The American documentary <Bowling for Columbine (2002)> explores the 1999 Columbine High School shooting by two students. Thirteen people died and twenty-one were injured in the incident. Director Michael Moore tried to find an answer as to why gun violence is common in the United States. It seems like banning the use of guns would solve this problem, but it is not that simple. This is because gun issues are sharply intertwined with political and economic issues. There are many issues surrounding gun possession and regulation in the U.S.
Guns are naturally established in the U.S.
In the U.S., gun ownership is enshrined in the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that was passed in 1791. The provision states 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." This establishment of gun ownership is connected to the country's history. In the 17th century, the pioneers who migrated from Europe to this new continent had to arm themselves with guns to protect themselves from Native Americans and wildlife. American settlers also owned guns to protect themselves from robbers and criminals. Since then, throughout the American Revolutionary War, they used guns as a means of preventing British tyranny and defending themselves, regarding guns as a symbol of freedom and protection. In addition, the U.S. has a low population density outside of large cities. Therefore, it is difficult to get help from the police or neighbors in the event of a crime in the suburbs. This situation helped to justify the right to possess arms. Guns have naturally become a means of maintaining social order, and gun ownership has become perfectly established in American society.
For this reason, the perception that it is natural to purchase and own guns is dominant in their society. Gun purchase procedures vary slightly from region to region, but they can easily be purchased from supermarkets and Internet shopping malls. According to Small Arms Survey, an international weapons investigation agency in Switzerland, there are estimated to be about 393 million individually owned guns in the U.S. It topped the list of civilian gun-owning countries with 120.5 per 100 residents. It is a massive number compared to second-placed Yemen with 52.8 guns per 100 residents.1) It shows that the percentage of gun ownership per resident far surpasses that of other countries around the world. In most parts of the U.S., guns can only be purchased from licensed operators, but various illegal transactions are rampant. Therefore, the actual number of guns owned by residents is expected to be higher than this. Meanwhile, the public's opinions on gun control are divided despite risks. According to a poll released by Gallup in October 2021, 52% of respondents said gun control should be strengthened, 35% said the status quo should be maintained, and 11% said the regulations should be eased. Public opinion that regulations should be strengthened exceeded 60% in 2016 but began to decline in 2020.2) Although it has decreased compared to the past, there are still many who believe that gun control should be strengthened.
A double-edged sword and two views
The prevailing opinion that gun control should be strengthened seems to have been influenced by the growing seriousness of gun violence. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of gun murder victims in 2020 increased by 34% compared to 2019 and 75% compared to 10 years ago. 79% of all murders in the U.S. are caused by guns while Canada reports 37%, Australia 13%, and the UK 4%.3) This rate is much higher than in other countries that allow private gun ownership. It indicates that gun ownership is being abused to commit crimes. The U.S. defines a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people are injured or killed. A total of 82 shootings occurred in the U.S. from January 1 to February 21 this year. For example, on January 21, 2023, at least 11 people were killed when an elderly Asian man opened fire indiscriminately at a dance school in Los Angeles. On February 19, 2023, a mass shooting occurred at the Mardi Gras in New Orleans. More than 10 bullets were fired, injuring four people and killing one. These mass shootings brought many victims and traumatized those at the scene. A survivor of the July 2022 Highland Park mass shooting, said "I am a person who personally supports gun ownership, and have a gun license. However, I experienced a situation in which I had to run away with my child from an AR-15 rifle. I think assault weapons are unnecessary in real life, and I hope that no one else will ever experience this fear again."4) He argued for the need for regulation about the assault weapons, citing the danger of them. Gun violence has a negative psychological impact on victims, and an environment vulnerable to gun violence can threaten citizens. Therefore, the reality of frequent shootings is being criticized.
The federal government and each state in the U.S. have been constantly discussing regulations because gun violence has been a problem for decades. As shootings have continued in California this year, the federal government there also moved to tighten regulations. On January 24, U.S. President Joe Biden dispatched Vice President Kamala Harris to California and announced that he would push for stricter gun control law. He urged the California senators to rush through a bill banning assault rifles. In New York State, a bill banning guns from being carried in many public places, including Times Square and subways, also applying to those who can legally own guns, took effect in September 2022. New York Governor Kathy Hochul said, "We are working hard to remove thousands of guns illegally coming in from other states and don't need guns on the streets. It is a legitimate and right decision to enact this law."5) She noted a large influx of guns from other states and stressed that it is unnecessary to allow guns to be carried in public. In response, a court in northern New York ruled that while it understands banning guns in some areas, such as schools and government buildings, banning guns altogether in Times Square and subways is excessive. The court ordered a temporary suspension of some major provisions of the law. New York's plan had failed after all. Meanwhile, the Illinois House of Representatives passed the Protect Illinois Communities Act and transferred the bill to the state Senate on January 6, 2023. The law prohibits the manufacture, sale, and possession of all guns defined in Illinois as weapons. However, hundreds of gun owners, gun dealers and gun advocates have filed a lawsuit against it. A court ruled that the law should be temporarily suspended because gun ownership is a fundamental civil right guaranteed by the Constitution. Despite the efforts of the federal government and each state in the U.S., strong regulations are not easily implemented.
Where is the end to an infinite dilemma?
The strong regulations are not easily enforced because gun control laws are closely related to political forces. Gun regulators assert that stronger legislation is needed but it is difficult to legislate in reality due to those who oppose it. The Republican Party argues that individual gun ownership is a constitutional right under the Second Amendment. Moreover, the regulation is strongly opposed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), an organization that supports citizens' gun ownership and strives to promote the rights and interests of gun operators. The NRA is influencing the gun-related policies of the U.S. Congress with its enormous financial power. Another problem surrounding gun control laws is that accidents continue to occur even when there are gun control laws. There are more than 100 gun control laws in the U.S. state of California. The sale of assault weapons is prohibited, and the possession of guns in public places is permitted only in special cases. However, more than 20 people were killed in three mass shootings in California in January this year. Even if the purchase of weapons is prohibited under the current law, there is no way to prevent gun ownership because it was legal at the time of purchase in the past. It is also difficult to crack down on the illegal gun trade, unregistered ghost guns. Even though the gun owner has acted as a dangerous person, gun ownership is maintained because no reports have been filed with courts or law enforcement agencies. Therefore, stakeholders eventually face a dilemma over solving gun incidents.
Since opinions on gun control laws are not unified, coming up with alternatives at the government level to reduce gun violence could reduce the damage caused. President Biden stressed, "It is important to properly implement the "Red Flag Law" that can confiscate guns from dangerous people."6) The Department of Justice in the U.S. recently announced that it will provide $231 million to introduce the Red Flag Law and a gun violence prevention program will be introduced in 49 states and territories. Efforts are being made not only at the national level but also in related organizations to prevent gun violence. The National Threat Assessment Center of the U.S. explained that two-thirds of the perpetrators of gun violence showed worrisome symptoms in their pre-crime behavior or communication processes. They urged the community to come up with measures to recognize early signs of violence, and companies to develop threat behavior evaluation programs to prevent incidents occurring in the workplace. In addition, they analyzed the psychology and circumstances of the perpetrators and concluded that the community should focus on individual stress and prevention education. Also, Amnesty International has campaigned on gun use and ownership regulation. They support evidence-based violence reduction programs in areas where serious levels of gun violence continue to occur. They are also working to prevent guns from being transported to crisis areas where they can be used in serious violations. Amnesty International focuses on gun reform and accident prevention in the U.S. It shows that the federal government, local community and international human rights groups are working to prevent gun violence.
Building a society safe from gun violence
Individuals' gun ownership based on the provisions of the U.S. Amendment has naturally established itself in their culture due to a combination of factors such as American history and regional characteristics. However, gun ownership has created gun violence problems such as mass shootings. Regarding the gun control laws, it is difficult to reach an agreement due to the divergent opinions seen in Republican and Democratic forces. Some gun control laws exist, they are not well implemented due to many variables. It seems that another step is needed to build a society safe from gun violence.
1) Lee Heejin, "In Less Than a Month in 2023... More Than 2,700 People Died in Gun Accidents in the U.S.", The Segye Times, January 24, 2023
2) Kim Heewon, "A Country With More Guns Than People... Gun Culture in the United States Through Statistics", The Segye Times, May 27, 2022
3) See Footnote 1
4) Kevin Rho, "Illinois House of Representatives, Passing the Assault Weapons Prohibition Act", The Korea Daily, January 07, 2023
5) Im Dongwook, "A Gun Clean Area Has Appeared in Times Square, New York. What's the Reaction?", Money Today, September 2, 2022
6) Choi Seoeun, "Mass Shooting at the University of Michigan... Some of the Students and Survivors of Elementary and High School Shootings Are "Shocked"", The Kyunghyang Shinmun, February 15, 2023