In recent years, the United States of America has experienced a rise in mass shootings which are unparalleled compared to other nations in the world. Mass shootings by gunmen in civilian settings are not only taking place on a frequent basis, over time they have also become deadlier. Earlier this month, President Obama stated that every year, 30,000 individuals lose their life due to gun violence which equals the same number of deaths resulting from car accidents. This has stirred heated debates over the issues of gun control laws. Legislation expanding background checks and banning semi-automatic weapons was defeated by the US Senate in 2013, despite extensive public support.
In January 2016, President Obama announced a series of executive actions aimed at reforming gun control laws. These executive actions will largely clarify existing statutes and do not require congressional approval. This blog will discuss the obstacles facing the issue of gun control in the United States and compare American gun laws to those of other nations.
During a ‘Guns in America Forum’, President Obama expressed frustration at his opponents who are urging him to enforce existing laws, explaining that these same opponents attempt to undermine these laws in Congress.
What obstacles are preventing extra laws and regulations for gun control to get passed?
An answer can be found in the Second Amendment of the US Constitution which states: ‘A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of the free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed’.
The Second Amendment causes many gun right proponents to consider ownership of a gun a birthright and an essential part of America’s heritage.
Federal laws set minimum standards for firearm regulations on a national level, but States are authorized to create their own laws. In some cases, these laws provide more restrictions and in some cases even more lenient measures. States such as Idaho, Kansas and Alaska have passed laws designed to circumvent federal policies, but the American Constitution establishes supremacy over Federal laws.
President Obama stated that the new proposals focus on the issues of resources and the difficulties using existing laws as well as clarifying statutes to make them more usable.
Gun control advocates have pointed out that a lack of resources and vague and ‘toothless laws’ make federal gun prosecutions very challenging. They also claim that American gun lobbies intentionally water down legislation and hamstring agencies which results in the laws becoming useless.
Gun Rights Groups dispute the difficulty of prosecuting cases. They claim that gun prosecutions have declined since President Obama took office and argue that the President is trying to abuse current laws to go after law –abiding citizens.
President Obama’s new proposal to decrease gun violence in America includes the following actions:
- Businesses selling firearms and gun dealers selling firearms at gun shows or online will be required to obtain federal licenses and in turn conduct background checks of prospective buyers.
- To examine and improve the FBI’s background check system to make it more efficient and effective.
- Increase the number of staff of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearm and Explosives to crack down on firearms trafficking.
- Increase funding for mental-health reporting to the background check system and direct the departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security to pursue research into gun-safety technology. This particular measure was included because 60 percent of gun deaths are the result of suicides, often by individuals with undiagnosed mental illnesses.
The President explained that he is using his own presidential authority to move on this issue because Congress has failed to pass ‘commonsense gun safety reforms’.
Gun control advocates in the United States have often brought attention to stricter gun laws in other countries and connected these laws to the low number of incidents of gun violence. For instance, Canadian gun laws are much stricter compared to gun laws in the US. Gun restrictions in Canada are set on a federal level and can be supplemented by the provinces, territories and municipalities. Federal regulations requires all gun owners to be at least 18 years of age and to obtain a license that includes background checks as well as a public safety course.
Just like Canada, Australia’s gun laws were changed after one of the worst mass shootings in the nation’s history. The National Agreement of Firearms requires licensees to demonstrate a genuine need for a particular type of gun and to take a firearm safety course. An interesting measure that was taken under this law was a temporary gun buyback program that took approximately 650,000 assault weapons out of public circulation.
Experts state that Australia’s gun laws have been highly effective as the gun-death rates have declined and Australia has never experienced another mass killing since the last one in 1996.
Japan is another country where highly restrictive firearm regulations have been successful. Japanese gun laws led to the country having the lowest gun homicide rates in the world at one in ten million. Under the Firearm and Sword Law, only weapons such as shotguns, air guns that have research or industrial purposes or those for competitions are permitted. Before one can access these specialty weapons, one must obtain formal instruction and pass written, mental, and drug tests as well as rigorous background checks. In addition, gun owners must inform authorities of how weapons and ammunition is stored and provide their firearm for annual inspection.
These examples have certainly given American gun advocates some hope and inspiration, but much is needed to change the hostility that still surrounds the issue of gun control in the United States.
American legal experts stress that the law in general is about setting cultural norms and better enforcement could help alongside sorely needed cultural change.
President Obama’s executive actions ensure robust enforcement of the law and are entirely compatible with the will of Congress and the President’s constitutional authority, according to American legal scholars.
During the President’s final State of the Union last week, a symbolic gesture to commemorate the victims of gun violence was made as one seat in the First Lady’s Guest Box was left empty for those who lost their lives and who no longer have a voice because they need the rest of us to speak for them, a White House statement read.
With only one year left in Office and considering the hostilities surrounding the issue, it will be a challenge for Obama to tighten regulations on gun control laws, let alone solve the problem of gun violence in America. As President Obama repeatedly stated during the Guns in America Forum, not solving all problems is not a reason not to try to solve any.
Cartoon by Henry NY Times
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A selection of relevant publications from the Peace Palace Library collection
- Cook, P.J. and K.A. Goss, The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know, Oxford University Press, 2014.
- Spitzer, R.J., Guns Across America: Reconciling Gun Rules And Rights, 2015.
- Waldman, M., The Second Amendment, Simon & Suster, New York, 2014.