international analysis and commentary

Gun control: the big issue staring Americans in the face, again


Affordable healthcare, gay marriage, relations with Cuba and an Iran nuclear deal. Every time we convince ourselves that the progressive identity of America is in decline, it springs to life again. This is the result of courageous leadership and that natural ferment that makes the US the land where change is possible and fast. But there is one big pressing issue that is seemingly impossible in America: gun control.

I grew up in a place where virtually everyone is armed. Missouri: the birthplace of Jesse James (the most famous outlaw of the Old West), as well as his assassin Bob Ford. My dad was a gunsmith by trade, so our house was filled with firearms, in a time when it was still not popular to have a lock on the gun cabinet. That meant when the cats were away, my brother would play, or “get into the guns” as he would call it. Once he shot down a power line and wiped out the electricity on our street. That power line could have easily been me.

The possibility of getting shot, whether by accident or intent, is a fact of life in the US. It always has been. We’ve known for ages deep in our core that something is wrong with this violent scenario that leads to everything from accidental shootings, to individual episodes involving otherwise law abiding citizens, to systematic armed attacks by organized criminals. And with the shooting deaths of two journalists in Virginia during a live broadcast on August 26th, the problem of too many guns is again staring us right in the face.

The country’s leaders are well aware that this is the next big issue. Barack Obama said it out loud after the church shooting in Charleston this summer, “At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.”

The statistics are out there, repeated over and over again. Everyone has heard that Americans account for less than 5% of the world’s population, but possess up to half of all the privately-owned guns around the world(1). We all know that this clearly corresponds to violence – or at least there is a strong correlation to be taken seriously – as we’ve all heard that the US’s homicide rate is much higher than the average in the OECD countries.

Yet very little has been done. Even Obama himself – despite his rhetorical commitment to action – is guilty of avoiding the issue. After his gaffe during the 2008 campaign on people who “cling to guns or religion,” he rarely spoke of guns again in the campaign. The same went for his reelection campaign in 2012, and his presidency in general.

In fact, as the nation recently marked the one year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the headlines mostly read that nothing had changed on that front. We’ve seen the same thing happen year after year after year as civilians and police fight in pseudo urban warfare, as more school shootings take place, as kids continue to accidently kill other kids and now as another violent episode took place right in front of the public eye. Not only did the Virginia attack on the two journalists happen during a live newscast, it is believed that the shooter circulated a video of the killings on social networks after the incident, taking the issue of violence to a new “spectacular” level.

Yet we continue to hear the same old clichés: “this was an isolated incident”; or “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. This is a cover-up, a blind eye. There is a moment when there are so many incidents that it is no longer appropriate to use the word “isolated”. We have long surpassed that moment. And there is a moment when research(2) proves that more guns translates into more violence. We have long surpassed that moment too.

Since December 2012, when a gunman killed 20 school children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Connecticut, there have been hundreds of mass shootings in the US. That’s according to the crowdsourcing site Mass Shooting Tracker that counts shooting incidents in which four or more people are shot (killed or injured). According to the data, and also considering all of the weaknesses of crowdsourcing, there have been 249 mass shootings this year alone (as of Aug. 27). 

Since the shooting of Michael Brown, some reports estimate that police have killed more than 1,000 people. Whether the deaths are justified or not, and various counts are murky, tallies like this amount to warfare, not policing.

To take a comparative example: in Norway statistics show that police threatened fire only 42 times 2014. They actually fired only twice. And no one was even injured. The 2011 Norway attacks were indeed horrific, as 77 people died in two mass shootings. Yet, the incident can be described as “isolated”.

As a journalist who monitors news daily, I can’t keep track of all of the reports of cops shooting unarmed men in the US, I can’t keep track of all of the mass shootings and school shootings, I can’t keep track of all of the children who “get into the guns” and shoot someone else. These are not isolated incidents; this is a sweeping issue where too many guns are resulting in the deaths of too many people. This is about addressing a social pathology.

While 2016 presidential hopefuls weigh in on the debate due to recent news, their comments have been mostly indirect and laced in emotional rhetoric. This goes for both sides, and does not enocurage practical policy decisions. In fact, the very emotional nature of the statements somehow turns the discussion away from the substance, so that real action on gun control seems to be the big issue politicians blatantly shy away from. With so many firearm owners out there, and the power of the NRA so evident, it’s not an issue that makes elections, rather it can break them. However, Hillary Clinton is beginning to voice herself. After the two journalists were killed in Virginia she said, “We have got to do something about gun violence in America, and I will take it on.” This may indeed be an attempt to ride the wave of recent violence and to gain ground over her opponent Bernie Sanders, who is liberal but maintains a low-profile on gun control. Whatever the true motivation, her recent rhetoric has included very strong words such as “the uncontrollable use of guns in our country” and “it is the height of irresponsibility not to talk about it”. This is the kind of concrete language we need to be hearing from our leaders, but we also need concrete plans – especially on education.

We know that leaders can indeed educate the masses and shape public opinion. When Bill Clinton took on the issue in the early 1990s, Americans began to favor gun control, even Republicans shifted in stance. Since then the issue has been shelved and opinions have reversed. In fact, it appears that the episodes in Ferguson and Baltimore may have ironically pushed even more Americans towards the “more guns, less violence” stance and away from supporting gun control.

The Pew Research Center released a survey earlier this year that showed that in December 2014 52% of Americans thought it was more important to protect gun ownership than to control it (46%). It was the first time in 20 years that more Americans favored protecting ownership. In 1993, around the time Bill Clinton introduced his gun proposals and attempted to up against the NRA, and when the question was first asked by Pew, 57% thought it was more important to control gun ownership, compared to 34% who preferred protecting it.

President Clinton’s moves clearly drew public support, and as a result even the GOP began leaning in his direction. In the 1993 survey, Conservatives were divided over this issue with 47% favoring gun control and 47% giving more importance to gun rights. Now those numbers are 24% and 75% respectively. So, this is clearly related to politics and education: when our leaders address the need for control the issue gains support. When they don’t, we go backwards.

But there is another factor in this shift, and this is where the 2016 hopefuls can be influential and really impact the lives of Americans: the changing perceptions about crime. According to the Pew analysts behind the study, Americans have traditionally favored tighter gun laws in times when they feared increases in crime. Now that has flip-flopped. According to the analysts, America is living a moment in which most people believe crime rates are rising and that gun ownership – rather than gun control – makes people safer.

While both of these beliefs have been proven to be untrue in recent years, it will be up to courageous leaders to educate the public and clarify misconceptions on the correlations between guns and violence. Along with this, a serious debate needs to take place on the true intent of the Second Amendment.

We know that the Second Amendment was not intended to allow a young man to buy a 45-caliber Glock – a firearm designed for the Austrian military and police – and walk into a church and kill nine people (Charleston, SC, June 2015). We know that it was not intended to allow a civilian to buy 6,000 rounds of ammunition and walk into a movie theater and kill 12 people (Aurora, CO, July 2012). We know it was not intended for a mother to carry a 9mm semi-automatic handgun in her purse while shopping at Walmart, where her two-year old took it out and shot her in the head (Idaho, 2014). We know it was not meant that urban students, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, to respond “alive”. We know it was not meant that an arms race develop between police and citizens, creating an atmosphere where citizens are destined to end up shot even if they are not armed. We know that it was not meant for more of our people to die in American cities than in American warzones abroad. And we know it was not meant for violence to become a spectacle to share via social media.

While legislative action isn’t likely anytime soon, the latest news of gun-related violence could push the issue of gun control to the center of the 2016 presidential race. After the Supreme Court rulings on gay marriage and healthcare, the new domestic issue at the center of the Democratic agenda needs to be gun control, alongside inequality. We know that states with tighter gun control laws have fewer gun-related deaths(3). Leaders need to educate citizens on these simple facts and explain to the nation that the US is one of the few advanced countries where the right to bear arms is constitutionally protected, and that it is one of the most violent countries in the developed world. America’s leaders need to “get into the guns” themselves, and get them under control. Americans themselves are progressive by nature. They can handle this debate. The nation has finally arrived to the moment in which it needs to let the ghosts of Jesse James and Bob Ford rest in peace.


(1) This is according to the Small Arms Survey which also ranks the US as having the highest homicide-by-firearm rate among the world’s most developed nations.

(2)There are countless studies debunking the “more guns, less violence” stance. The American Journal of Medicine released “Gun Ownership and Firearm-related Deaths” by Drs. Sripal Bangalore and Franz Messerli in the autumn of 2013. The study compared the rate of firearms-related deaths in countries where many people own guns with the death rate in countries where gun ownership is rare. They looked at 27 developed countries, using gun ownership data from the Small Arms Survey and death statistics from the World Health Organization, among others. They concluded that more guns meant more deaths. 

(3) A major 30-year study by Dr. Michael Siegle of the Boston University School of Public Health found that US states with higher estimated rates of gun ownership experience a higher number of firearms-related homicides. The study was published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2013. An analysis released this year by the Violence Policy Center, using 2013 data, also found a correlation between levels of gun ownership and gun homicides at the state level.