The latest mass shooting—in Orlando, Fla., on June 12—has reignited a fiery debate about the inadequacy of gun laws in the United States compared to other countries and what should be done about it.
In comparison to other countries, America has the highest rate of gun violence and of gun ownership. According to a 2015 study by the University of California–Davis, there are more than 50 million gun owners in the United States alone. A report by the Congressional Research Office estimates that there are over 300 million guns owned in America, twice as many as there were per capita in 1968.
Gun control advocates say that because American culture treasures and glorifies guns, it isn’t surprising that gun laws aren’t as strict compared to other countries. About 117,000 Americans are injured or killed by guns each year, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Public health advocates, members of Congress and citizens say there needs to be change in terms of both laws and attitudes toward guns.
“We have not yet reached the point where the federal government has declared that this problem is simply unacceptable,” said Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health who has studied the links between gun ownership and violence in the United States.
In June, dozens of U.S. representatives held a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives to draw attention to the lack of action on gun control. One of the attendees, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro of New Haven, said at the time, “We will not be silenced, [Paul Ryan]. We have sat in silence for far too long. … The American people demand action. Congress must act.” The sit-in took place when the House went into recess and was criticized by House Speaker Paul Ryan and fellow Republicans.
On the streets of New Haven, Brittney Hawthorne, a new mother, expressed concern about the consistent rise of gun-related homicides in America.
“I think regardless if the laws change, there will still be gun violence,” Hawthorne said.
When asked about what kinds of changes to laws might make a difference, she said, “background checks, specifically on people with mental illnesses and/or people new to the country.”
Dominique Durrette, another New Haven resident, shared the concern about limited background checks and accessibility of guns.
“Other people think it’s for safety issues, like to defend themselves, but if you’re not in the right of mind or you’re a little off, I see some real issues,” she said.
Durrette also advocated for background checks. “Family backgrounds, mental health, violence, domestic abuse, anything,” she said.
All countries have gun-related killings, but the United States has “the highest homicide-by-firearm rate among the world’s most developed nations,” according to an article, “Gun Control Around the World: A Primer,” in The Atlantic.
In addition, the United States, “with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, has about 35–50 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns,” according to a 2007 report by the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey.
Compared to Canada and the United Kingdom, the United States has a relatively high rate of gun-related deaths. According to 2012 data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 60 percent of every 100,000 deaths in America were caused by gun-related violence, compared to 31 percent in Canada and 10 percent in the UK.
Underlying the differences in homicide rates are different ways that countries control the use of guns by citizens. In America, citizens are given the right to bear arms in the Constitution and live with the right to own a gun, unless they do not meet requirements in their states of residence. As of August 2012, there were more than 129,000 federally licensed firearm dealers in America, according to an ABC News article—almost as many as gas stations.
In Canada, the Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits the sale of firearms from “several categories of individuals, including persons under 18 years of age, those with criminal records, the mentally disabled, unlawful aliens, dishonorably discharged military personnel, and others.” In addition to the limiting law, Canada in 1993 created another act that mandated background checks of all gun buyers, regardless if they met the standards of the original Gun Control Act of 1968. With the rise in gun violence globally, Canada has continued to tighten its gun rules.
According to an article, “Gun control and ownership laws in the UK,” by Dominic Casciani, a home affairs correspondent for the BBC News, “The UK has some of the toughest gun control laws in the world. If you want to own a gun, it is very difficult to do so. In the United States, you can declare that it is your constitutional right to bear arms. But in the UK, you need to spend hours filling in paperwork and proving to police officers that you are not a danger to society.”
After a mass shooting in 1987, the UK banned all semi-automatic rifles. Nine years later, after another mass shooting, the Parliament banned all handguns, with a punishment of five years in prison if possession is discovered.
A nationwide study co-authored by Boston University public health researchers found that, on average, only nine of 25 state gun laws were effective in reducing violence. But three of those laws, including universal background checks, were found to have a significant potential to reduce gun violence.
“From preliminary research that has been done, it appears that strengthening gun laws is likely to reduce firearm-related mortality,” Siegel said.
For now, the United States averages 33 gun homicides a day, according to groups that compile homicide statistics.
“We have failed to make a commitment to ending the firearm violence epidemic,” Siegel said.
Mia Eschinger is a student at Guilford High School.