America has a problem with gun violence. But they struggle to do anything about it. Even after tragic mass shootings it is unlikely that anything will be done to prevent such a thing happening again. So, why can’t America ban guns? By the end of today’s episode you should have a clearer idea!
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Firearm (n) – a gun that can be carried easily
Pistols and revolvers are firearms
Homicide (n) – murder
The number of homicides in the city increased last year
To bear (v) – to have or continue to have something; to carry something
He arrived bearing gifts
Equivalent (n) – having the same amount, value, purpose, qualities, etc
$50 is roughly equivalent to £40
Background checks (n) – a check of what a person has done in the past, often to help decide whether or not to employ them
A criminal background check showed he had been arrested as a teenager
Would-be (adj) – wanting or trying to be
Would-be soldiers are required to pass physical examinations
Amnesty (n) – a period of time during which people are not punished for committing a crime
People who hand in illegal weapons to the police will not be prosecuted during the amnesty
Lobby (n) – a group of people who try to persuade the government or an official group to do something
The pro-coal lobby has succeeded in stopping the government from shutting down the mine
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Mass Shootings and Gun Violence in America
Earlier this week, a gunman entered an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and killed 21 people including 19 children. Although the full story of what happened is not known as I’m writing this episode, this news has shocked America and the world. And this tragedy has once again sparked discussions and debates about America’s relationship with firearms.
President Joe Biden made a statement on Tuesday, saying “Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen? It’s time to turn this pain into action. For every parent, for every citizen in this country, we have to make it clear to every elected official in this country: it’s time to act.” But, if we are being realistic, it is unlikely to have any significant impact on US gun policy.
Although the shooting in Texas is a terrible tragedy, this kind of tragedy is far too common and regular in the US. This month alone a white supremacist attacked a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, while in California a Taiwanese church was targeted by a shooter. Over the past decade, shootings in Las Vegas, Orlando, Sandy Hook, and Parkland Florida have also shocked America. In fact, between 2000-2020 there were 345 “active shooter incidents” in the US which resulted in 1,024 deaths and 1,828 injuries.
While mass shooting incidents tend to be the most high profile, America’s gun violence problem is far more wide ranging. According to the BBC, 45,000 Americans died due to guns in 2020 alone – around 20,000 from homicide and 25,000 from suicide. 1.5 million Americans died due to firearms between 1968 and 2017. Over 50 people a day die by use of a gun every day in the country. And 79% of all murders are committed with guns – compare this to only 4% in the UK or 13% in Australia.
Guns are involved in a staggeringly high number of deaths in the US. School attacks and mass shootings may be the most high profile incidents, but across the country guns are a feature in so many deaths and injuries. From an outside perspective, the solution to this problem might seem obvious – “just ban guns!” However, there is a problem with this kind of solution…
America can’t ban guns. In fact, America struggles to even regulate and control access to firearms. But why? Today I want to look at America’s love of guns, discuss why the US can’t ban or regulate weapons, and think about possible solutions to the country’s problem with gun violence.
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America and Guns
America is relatively unique when it comes to the country’s relationship with firearms. And this is something we all need to remember when discussing the issue of stopping gun violence. While in your country, guns might be highly regulated and uncommon, this is not true in the USA.
In many parts of America guns are a normal and regular feature of life. While I see a gun as a frightening and terrible object used to cause harm, in America they are viewed as a tool for self protection. Owning a gun is seen as a sensible and responsible way to protect your family and property from criminals. A common phrase you might hear on news coverage about gun crimes in the US is that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
The right to own a firearm, or to give it the proper title “the right to bear arms”, is a constitutional right in the US. It is protected by the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. In other words, the right to own a gun is seen as equivalent to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and other basic human rights.
And for millions of Americans, the right to own a weapon and defend themselves is an essential part of their national identity. Today, there are an estimated 80 million gun owners in the US, and there are more guns registered than people living in the country.
There have been attempts and calls to regulate American’s access to firearms multiple times over the past few decades. Bill Clinton actually managed to ban assault weapons in the 1990s but this only lasted until the early 2000s. Since then stricter gun control laws have been introduced in congress, but have always been defeated by Republicans, independent congressmen, and even some Democrats. After every single mass shooting in the USA, there are efforts to regulate access to firearms. Not ban, just regulate.
For example, after the 2012 school shooting in Newton, Connecticut, a bill was introduced into the US congress aiming to increase background checks on people purchasing guns. Background checks could include things such as criminal records and mental health history – and seem like a sensible and minor change. But the bill was defeated in congress and never passed. In 2015, after the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, a bill was also defeated in Congress that would have banned people on the terrorist watch list purchasing guns.
What kind of restrictions are being suggested this time? Background checks for all gun purchases, a waiting period after someone buys a gun, mandatory training for gun owners, restrictions on who can buy guns (people with a history of mental illness or violence), or raising the minimum age for gun ownership.
Gun Control in Other Countries
It seems like every effort to even make it more difficult for would-be criminals and murderers to purchase weapons has been defeated. How about in other countries? How have other countries reacted to mass shootings? Perhaps the two most well known examples of gun control in response to mass shootings come from the UK and Australia.
In 1996, a gunman murdered 16 children and their teacher in Dunblane, Scotland (future World Number 1 tennis star Andy Murray was a survivor of this massacre). In response to Dunblane, a public campaign pushed the British government into introducing some of the strictest gun control legislation in the entire world. In particular, civilians are almost completely banned from owning handguns and strict licences are required for hunting or sport weapons.
Also in 1996, across the globe in Australia a gunman killed 35 people in a café. In response, Australia successfully banned all semi-automatic assault rifles and the majority of shotguns. They launched an amnesty program which allowed people to give or sell their weapons to the government, and all gun owners were required to take a safety course. 600,000 weapons were successfully bought back by the government.
Were the UK and the Australia successful in reducing gun violence? The short answer is yes. Australia saw the chances of being killed by a gun reduced by 76%. The UK has so few guns that regular police officers have no need to carry them.
What about other forms of crime? One of the most common claims from opponents of gun control in the US is that while the UK has very little gun crime, knife crime and other forms of violence are incredibly high. Is this true? Well, the UK does have a problem with knife crime. In 2016/17 there were 3.26 murders involving stabbings per million people. This is far too high.
How about in the US? Well… there were 4.96 murders due to knives per million people. So knife crime is actually higher in the US than the UK. And gun crime? Well, with 35 murders due to firearms per million people in the US in 2016 compared to 0.48 per million in the UK, it seems that the pro-gun lobbies worries are not necessarily justified.
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Why Can’t the US Introduce Gun Control?
So if other countries can introduce gun control, why can’t the US? After all, there is support in the US for wider gun control. According to a survey by Politico last year, 84% of Americans support universal background checks. Support for wider gun controls such as bans is far less popular, but the majority of Americans do want some restrictions on who can purchase weapons.
The supreme court has also stayed away from hearing most cases about gun rights. Although they did decide that a complete ban on handguns was against the constitution in the 2000s, since then they have declined all other cases including bans on large weapons and assault rifles.
So if the majority of Americans want some kind of regulation, and regulations have been successful in other countries, why can’t the US introduce gun control? The most common answer to this question is the power of the National Rifle Association. The NRA is one of the most powerful and influential political groups in the US. The NRA provides information to its supporters on which politicians are the most pro-gun and also donates high amounts of money to these politicians.
However, more than simply the NRA, the biggest obstacle to gun control in the US is America’s political system.
Gun owners are an incredibly politically active group in the US. Compared to the US anti-gun lobby, gun owners are twice as likely to complain to congressmen and five times more likely to financially contribute to pro-gun causes. Gun owners also tend to live in rural areas where they are able to have more influence. So not only is the NRA incredibly powerful, their members are also active which has allowed the pro-gun lobby to become one of the most influential in America.
The American political system allows small states with small populations to have as much influence over laws as the largest and most populated. Politicians from the small, rural, and majority Republican states are able to ensure that gun control is not permitted, even if the majority of the country wants it.
For example, after the shooting in Connecticut in 2013 a bill was introduced to implement background checks on all gun purchases. 54 senators supported the bill and represented 194 million people. 46 senators opposed it and represented 118 million people. However due to rules requiring 60 senators’ support to move legislation to a vote, the minority succeeded in stopping gun control.
The effectiveness of new gun regulations is also questionable. There are as many guns as people in the US already. If all weapons were banned tomorrow, there would still be enough firearms already around for future mass shootings and murders. Australia managed to buy back firearms, but in a country where identity is connected to gun ownership it seems unlikely America could do the same.
Why can’t America introduce gun control? Even after tragedies like the recent shootings in Texas, Buffalo, and California, there is very little chance any meaningful change will happen. America has a unique gun culture, with the right to bear arms considered a basic right and millions of guns owned across the country.
Moreover, gun owners are a politically powerful group. The NRA has large influence, while individual gun owners are incredibly politically active. Politicians are often reluctant to upset the gun owners they represent, even if the majority of Americans support increased restrictions on who can buy weapons. And America’s political system gives these politicians the power to block laws desired by the majority.
Considering how divided America is today, it is unlikely we will see any new gun regulations in response to mass shootings. In fact, the opposite might be true. Many supporters of guns believe that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Following this logic, they suggest that making it easier to buy weapons and more powerful weapons is a solution.
How about in your country? Does your country have a problem with gun violence? What are the laws on guns in your country? How do you think America can reduce gun violence?
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