Preventing mass shootings

Gun control and regulation is necessary to decrease the vast number of gun-related deaths in the US says sociology professor.

Tia Lalani - 06 April 2018

March for Our Lives, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Photo by Joanna Nix on Unsplash.

By Geraint Osborne

The recent mass shooting in Florida is no surprise. Even though gun homicides have been declining In the US, America experiences approximately 30,000 gun deaths a year and mass public shootings have become more common. Such carnage is unmatched in the developed world; the gun-related death rate in the US is 10 times that of other advanced industrial countries. Hopefully, the burgeoning protests will motivate US politicians to put better gun control laws in place.

Politicians need to stop blaming gun violence on the mentally ill. This simplistic and individualistic explanation disparages and stigmatizes people with mental disorders (most of whom are not violent) and ignores the role of guns and American gun culture in these tragedies.

First, the global data on gun-related deaths clearly shows that one of the contributing factors in these mass shootings in the US is the sheer number of guns in the country and the easy access people have to them. The US has 4.4 percent of the world's population, but almost half of the civilian-owned guns around the world, with 3% of the US population owning 50% of the guns. States that have the most guns record the most gun deaths. These statistics demonstrate that guns in the home will not make you safer; rather, guns at home are strongly correlated with gun deaths be it from accident, suicide or homicide.

Second, data suggests that most of the mass shootings in the US since 1900 are committed by men and the majority of these have been white men, many of whom have a history of abusing their domestic partners. These factors suggest that many of these shootings have something to do with a toxic form of masculinity and white men asserting their place in a world where they feel displaced and powerless. Feeling a growing anxiety and fear about a world where they no longer dominate, these men stockpile weapons and lash out.

What should the US government do? The answer is gun control and regulation. It is not unreasonable for a government to control the flow of guns in society. One of the classic defining features of a modern state is its claim to the monopoly on the legitimated use of violence within its borders. When individuals are able to stockpile weapons and unleash them upon a citizenry causing combat equivalent casualties, then the state has lost such a monopoly and can be considered a failed state. Unless the US government does a better job of regulating firearms, these shootings will get deadlier and the ability of the state to protect its citizens will be called into question.

Those who oppose any form of gun control in the US point to the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. The Second Amendment was a product of a particular social and historical context, written immediately after the War of Independence and designed to ensure a well-armed militia. The move from a collective military intent to a more individual-centred right was further enshrined in the 1970s when the NRA latched onto the debates around civil liberties to further the freedoms of those citizens who wished to own guns. The growing cultural divide between the left and the right in US politics has only exacerbated the issue and needs to be reversed.

This issue is not about taking away people's guns but rather, limiting their access to certain types of weapons. People should be allowed to have guns for recreational purposes, but restrictions on types of weapons and ammunition and background checks are not unreasonable. Countries like Japan and Australia, while extreme in their measures to some, provide strong evidence for gun control and can serve as useful models.

The Second Amendment must be changed to reflect the current social context, especially the lethality of firearms in the 21st century. People on the left of the US culture wars must concede to allowing people to have guns while people on the right must concede to some measure of gun control. If nothing is done, and military grade weapons remain easily available, the carnage will continue.

Geraint Osborne, Sociology, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on March 27, 2018.