Student View
Article Article Article

Illustration by Taylor Callery

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.6, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, RI.6-8.8, RI.6-8.10, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Time, Continuity, and Change • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions • Power, Authority, and Governance

THE BIG READ

Government & Politics

Gun Violence in America

Firearm fatalities have reached record levels in the United States, with tens of thousands of people dying each year. Can we put an end to the bloodshed? 

As You Read, Think About: What information does the author include about gun violence?

Karen Lee

Over the next 24 hours, about 100 people in the United States will die from gunshots. For Jaimon Cooper, 18, that statistic hits painfully close to home.

Jaimon lives in one of the most violent areas of the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. As a 10th-grader, he lost two of his schoolmates to gun violence. One was his good friend Zaire Kelly. A 16-year-old track star, Zaire was fatally shot by a man who was trying to rob him.

When Jaimon travels to and from school, the thought that he too could be killed by gunfire is always in the back of his mind. “I know what can happen, so I’m never really too comfortable,” he says.

Gun violence isn’t just a problem in U.S. cities. Nearly 40,000 people—from every state and background—died from gun-related injuries in 2017, the most recent year for which full data is available. That was the highest number of gun deaths in a year that the U.S. has experienced in five decades. Nearly two-thirds were suicides.

Why are there so many gun deaths in the U.S.? Public safety experts say the main reason is simple: Americans own a lot of guns, and the number has been growing for decades.

Studies show that countries with more guns tend to have more gun violence, says David Hemenway, a public safety expert at Harvard University in Massachusetts.

Americans make up less than 5 percent of the world population—but possess 46 percent of civilian-owned guns worldwide, according to the Pew Research Center. Experts say it’s no surprise then that a recent study found that the U.S. firearm death rate is 11 times higher than that of other wealthy nations. “We have by far the most handguns—and the weakest gun laws—of any high-income country,” Hemenway says.

Over the next 24 hours, about 100 people in the United States will die from gunshots. For Jaimon Cooper, 18, that statistic hits painfully close to home.

Jaimon lives in one of the most violent areas of the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. As a 10th-grader, he lost two of his schoolmates to gun violence. One was his good friend Zaire Kelly. Zaire was a 16-year-old track star. He was shot to death by a man who was trying to rob him.

When Jaimon travels to and from school, the thought that he could also be killed by gunfire is always in the back of his mind. “I know what can happen, so I’m never really too comfortable,” he says.

Gun violence is not just a problem in U.S. cities. Nearly 40,000 people, from every state and background, died from gun-related injuries in 2017. That is the most recent year for which full data is available. That was the highest number of gun deaths in a year that the U.S. has experienced in five decades. Nearly two-thirds were suicides.

Why are there so many gun deaths in the U.S.? Public safety experts say the main reason is simple: Americans own a lot of guns. And the number has been growing for decades.

Studies show that countries with more guns tend to have more gun violence, says David Hemenway. He is a public safety expert at Harvard University in Massachusetts.

Americans make up less than 5 percent of the world population. But they own 46 percent of civilian-owned guns worldwide. That is according to the Pew Research Center. A recent study found that the U.S. firearm death rate is 11 times higher than that in other wealthy nations. Experts say that is no surprise. “We have by far the most handguns—and the weakest gun laws—of any high-income country,” Hemenway says.

A Nation of Guns

The right to own firearms is protected by the Second Amendment to the Constitution. In the 1700s, the king of England ruled the colonists harshly. After the colonies won independence, the Constitution’s Framers wanted to make sure that Americans could arm themselves if they ever again needed to overthrow an unjust ruler.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right to bear arms in 2008. It ruled that individuals have the right to own and carry weapons for self-defense. Many people—gun owners and non-gun owners alike—support that decision.

“The Second Amendment makes it clear that the people have the right to keep and bear arms,” explains Jordan Stein of Gun Owners of America, a gun rights organization.

The right to own firearms is protected by the Second Amendment to the Constitution. In the 1700s, the king of England ruled the colonists harshly. Then the colonies won independence from England. The Constitution’s Framers wanted to make sure that Americans could arm themselves if they ever again needed to overthrow an unjust ruler.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right to bear arms in 2008. It ruled that individuals have the right to own and carry weapons for self-defense. Many gun owners and non-gun owners alike support that decision.

“The Second Amendment makes it clear that the people have the right to keep and bear arms,” explains Jordan Stein of Gun Owners of America. That is a gun rights organization.

What You Need to Know

The Granger Collection

George Washington presides over the writing of the Constitution in 1787.

Second Amendment One of the original 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, which were added to the Constitution in 1791. It says, in part: “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” 

Gun Control Laws or regulations on what kinds of firearms can be bought and sold, who can own or sell them, and where and how they can be carried. Gun control debates today often center on background checks, the types of guns allowed to be sold, and laws about carrying guns in public.

Second Amendment One of the original 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, which were added to the Constitution in 1791. It says, in part: “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” 

Gun Control Laws or regulations on what kinds of firearms can be bought and sold, who can own or sell them, and where and how they can be carried. Gun control debates today often center on background checks, the types of guns allowed to be sold, and laws about carrying guns in public.

Federal Limits

But as with other freedoms granted by the Constitution, there are limits on how Americans can exercise their Second Amendment rights. For example, federal law regulates who is allowed to buy guns from licensed gun dealers. People must be 18 or older to buy shotguns or rifles and at least 21 to buy handguns.

Some groups, such as people who have been found guilty of certain crimes, are banned from buying guns. And licensed gun dealers must conduct background checks on buyers before completing sales. Such checks are meant to prevent people who are not allowed to have guns from buying them.

This might sound like a strong set of regulations, but many Americans say current laws don’t go far enough. Firearms often end up in the wrong hands anyway. That’s in part because there are major holes in our gun law system, many experts say. For example, the U.S. government doesn’t require background checks when individuals sell their guns online or at gun shows. 

But as with other freedoms granted by the Constitution, there are limits on how Americans can exercise their Second Amendment rights. For example, federal law regulates who is allowed to buy guns from licensed gun dealers. People must be 18 or older to buy shotguns or rifles. People must be at least 21 to buy handguns.

Some groups are banned from buying guns. This includes people who have been found guilty of certain crimes. And licensed gun dealers must run background checks on buyers before completing sales. Such checks are meant to keep people who are not allowed to have guns from buying them.

This might sound like a strong set of regulations. But many Americans say current laws do not go far enough. Firearms often end up in the wrong hands anyway. That is partly because there are major holes in our gun law system, many experts say. For example, the U.S. government does not require background checks when individuals sell their guns online or at gun shows.

Why Americans Own Guns

Fifty years ago, most American gun owners possessed firearms for hunting, says Cassandra Crifasi, who studies gun policy at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. “Now the primary reason people buy firearms is for self-defense,” explains Crifasi, a gun owner herself.

Fifty years ago, most American gun owners had firearms for hunting, says Cassandra Crifasi. She studies gun policy at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. “Now the primary reason people buy firearms is for self-defense,” explains Crifasi. She is a gun owner herself.

40%

The approximate share of Americans who own a gun or live in a home where a gun is present

SOURCE: Pew Research Center

But owning a gun does not make people safer, research suggests. In fact, it can have the opposite effect. People who live in homes where a gun is present are twice as likely to be the victim of a homicide as people in households without guns, according to a study from the University of California, San Francisco. One reason is that when a firearm is readily available, a heated argument can quickly turn deadly, even between family members.

And people in homes with guns are significantly more likely to die of an accidental gunshot injury—and three times more likely to commit suicide. 

But owning a gun does not make people safer, research suggests. In fact, it can have the opposite effect. People who live in homes where a gun is present are twice as likely to be the victim of a homicide as people in households without guns. That is according to a study from the University of California, San Francisco. One reason is that when a firearm is readily available, a heated argument can quickly turn deadly. That can happen even between family members.

And people in homes with guns are a lot more likely to die of an accidental gunshot injury. They are also three times as likely to commit suicide.

Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

A student cries at a vigil honoring the anniversary of a 2018 school shooting.

The Majority Opinion

Though public views on gun control have fluctuated over the years, about 60 percent of people in the U.S. now support stricter firearm laws, according to a 2019 poll by Quinnipiac University. The numbers are even higher among young Americans; 73 percent believe that gun laws should be strengthened, according to a separate 2018 poll.

One likely reason is that today’s teens and young adults have grown up in a world shaped by school shootings, such as one at a Florida high school in 2018, in which 17 students were killed. Such attacks are not common, but they receive a lot of news coverage. And kids and teens, unlike their parents, have had to practice active-shooter drills in school. 

Public views on gun control have shifted over the years. About 60 percent of people in the U.S. now support stricter firearm laws. That is according to a 2019 poll by Quinnipiac University. The numbers are even higher among young Americans. According to a separate 2018 poll, 73 percent of young Americans believe that gun laws should be strengthened.

One likely reason is that today’s teens and young adults have grown up in a world shaped by school shootings. For example, 17 students were killed in a shooting at a Florida high school in 2018. Such attacks are not common. But they receive a lot of news coverage. And kids and teens have had to practice active-shooter drills in school. That is something their parents never had to do.

AB Forces News Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

Across the U.S., communities are tackling gun violence in a variety of ways, such as walks to raise suicide awareness.

Possible Solutions?

Many experts say one of the most effective ways to reduce firearm deaths would be a federal law requiring a license to buy, carry, or own a gun—similar to how people need a license to drive a car. (Only a few states currently require gun licenses.) That could help prevent guns from getting into the wrong hands, Crifasi says, in part because it would allow officials to conduct more thorough background checks on applicants.

Other countries have proved that nationwide gun control legislation can be effective. Australia overhauled its gun laws after experiencing a mass shooting in 1996. Among other measures, the country added a 28-day waiting period for gun purchases and banned automatic and semiautomatic rifles. Within a few years, Australia’s non-accidental gun deaths had fallen by nearly half. 

Many experts say one of the most effective ways to reduce firearm deaths would be a federal law requiring a license to buy, carry, or own a gun. (Only a few states currently require gun licenses.) The law would be similar to how people need a license to drive a car. That could help keep guns from getting into the wrong hands, Crifasi says. The reason, in part, is that the licensing process would allow officials to conduct more thorough background checks on applicants. 

Other countries have proved that nationwide gun control legislation can be effective. Australia overhauled its gun laws after experiencing a mass shooting in 1996. Among other measures, the country added a 28-day waiting period for gun purchases. It banned automatic and semiautomatic rifles. Within a few years, Australia’s non-accidental gun deaths had fallen by nearly half.

A Nationwide Debate

Still, in the U.S., whether and how guns should be controlled has been hotly debated for years—with lawmakers and voters firmly rooted on both sides of the issue. As a result, Congress has not passed a major gun-safety law in more than two decades. 

In 2017, the nation’s deadliest mass shooting occurred at a music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada. Nearly 60 people were killed. In response, U.S. President Donald Trump enacted a ban on bump stocks. Those are devices that can be added to rifles to make them fire faster. 

But some experts say the ban, which took effect in March 2019, isn’t likely to have a large effect on gun violence. They point out that rifles were used in less than 3 percent of U.S. firearm homicides in 2017.

Still, in the U.S., whether and how guns should be controlled has been hotly debated for years. Groups of lawmakers and voters are firmly rooted on both sides of the issue. As a result, Congress has not passed a major gun-safety law in more than two decades.

In 2017, the nation’s deadliest mass shooting occurred. It was at a music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada. Nearly 60 people were killed. In response, U.S. President Donald Trump enacted a ban on bump stocks. Those are devices (used by the Las Vegas shooter) that can be added to rifles to make them fire faster.

The ban took effect in March 2019. But some experts say it is not likely to have a large effect on gun violence. They point out that rifles were used in less than 3 percent of U.S. firearm homicides in 2017.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

Communities are trying to tackle gun violence by developing programs that promote positive interactions between police officers and residents.

States Take Action

Most gun control in the U.S. has been enacted at the state level. In recent years, some states have begun requiring more detailed background checks. Others have set stricter limits on who can purchase firearms. A few now require safety training for firearm owners. In addition, 17 states and Washington, D.C., recently added laws that can be used to temporarily remove firearms from people who are considered at risk of harming themselves or others.

Such laws have helped reduce gun deaths, experts say. They point to Hawaii and Massachusetts: Both states have some of the strictest gun laws and lowest gun-related death rates in the country.

Most gun control in the U.S. has been enacted at the state level. In recent years, some states have begun requiring more detailed background checks. Others have set stricter limits on who can buy firearms. A few now require safety training for firearm owners. In addition, 17 states and Washington, D.C., recently added laws that can be used to temporarily remove firearms from people who are considered at risk of harming themselves or others.

Such laws have helped reduce gun deaths, experts say. They point to Hawaii and Massachusetts as examples. Both states have some of the strictest gun laws and lowest gun-related death rates in the country.

When Freedoms Expand

However, other states are passing legislation that makes it easier to buy and carry firearms. In many of those states, hunting for food and sport is common, and guns are often an important part of daily life.

Within the past year, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and South Dakota made it legal for most adults to carry concealed firearms (guns hidden from view, such as in a pocket) without a permit. The practice is now legal in 15 states—up from 3 in 2010.

Such laws are intended to let people protect themselves and to honor the rights of responsible gun owners. Still, public health experts say that as long as some states keep expanding firearm freedoms, gun violence will continue to be a national problem—even in states that have made gun control a priority.

Illinois, for example, has strong gun control laws, but Chicago (its largest city) has hundreds of fatal shootings every year. About 20 percent of guns used in crimes there come from Indiana, a nearby state with weak gun control laws.

Public safety experts say that enacting stricter federal restrictions on buying and selling firearms could decrease firearm deaths—while still allowing law-abiding people to legally own guns.

However, other states are passing legislation that makes it easier to buy and carry firearms. In many of those states, hunting for food and sport is common. There, guns are often an important part of daily life.

Within the past year, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and South Dakota made it legal for most adults to carry concealed firearms without a permit. (Concealed firearms are guns hidden from view, such as in a pocket.) The practice is now legal in 15 states. That is up from 3 states in 2010.

Such laws are intended to let people protect themselves. They are also meant to honor the rights of responsible gun owners. Still, public health experts say that as long as some states keep expanding firearm freedoms, gun violence will continue to be a national problem. They say it will even stay a problem in states that have made gun control a priority.

For example, Illinois has strong gun control laws. But Chicago (its largest city) has hundreds of fatal shootings every year. About 20 percent of guns used in crimes there come from a nearby state. Many come from Indiana, which has weak gun control laws.

Public safety experts say that enacting stricter federal restrictions on buying and selling firearms could decrease firearm deaths. And it could still allow law-abiding people to legally own guns.

“I own guns. Gun safety matters to me too.”

Dawson Hipp, 17, of Florida hunts for food.

Courtesy Danny Hipp