USA vs. the World ft. Gun Laws

While a lot of attention has been given to examining the relationship between gun regulations and gun violence in the United States alone, it is eye opening to compare the resulting figures and facts the world over to see how they equate. Faced with a gamut of numbers, with the US weighing in on the heavy end, it becomes a question of what America is doing differently and why.

Image courtesy of Edward © 2007, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Edward © 2007, some rights reserved.

Attitudes towards guns and restrictions on their use differ around the world. Eastern Asia has very strict gun laws, with countries such as China and Vietnam enforcing a restrictive issue policy towards private citizens. Western states such as the UK and Australia have implemented more restrictive policies such as government firearms buybacks in response to tragic mass shootings. Many other European nations, such Norway, despite being relatively gun-friendly, also have restrictive gun laws. Serbia, however, ranking 5th highest in the world in terms of average number of firearms per 100 people stands out to due its relatively liberal gun laws, the reason for which being a strong gun culture linked to rural living[1]. A similar circumstance can be found in the US, in which the more rural, mid-western states have the highest rate of gun-ownership.

One cannot ignore the tragic ends for what guns are often used to achieve. The highest firearms murder rate are countries such as Honduras and El Salvador as well as a few other Caribbean islands known for their extreme violence.[2] In fact, the US only comes in 28th on the list of highest murders by firearms, which includes countries in dire political strife as well as developing nations.[3] The reality is that out of all the so-called developed countries in the world, the US has by far the highest rate of homicide by firearms. Although not all shootings make headlines, this past September alone, there have been 38 mass shootings across America.[4] While this problem is not purely the result of relaxed gun laws, it can be argued that there is a strong link between the two.

According to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the US has the highest firearms ownership in the world, with around 88 firearms per 100 people.[5] To put this figure in perspective, the country with the second highest firearms ownership, Yemen, averages 54.8 per 100 people.[6] The two countries with the largest populations in the world, China and India, have 40 million and 46 million total civilian firearms respectively[7]. In comparison, the average total of firearms held by civilians in the US is a whopping 270 million. A few factors can explain this high number: many Americans believe it will enhance their personal security; many use guns for hunting; and in the past century, firearm ownership has been tied to freedom and libertarian ideals in political discourse.

The aforementioned political discourse is couched in the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. To some, however, it is debatable whether the Second amendment even gives American civilians the right to bear arms. In its entirety, the Second 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.’ With this in mind, in 1939, the Supreme Court, ruled that the ‘obvious purpose’ of the Second amendment was ‘to assure the continuation and render possible the effectiveness of ‘an American militia.’’ [8] So it seems that the American obsession with guns is, in actuality, relatively recent. It is worth noting that the conservative sentiment behind individual gun rights equating to freedom has been strongly perpetuated by the National Rifle Association, who have been so convincing in their campaign that the US presently finds entrenched in a debate about the relationship between gun ownership, freedom, gun violence, and party-politics.

This debate is further intensified by the ease with which one can buy firearms at big chains such as Wal-Mart, as well as other smaller businesses and gun shows. Presently, the only resistance to go through when buying a gun in America is a background check and the filling out of a simple questionnaire. There is, however, evidence that the background checks are not as thorough as they should be. The gunman who struck a Charleston church in June 2015, Dylan Roof, was able to buy a gun and pass the ‘required’ background test despite having been arrested earlier that year. Two years earlier, in the face of clear problems with a lack of background checking even by licenced gun sellers, the senate still did not pass the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey bill, which would have extended background checks of gun sales over the internet as well as at gun fairs, where as much as 40 per cent of gun sales take place.[9]

The US does not come out on top for the highest number of casualties in a single incident of gun homicide; With 77 dead and around 242 wounded by Anders Breivik in 2011, Norway tops this list[10]. What is terrifying however, is the frequency at which shootings happen in the US. A mass shooting is defined as 4 or more people shot in one incident. According to the Mass Shooting Tracker, in the US alone, from the beginning of 2013 until October 2015, there has been 994 mass shootings.[11] In other words, this is almost one mass shooting per day— an unacceptable example to set for the rest of the world.

While an obvious solution may be to impose restrictive gun laws, there are arguments that say such policies would not be effective. Some believe that if someone has it in mind to go on a shooting spree, they will do so despite of any gun laws standing in their way. Facing the facts, there seems to be no end in sight to the horrifying slew of shootings in the US, which may also have a negative influence on future shooters. A recent article in the New Yorker shed light on the fact that the stunningly normal young men who one day turn into murderers do so because they idolize the perpetrators of previous mass shootings[12]. Consequently, it is terrifying to think that there is a never-ending cycle of gun homicide happening in America.

It seems then, that what the US needs most is a change in mind-set. Americans love the idea of freedom— a value which the nation was founded upon. And for a portion of the American population, this argument of freedom is more than enough to keep American gun laws, or lack thereof, in place. Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson has been quoted saying “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.”[13] But perhaps the concept of freedom needs to be re-evaluated, as in light of the multiple shootings that take place in homes, schools and cinemas across America, it is apparent that the freedom of a few is entrenching on the freedom of many— the many who have lost their lives, and the many who cannot help but fear their trip to the cinema, to church or to school, could be their last time.

[1] http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/A-Yearbook/2007/en/Small-Arms-Survey-2007-Chapter-02-annexe-4-EN.pdf

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2012/jul/22/gun-homicides-ownership-world-list

[3] Ibid.

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/oct/02/mass-shootings-america-gun-violence

[5] http://www.cfr.org/society-and-culture/us-gun-policy-global-comparisons/p29735

[6] http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2012/jul/22/gun-homicides-ownership-world-list

[7] Ibid.

[8] http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-10-07/how-the-gun-lobby-rewrote-the-second-amendment

[9] http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2015/11/economist-explains-0?fsrc=scn/fb/wl/ee/st/WhyAmericadoesn%E2%80%99thaveuniversalbackgroundchecksforgunbuyers

[10] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/a-look-at-the-worlds-worst-mass-shootings/

[11] http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/oct/02/mass-shootings-america-gun-violence

[12] http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/10/19/thresholds-of-violence?mbid=social_facebook

[13] http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-10-07/how-the-gun-lobby-rewrote-the-second-amendment