Tragedy and terror – the US gun laws

A six-year-old school pupil in Newport News, Virginia, was the latest to join the long list of American school shooters when he shot schoolteacher Ms Zwerner during an argument on Friday the 6th of January. While not a ‘typical’ school-shooter in the sense that the boy was not going round the school shooting multiple people, the ease with which such a young child could carry out this shooting is startling. Fortunately, Ms Zwerner’s health is reportedly in a ‘stable condition’. However, the incident is only the most recent reminder of the ever-present threat that guns hold in US schools and society.  


Individuals’ right to possess firearms in America is rooted in the Second Amendment to the US constitution. Beyond this, only two federal court rulings exist to back this up:


The District of Columbia vs. Heller case of 2008 – This ruled that an individual has the right to carry a firearm independent of the employ of the state militia, and the right to use firearms for legal activities such as the defence of the home. It originated in opposition to restrictive gun laws in the district and was passed by a vote of 5 to 4 – a representation of the polarised nature of gun law debate in America.


The McDonald vs. City of Chicago case of 2010 – This took the last ruling a step further, declaring that the right of an individual to ‘keep and bear arms’ is enforceable against the states.


It is difficult to feel optimistic when the only two clear federal court rulings regarding gun laws have been to aid its expansion rather than introduce restrictions.


Two factors contribute to the reluctance to accede to gun control measures in the US:


  1. The right to bear arms against tyrannical government is one that goes back to the founding of the country and the War of Independence. Indeed, the Second Amendment stipulates ‘A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State’ and that ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed’. In the minds of many Americans, the issue goes to the heart of national identity and freedom.


  1. The widespread belief in the US that guns protect more lives than they destroy. This is epitomised by by Donald Trump’s suggestion that arming teachers would mitigate school shootings, as ‘If you had a teacher who was adept at firearms, they could very well end the attack very quickly’. In Kennesaw, Georgia, local law goes as far as to stipulate that ‘every head of household residing in the city is required to maintain a firearm’, based on the supposition that this will deter criminal in the area. While the law itself isn’t actually enforced, it is still indicative of the strength of belief in the idea that guns deter rather than attract violence.


To the contrary, about 30 studies demonstrate the link between more guns and more crimes. One of these studies found that a gun in the home increased the chances of suicide by five times. Another found guns at home were eleven times more likely to be used for suicide than for self-defence. Indeed, of the 321 people that are shot everyday in America, 65 die from gun suicide, while another 91 are shot unintentionally. Annually, 117,345 Americans are shot, including 7957 children and teens. While it may seem obvious that ready access to a gun encourages violence to others or to oneself on a whim or during a heated altercation, figures such as these are important in turning over the myth that guns prevent violence or that they protect rather than destroy innocent lives.


Commenting on the incident in Newport News, Mayor Phillip Jones said “I do think that after this event, there is going to be a nationwide discussion on how these sorts of things can be prevented.” It is easy to be cynical of calls for this nationwide discussion when news of school shootings in the US seem to never end. However, this sort of discussion is an important step towards overturning myths regarding firearms and moving towards a safer system.


Featured Image – Gilbert Mercier at flickr  

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