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The human rights implications of gun regulation in the United States

By Shruti Banerjee

The United States has more firearm ownership and gun-related deaths than any other developed country in the world, according to a recent study conducted by cardiologists Sripal Bangalore of NYU Langone Medical Center and Franz Messerli of St. Luke’s Medical Center. Compared to developing countries, the U.S. has more gun-related homicides than Pakistan, and the gun-related death rates in major U.S. cities are on par with some of the most dangerous places in the world. For example, Atlanta had the same gun related homicide rate as South Africa and Phoenix’s rate was equal to Mexico’s, according to the Atlantic.

Despite of tragic events like Sandy Hook and the 346,681 gun-related deaths recorded by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) from 2003 to 2013, the majority of our elected officials voted against legislation that would require background checks prior to purchasing a firearm, despite a 90 percent public approval rating for such measures. On the federal level, refusal by U.S. politicians to pass more restrictive gun regulations has allowed numerous human rights violations, including violations of the right to life and the security of person, to continue unabated. By looking at the prevalence of gun ownership and gun-related deaths, as well as the implications of our legal response to tragedies such as Newton, it becomes clear the United States’ lack of gun regulation poses a serious threat to safety and public health.

THE PREVALENCE OF GUN OWNERSHIP AND FATALITIES IN THE U.S.

With 88 firearms per 100 people and 10 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people, the U.S. has the highest rate of gun ownership and firearm-related deaths compared to 27 other developed countries, according to Bangalore and Messerli’s study. Conversely, Japan had the lowest rate of guns per capita and fewest gun-related deaths with only .6 firearms per 100 persons and .06 gun-related deaths per 100,000 persons.

Gun related deaths can occur in many ways, including gang violence, accidental death (i.e. thinking the gun is unloaded or a toy), suicide and domestic violence. The two most prevalent sources of gun fatalities in the United States are from gang violence and suicides often correlated with mental illness. A study by Columbia University also found that African-Americans are disproportionately affected by gun deaths. On top of the death toll caused by guns, there are also serious non-fatal crimes perpetuated by the use of firearms, such as rape and aggravated assault, which accounted for 799,760 crimes between 2003 and 2013, according to the CDC. Academics have found that these numbers are lower than the actual rate of guns and gun deaths per capita because compiling accurate data is difficult due to the prevalence of illegal and unregistered firearms as well as the severe underreporting of gun related deaths and shootings by police officers. Legal regulations that make it impossible for the government to track and punish unregistered or missing guns in certain states also attribute to this data collection problem.

Tragic incidents like the Sandy Hook and Aurora shootings, as well as the high level of gun-related suicides linked to mental illnesses, prove that gun related deaths are a prevalent issue in the U.S. that requires multifaceted regulation to properly address the social costs of our gun policies.

THE LEGISLATIVE RESPONSE TO RECENT TRAGIC EVENTS

While we see little action on the federal level, states have passed at least 114 bills related to gun regulation and deregulation since the Newton tragedy, according to Mother Jones and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Not surprisingly, the gun bills passed in most states fall squarely within political lines, where blue states have passed more restrictive gun laws and red states have passed more laws to deregulate gun ownership. Certain states, including Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, New York and the District of Columbia, have passed laws to strengthen gun regulation in four major areas: restricting conceal and carry permits; making it harder to own guns by utilizing background checks; enhancing the government’s ability to track guns and punish the tampering of the manufacturers’ identification marks on firearm; and mental health regulations, according to Mother Jones. One hundred and eighty-nine million people are affected by the 41 new laws in 21 states strengthening the regulation of guns and the 15 new laws in 15 states establishing mental health reporting/limits, Mother Jones reported.

Conversely, 29 states have passed 75 laws that make it easier to own guns, conceal and/or carry firearms in public places, including in churches, bars and schools, and making it harder for the government to track and punish stolen or unregistered guns, according to Mother Jones. It is troubling that the same study found nearly twice as many laws deregulating gun ownership passed—impacting over 185 million people—when these states are the most likely to be affected by gun violence and gun-related deaths. For example, Texas, which had the highest number of gun related child deaths in 2013, enacted 12 laws deregulating gun ownership after Newton. (It is important to note there is some overlap in these numbers since certain states passed laws in both directions.)

The discrepancies in state-by-state gun laws pose a major problem for areas trying to thwart gun violence through legislative action. This is clear in Chicago, which has restrictive gun laws but high rates of gun violence because it’s neighboring states have more lax gun policies and residents of Chicago are able to easily carry firearms across state lines. In areas with restrictive gun laws that are also predominantly surrounded by states with stricter gun regulations, such as New York, there are lower rates of gun-related homicide. A study by Boston Children’s Hospital found an association between more gun laws and lower rates of gun-related deaths in states. Specifically, laws requiring universal background checks and purchase or carry permits were most clearly associated with decreased rates of gun-related homicides and suicides. Other studies reinforce this by finding that states with higher gun ownership and less restrictive gun laws also have the highest rates of gun related deaths. This indicates a greater need for advocating on a federal level for stricter gun regulations to prevent cross-state gun trafficking from deteriorating the impact of gun regulation.

ADDRESSING THE HUMAN RIGHTS IMPLICATIONS OF GUN REGULATION

A report by Amnesty International found that the United States’ gun policies have allowed serious human rights violations to impact the youth and communities of lower socioeconomic standing. This study points out the long term consequences of allowing these human rights violations to continue. For example, almost half of Chicago’s homicide victims between 2008 and 2012 were individuals under the age of 25 and youth exposed to this level of violence often display the same psychological traumas of children growing up in urban war zones. This ultimately leads to victims of gun violence turning into perpetrators themselves, propagating the cyclical nature of violence. Gang violence, the leading cause of gun related deaths, predominantly plagues lower income communities, posing a serious threat to international laws ensuring the protection of life and the right to non-discrimination, the report said.

Despite the fact we have seen over one million instances of death and serious non-fatal injuries caused by guns in the last decade—a blatant threat to public safety and health—many of our political leaders continue to push for weaker gun laws. Conservatives and supporters of the National Rifle Association frequently make arguments promoting the proliferation of guns to protect communities because, apparently, more guns keep people safer since criminals tend not to attack areas where they know there are firearms. This is a baseless and contradictory argument since this same author, a “conservative politics expert,” wrote an article admitting that gang violence is the leading cause of gun fatalities. Gang violence typically involves groups who are fully aware that the other possess firearms, proving that the most prevalent criminal tendencies do not prevent them from attacking areas where they believe firearms are present.

Moreover, there are very few studies with concrete numbers attempting to support the argument that more guns make communities safer, and the studies that are out there are full of holes. For example, the authors of one such study in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy conceded that they cannot conclude that more restrictive gun laws lead to more violent crime, since areas dealing with high crime rates tended to implement stricter firearm regulations as a reactionary measure, while areas with lower crime rates did not feel the need to pass strict gun laws. This study also admits that other factors outside an increase in individual gun ownership have had in impact in lowering crime rates (i.e. higher rates of incarceration and higher rates of abortion). The authors themselves argue that banning guns would not decrease murder or suicide. Using their logic, we can immediately conclude that the only way to properly prevent suicide is through better public health measures. On the topic of murder, it is pretty obvious that one can do a lot more damage in significantly less time with a rifle or handgun than with a knife. Case in point: on the same day of the Newtown tragedy in which 26 children and adults were killed, a man attacked 22 children and one teacher with a knife in a school in China—all the victims survived. This same study argues that we should not only analyze the prevalence of gun-related violence, but violent crime as a whole. While they find that the U.S. is a unique country in that we have higher gun ownership and a lower rate of overall crime (a point we should be critical of since many crimes in the U.S. go unreported), this does not mean we can ignore the upwards of one million firearm-related injuries and deaths in our country over the past decade. This study distracts us from the main issue, which is that the prevalence of gun ownership and a lack of regulation in our country has created a faster and more efficient way to commit violent crimes.

Data has consistently supported the conclusion that more guns per capita are linked with higher gun related homicide rates, indicating that gun proliferation would not make society safer. To effectively impede the threat to human rights posed by our gun policies, we must advocate on the federal level for more uniform gun regulation across states that fully protect our citizens from this public health hazard. Our failure to do so renders us incompliant with international laws designed to protect us from the human rights violations perpetuated by a lack of gun regulation.

Shruti Banerjee is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk/Creative Commons