This week marks the first anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, when an armed gunman fatally shot twenty elementary school children and six teachers in what would become the second deadliest mass shooting by a single person in American history, after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007.
The incident generated intense debates on both sides of the gun control issue: President Obama called for using “whatever power this office holds” to prevent future tragedies and formed a Gun Violence Task Force, while the National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbied for funds from Congress to pay for the presence of armed guards in public schools across the country. On April 17th, 2013, the Public Safety And Second Amendment Rights Protection Act, sponsored by Senator Joseph Manchin (D-WV) and Senator Patrick Toomey (R-PA) — which would have brought some measure of control on the sale of guns — failed in the Senate by six votes, with 41 Republicans voting against the bill.
If these competing agendas are any indication, gun control is one of the most fiercely contested issues in the country today. Citing allegiance to the protection of the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms,” the NRA’s 2013 Firearms Fact Card counts almost 300 million firearms owned by civilians in the United States, including nearly 100 million handguns. The number of firearms owned rises 10 million annually. A 2011 Gallup Poll survey found that 47% of Americans households have a gun in their home or somewhere in their property compared to 41% in the previous year. More Republicans had a gun at home (55%) than Democrats (40%). More men reported owning a gun at home (52%) compared to women (43%), an increase in 7% for both compared to the previous year. Regionally, gun ownership is more common in the South (54%) and Midwest (51%) than in the East (36%) or West (43%). Middle-aged adult men with no college education are more likely to be gun owners.
In the year that has passed since the Newtown mass shooting and the outpouring of sympathy nation-wide, almost every state has enacted at least one new gun law. Yet what might seem counter-intuitive is that nearly two-thirds of new state laws have loosened gun restrictions and, in fact, expanded the rights of gun-owners. A quick and useful overview of state legislation broken down by party in control at the state-level and particular legislation passed or vetoed can be found here.
The link between the availability of guns and the incidence of violence in the United States lies at the heart of the debates on gun control. Those opposing restrictions on gun ownership typically disavow data that link the ease of acquiring guns to crime and community-level impact. But, consider for a moment these facts: The U.S. Center for Disease Control found that in 2010, guns took the lives of almost 32,000 Americans in homicides, suicides and unintentional shootings. This is equivalent to more than 85 deaths a day or more than 3 deaths an hour. Additionally, over 68% of all homicides included the use of a gun. Regions and states with higher rates of gun ownership reported higher rates of homicide than states with lower rates of gun ownership. The risk of suicide increases in homes where there are guns. A federal government study found that 8% of unintentional shootings leading to death resulted from shots fired by children aged 6 or under.
So, where can the conversation on gun control go to from here? A comprehensive report, including policy recommendations to address gun violence in the United States at the individual, community, and policy level was released today by a panel of experts commissioned by the American Psychological Association (APA). Acknowledging that gun violence was a complex problem that required “evidence-based, multifaceted solutions,” the report nonetheless found that there was too much focus on responding to tragedies in the country one incident at a time. Instead, the authors argue that to have any meaningful impact the focus should be on a range of prevention strategies.
The APA report also found that there is no single profile of an individual that can be reliably used to predict gun violence. However, a strong predictor of future violence lies in previous episodes of violent behavior during childhood or adolescence — that may or may not be linked to mental illness — which requires swift intervention strategies. The report advocates prohibitions on the sale of firearms for high-risk groups — domestic violence offenders, persons convicted of violent crimes, individuals with mental illness, among others — as well as strongly enforced state and national laws and close oversight of the purchase and sale of firearms among civilians.
Addressing gun violence in the United States is an urgent national issue. As the APA report makes clear, it is an issue that has to be addressed through multiple channels: law, public safety, public health and communities everywhere. Changing accepted norms and behaviors is also a key component of reducing violence. More funding from the government to study causes and consequences of gun violence and evaluate best practices aimed at mitigating gun-related crimes is needed and would be a step in the right direction. It would signal a clear reversal of an earlier trend starting in the mid-1990s when the NRA successfully lobbied to restrict federal financing of research at the Centers for Disease Control that sought to explore the issue of gun violence in the larger context of a public health concern.
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