Enabling Gun Violence in the United States

Image by Heather Mount.

On July 29, the House passed legislation (217-213) to revive a ban on semiautomatic weapons. Although important, it still faces an uphill battle in the Senate, which continues to be deaf to the clamor of the majority of the population, anxious for more effective measures to curb gun violence in the country.

High rates of gun violence in the U.S. result from several enabling factors, including Supreme Court decisions conflating the historical reliance on state militias with the unrestrained “constitutional right” to bear arms; Congress’ reluctance to pass effective gun control legislation; easy availability of guns and manufacturers’ effective promotion of high caliber weapons; and parents’ lenient behavior towards their children’s possession of arms.

Gun violence is the leading cause of death for children and young adults in the U.S. According to researchers at the University of Michigan, deaths related to the use of firearms increased 30 percent between 2019 and 2020, overtaking car accidents as the No. 1 cause of death among them. The country is now, virtually a war zone.

The problem is getting worse. According to the CDC, 45,222 people of all ages died from gun-related injuries in 2020. That represents a 14 percent increase from the year before, a 25 percent increase from five years earlier and a 43 percent increase from the decade before.

The Supreme Court’s decisions haven’t helped mitigate this social disaster. The number of cases involving gun laws considered by the Court are minor, yet the hostility to gun regulations by the majority on the bench has played an important role in shaping the legislators’ behavior.

The Court’s jurisprudence on gun control rests on a biased interpretation of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Thus, in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within a home. This interpretation was strongly criticized by the late Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who concluded, during a radio interview “… So, the Second Amendment is outdated in the sense that its function has become obsolete.”

The U.S. Supreme Court recently set another dangerous precedent in New York. It concerned the constitutionality of the Sullivan Act, a New York law passed more than a century ago requiring those applying for an unrestricted license to carry a concealed pistol to show “proper cause”, namely, a special need distinguishable from the need of the public in general. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court held that the law is unconstitutional, ruling in effect that the possession of pistols in public was a constitutional right protected by the Second Amendment.

Calling the legal philosophy underlying the Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment “reckless” and “reprehensible,” New York Governor Kathy Hochul said the Court’s unrestrained acknowledgment of this “right to bear arms” strips away the “state’s right to protect its citizens.”

House minority Leader Kevin McCarthy supported the Court’s interpretation saying it “rightfully ensures the right of all law-abiding Americans to defend themselves without unnecessary government interference.” His opinion was echoed by Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga, who said, “An armed America is a safe and free America.” What these lawmakers fail to realize is that almost 400 heavily armed officials were unable to protect the lives of 19 children and two adults at Uvalde elementary school during the recent school massacre.

On June 25, President Joe Biden signed into law the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. The law expands the requirement of background checks for gun buyers younger than 21 years of age; provides a 10-day waiting period for processing background checks and increases funding for mental health interventions. These are worthwhile measures, but they fail to address the basic issues underlying the complexity of gun violence.

In the meantime, arms manufacturers continue the production and promotion of military caliber weapons, fully protected under the law. A study published in Annals of Internal Medicine, found that 2020 saw a surge in the overall purchase of guns. 16.6 million adults bought a firearm compared to 13.8 million in 2019. It is necessary to pass more comprehensive legislation on the sale and promotion of arms, laws that should be faithfully executed.

Some parents normalize their children’s possession of deadly weapons, in part, by giving them to their children, unconcerned about the threat they pose to people’s lives. Strong legislation should be passed to make those parents accountable for their children’s crimes. Teachers should also be trained to recognize danger signals, primarily mental health concerns among their students. These signals often foreshadow criminal intention.

New regulations should be enacted that would facilitate the work of school workers and psychologists, as well as a promoting a better interaction of these professionals with the children’s parents. Also, work programs specifically addressed to the youth should be created, some of which already exist in parts of the country. Gun violence is a multicausal problem that needs multifaceted responses aimed at eliminating their enabling factors. By taking appropriate action, thousands of adults’ and children’s lives can be saved.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”