An epidemic is hitting the US and ordinary citizens are unable to stop it. The reason is simple: the laws protect the killers. And those responsible for making the laws have abdicated their responsibility. The US Gun Violence Archive reports that mass shootings have increased from 269 in 2014 to 693 in 2021. The victims often include children, engulfed in a wave of violence and death that is increasingly targeting schools.
Lawmakers –mostly Republican—systematically refuse to enact legislation that will effectively control arms sales. This frustrates to most Americans, who support stricter gun controls. In the meantime, kids go to school in constant fear that they will be the next victims of a mass shooting spree. According to Education Week, which has been tracking school shootings since 2018, there have been 27 school shootings from the beginning of this year until May 25.
Gun violence in Japan
A comparison with Japan is relevant. About 40,000 Americans die each year of gun homicides, suicides or accidental shootings. In contrast, in Japan, a country of 127 million people, authorities report approximately 10 gun-deaths a year. One reason is that Japan has more effective gun control laws. While buying guns in the US is as easy as buying chewing gum, in Japan applicants must pass a long list of tests. They comprise a background check that includes interviews with friends and family and a thorough mental health evaluation which takes place at a hospital.
“Japan maintains limits on sales of ammunition, both bullet cartridges and shotgun shells. Gun shop management must keep records of sales of ammunition sold to a gun owner – how many rounds on what day. The gun owner must also maintain records of ammunition purchases (how many rounds, from what gun shop and on what day), plus recording how many bullets and shells he or she fired at what place on what day and how many bullets and shells remain afterwards.”
“The gun owner must submit such information to the local police station by a designated date. Such controls are effective in preventing an individual from accumulating a large arsenal of ammunition, as well as preventing transfer of live ammunition to a third party. Obtaining an assault rifle, a machine gun, a small, portable gun, a gun with a silencer or suppressor is prohibited. There is a limit to the number of bullets and shells each rifle and shot gun can hold – one bullet in the chamber and up to five bullets in the magazine for a rifle and one shell in the chamber and up to two shells in the magazine for a shot gun. Guns with a large caliber are banned. For example, a rifle whose caliber is larger than 10.5 mm is banned,” told me Tai Kawabata, a former opinion editor at The Japan Times.
While guns don’t play a role in Japan’s civilian society, gun ownership (and accompanying violence) has become ingrained in the US mental outlook. Proud of his popularity, Donald Trump, the former TV personality and former US president, declared in Iowa during his presidential campaign, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” He said this as he continuously advocates for less control on the sale of guns, and for arming teachers as a way to curb school violence. Such a proposal would only institutionalize violence.
Politicization of violence
Perhaps more than anybody else, Trump has politicized violence to an unprecedented extent. During the January 6, 2021 riots, armed groups not only threatened to take over the Capitol, but even committed acts of violence that resulted in the death of several people. Some of them, armed my military caliber rifles, were ready to use further violence in their intent to overthrow the elected government. It is difficult to exaggerate Trump’s mendacity and the irresponsibility of Trump’s actions. Never before in the history of the country has a president tried himself to overthrow a government that he promised to defend.
The Second Amendment
The issue of gun ownership in the United States is centered on the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Opponents of gun control emphasize the last part of the sentence, “… the right of people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed,” neglecting to give much weight to the first part of the sentence pointing to a “well-regulated militia” as the holders of this constitutional entitlement.
A 1982 court ruling held that average citizens are not the ones entitled to claim a constitutional right under the Second Amendment, but rather those belonging to a group of civilians trained as soldiers who, in case of an emergency –such as a threat to the state– must become available to supplement the regular armies.
Self-defense is often cited to justify the people’s right to bear arms, yet research has shown that a gun kept in a home is 43 times more likely to kill a member of the household or a friend than an intruder. Resorting to firearms to resist a violent assault has shown to increase the victim’s risk of injury and death. A study by Arthur Kellermann published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that, excluding factors such as previous history of violence, class, race, etc., a household where there is a gun is 2.7 times more likely to experience a murder than a household without one.
A study conducted by Jeffrey A. Roth, author of “Firearms and Violence,” found that guns make it easier to kill or injure and that it is easier for an irrational person to cause greater damage.
Gender and race in gun violence
One cannot disregard the role of gender and race on the issue of mass killings in the US, since practically all mass shootings are carried out by white males. In many cases, these mass shootings are carried out against Black congregants in different states. “The adults who promote the gun culture need, I think, to be understood and I’m not sure that as a society we’ve come close to doing that yet. I don’t understand at all why men – and it is overwhelmingly men – feel that owning a gun is something they need to do. It’s somehow a part of their identity – but what does that mean? Is that identity so hollowed out, so fearful, so worshipful of absolute deadly power that guns supply a missing link? Do these men feel bigger, stronger, more themselves by owning a gun? Does the prospect of killing another human being draw them?” says New York journalist Michael Hart.
The young men who commit these acts of violence are suffering sometimes from overt trauma including childhood neglect which can manifest as depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts and attempts; social isolation despite a desire to belong to a community of peers or others; and a feeling of powerlessness like suicide bombers – they have nothing to lose and these violent acts which are meant to be witnessed – in addition to being motivated by racism and hate – can be understood as manifestations of self-hate and a desire to appropriate power.
“Most young shooters have been the victims of ACE—Adverse Childhood Experiences. These are the result of situational issues, the main ones being parental abuse, violent community life, problems at school, poverty. While these issues may surface at schools, there are severe limitations on what school personnel can do. Parental consent is always needed for interventions. Self-referral is unusual and unlikely in cases with familial problems. Many schools do not have psychological or social work services at all,” says Dr. Barbara Kantz, a retired college professor who taught Human Services at the State University of New York (SUNY).
Local authorities often feel powerless at the lack of federal guidance to curb the universal accessibility of guns. Americans bought almost 20 million guns in 2021, the second busiest year on record. The Small Arms Survey of 2017 estimated that there were more guns than people in the US; in round figures 393 million firearms in a country of 326,474,000 inhabitants. Since not every person in the U.S. owns a gun, it means that many people own more than one.
President Biden has proposed several common-sense measures including a ban on assault weapons; expansion of background checks; obligatory safe storage of weapons; a “red-flag” law; and a repeal of the liability clause that shelters gun manufacturers from being sued. These are important measures.
They should be complemented, however, by enacting federal legislation aimed at stricter enforcement of gun registration; effective control of the manufacture, sale and import of firearms, and harsher penalties for violating these rules. In addition, severe penalties should be imposed on parents and other adults whose children have access to firearms owned legally and registered, or who give them as presents to their children.
Dr. Manuel Orlando García, a New York psychiatrist says, “In defending freedom and life they (legislators unwilling to pass meaningful gun control legislation) get elected. But for them the life of an embryo counts more than the life of a child and the unrestricted freedom to buy weapons counts more than the freedom to be safe in a park or a school. These are the same people legalize state killings and blame the victims of inequality and homelessness, justify the ongoing epidemic of gun violence infecting the country, including increasing numbers of school children. They claim guns do not kill but any person with a gun could potentially kill, even those who do not suffer from a mental illness.”
Gun violence is also an economic problem, since lack of employment opportunities increases the risk of gun violence. As Rev. Gregory Boyle who works on this issue in East Los Angeles has said, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” One Summer Chicago Plus, a jobs program designed to prepare youth from some of the city’s most violent neighborhoods, saw a 43 percent drop in violent-crime arrests among its participants.
The widespread sale of guns almost without any restrictions and the right to bar them are steps backwards to controlling violence. It contradicts experience and the belief of peaceful people everywhere that eliminating guns will lead to a safer, more humane world.
Japan has almost no deaths due to gun violence. Why cannot the US, the most powerful country in the world, do the same? Although recent measures to control gun ownership are useful, what is truly needed is an effective ban on all guns, and education efforts to move from a culture of violence to a culture of peace.
Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant and an award-wining writer on human rights issues. He is the author of “Violence in the Americas”, a publication of the Pan American Health Organization.