Tuesday, 22 December 2015

What exactly are the gun laws in the USA?

Following the recent shootings in San Bernardino, USA where 14 people were killed by a radicalised couple, I realised that I was not really aware of the gun laws in the country. Surely not just anyone can own a gun and carry it with them all the time? Also, why has no change be proposed to them as the number of shootings seems to be rising so quickly?

Essentially, any American citizen over the age of 18 is allowed to buy a shotgun or rifle and once they are over 21, they can also buy and carry a handgun. Some people cannot own a gun, these include: convicted criminals, people with mental health illnesses, drug addicts and army veterans who left under dishonourable conditions. However, there is a notorious way for the above-mentioned to still get hold of a gun, this is known as the ‘gun show loophole’. The buyers of a gun are not checked at a gun show and so anyone of the right age can buy a gun here. Similarly, many mentally-ill people who really should not be able to own a gun are not registered in this way by a court and so most are still able to get their hands on one.

Individual states’ policies vary hugely though. For example, the states of the District of Columbia and Florida ban all carrying of guns in public, whether open or concealed. They are among only five states to do so. But Oregon allows these for all who own a gun, so long as they have a permit.

This ‘right’ to own a gun comes from the Second Amendment of the US Constitution of 1791. This stated that: "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." Americans take this to mean that every individual has the right to own, carry and use a gun.

Whilst gun lobbyists claim that stricter gun laws would only make the population less safe as only criminals would be armed and there would be no method for self-defence, there is a clear relationship between ownership of guns and gun-related violence. In the US, 117,000 Americans are shot every year and 33,000 of them die from their injuries (that’s 101.13 per million of the population). 270 million guns are owned by US civilians. In contrast, in Britain in 2012, there were 640 gun-related murders – only 10.43 deaths per million of the population – due to there being only 1.8 million legal guns in Britain. This clearly shows that the greater the number of guns in a country, the greater the number of murders by shooting.

Contrary to what I expected, as the number of mass shootings in America has risen, the public’s support for stricter gun laws has declined. A survey taken every year where the same question is asked – do you favour or oppose stricter gun control laws? – found that in 1989, 65% of Americans favoured the stricter laws, but this year the public was evenly divided. Herein lies the reason why imposing more gun laws is not a priority for the government and is rarely addressed in presidential campaigns, it is simply such a divisive issue and one which will gain a party few votes. Additionally, pro-gun groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Gun Owners of America (GOA) are extremely influential and wealthy, so politicians fear that arguing against these groups will lose them support.

In 2013, Obama proposed to Congress that all buyers of a firearm should require a background check (including by private sellers, which were exempt). This was strongly rejected. It is believed, on the other hand, that even if this law had been approved, that nothing would have changed. Due to the system where it is up to states themselves to decide their gun laws, a change in national law would not have had much of an impact on the gun laws of individual states.

This surprises me, as it seems clear that increasing control on guns would be a very easy way to reduce gun crime – including mass murders. It is more difficult to carry out the killings themselves and a petty dispute would not lead to death.