Each new mass shooting in the United States reignites the debate over the country’s treatment of gun rights as virtually sacrosanct. Americans have more weapons than anyone else on Earth, even adapted to the population. (Yemenis are in second place). Firearms are involved in the deaths of nearly 40,000 people per year in the United States, 60% of whom are suicides.
Weapons are also an integral part of the nation’s founding history. The National Rifle Association, the dominant pro-gun group, has for decades persuaded courts and lawmakers to loosen gun restrictions and prevent new ones from being enacted. However, a new wave of killings may have eased the NRA’s control slightly.
Although mass shootings account for only a fraction of gun deaths in the United States, they attract the most attention. Some of the deadliest massacres of this kind in modern American history have occurred in recent years: El Paso, Texas (22 killed in a Walmart in August 2019); Virginia Beach, Virginia (12 deaths in a municipal building in May 2019); Pittsburgh (11 killed in a synagogue in 2018); Parkland, Florida (17 deaths in a high school in 2018); Sutherland Springs, Texas (26 killed in a church in 2017); Las Vegas (58 killed in concert in 2017). As the death toll rises, public opinion has moved moderately in favor of tighter gun controls: in a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, 60% of respondents said laws should be stricter , up from 52% in 2017. The Parkland murders gave a voice to a new group of activists, the students, whose demands for tighter controls have yielded some results. Gun rules are largely determined by states, and in the two years following Parkland, 137 new gun restrictions were enacted in 32 states and Washington D.C. The measures tightened requirements for background checks for gun buyers. , banned the use of accessories that allow a semi-automatic rifle to fire faster and aimed to keep guns out of the reach of domestic abusers. In the 2018 mid-term elections, candidates raced and won on stronger arms restriction platforms. But the transition to stricter controls was not smooth. In 2019, lawmakers from four states voted to allow people to carry hidden weapons in public without permission.
Weapons in the hands of civilians
Estimated total of legal and illegal firearms held by civilians, 2017
Source: Small Arms Survey
The United States is one of three countries that include gun ownership rights in their constitution. (Mexico and Guatemala are the others). The “people’s right to own and bear arms,” enshrined in the Second Amendment, was established in the 18th century to allow states to form militias to protect themselves from federal government oppression. In 2008, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the amendment also protects people’s rights to bear arms. Beyond the legality, the gun is a cultural icon in the United States. It was a necessary tool for soldiers in the Revolutionary War and for cowboys roaming the Wild West. More recently, semi-automatic weapons that fire bullets in rapid succession, also called assault weapons, have gained popularity among law-abiding gun owners and mass murderers. Mass shootings in other countries, though less common, have also sparked debates about regulation. A massacre of 50 people in two mosques in New Zealand in early 2019 prompted a revision of gun laws there.