if you are a part of a "well-regulated militia." However, Justice Antonin Scalia said of the decision, “Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms." He also said, "like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. [It is] not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose."
Multiple surveys have found the majority of Americans support common-sense gun laws. According to a recent Quinnipiac University National Poll, 66 percent of Americans support stricter gun laws, with 31 percent not supporting stricter laws. This is the highest percentage of support ever recorded by the poll. In fact, support is up 19 points from just two years ago. The poll also found that Americans support universal background checks for gun ownership 97%.
A Pew Research study found that a large majority of gun owners and non-gun owners were in favor of limited access of guns to people with mental illnesses, people on the no-watch or don't-fly lists and implementing background checks for private sales and gun shows.
These two groups were more divided on the issues of creating a federal database to track gun sales, banning assault-style weapons and banning high-capacity magazines. A higher percentage of non-gun owners were in favor of these; among gun owners, around half were open to these restrictions.
Research on gun violence has been stalled in the United States since 1996 because of a piece of legislation called The Dickey Amendment. This forbade the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using money to "advocate or promote gun control." The National Rifle Association lobbied for this amendment after a 1993 study by the CDC's National Center For Disease Control And Prevention found that keeping a gun in your home increased risk for homicide. Essentially, the CDC stopped funding gun control research. The rule restricts them from looking into the public health risks of owning a firearm. Approximately 30,000 people die a gun-related death per year in the United States—about the same number as people who die in car crashes. The CDC currently researches the public health risks of automobiles.
In 2016, over 100 medical groups signed a petition to get Congress to remove the Dickey Amendment. It remains in effect.
Firearms are loosely regulated at the federal level; for instance, the Gun Control Act of 1968 says you must be 18 years old to purchase shotguns, rifles and ammunition, and you must be at least 21 years old to purchase other firearms like handguns. States make their own legislation regarding guns, which is why restrictions on firearms vary across the country. The Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence offers a comprehensive look at the gun laws in each state.
More than 100 pieces of gun control legislation have been introduced in Congress since the Sandy Hook shooting took place in 2012. None of them have passed. Currently there are two gun control bills waiting to be heard in Congress. One is a ban on bump stocks. A bump stock is a device that essentially turns a semiautomatic weapon into an automatic weapon, meaning a shooter can fire off more rounds. This was introduced in October, after the shooting in Las Vegas that left 58 dead and 851 injured. The shooter used bump stocks.
The other piece of legislation is the Fix NICS Act. In a nutshell, this is a bipartisan bill that would improve the current background checks already required to purchase a firearm by providing incentives to states to accurately report criminal histories to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. For instance, the shooter at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, was able to obtain the weapons he used to kill 26 people because the US Air Force did not submit his criminal history.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) are currently working on a bill that would raise the minimum age to buy an AR-15 to 21, which is the same age you have to be to purchase a handgun.
Students who survived the Parkland shooting started this movement to advocate for gun law reform.
The New Yorker has an in-depth look at how the students began the #NeverAgain movement.
Amal and George Clooney donated $500,000 in the name of their twins to the March For Our Lives gun control rally, organized by these students. Oprah recently announced she was matching their donation. The march will happen March 24.