This August, 38 people lost their lives to gun violence in the USA. Despite the best efforts of activists and citizens, the government has done very little other than to express its condolences. The culture of owning guns has been at the centre of a debate in the US for a few years now, as every year, the number of deaths due to gun violence increases.
On August 3, a gunman opened fire in a busy Walmart outlet in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 people. After surrendering, he told the police that he was targeting Mexican immigrants. Less than 24 hours later, a gunman opened fire in a busy street in Dayton, Ohio, killing nine people, including his sister. On August 31, a man who had lost his job earlier that day opened fire on a Texas highway, killing seven people.
Defining mass shooting
One problem is that various agencies monitoring gun violence have their own definitions on what constitutes gun violence and, as a result, the numbers vary.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, a mass shooting is defined as an incident where there are four or more fatal or non-fatal injuries excluding the shooter. This includes indiscriminate shooting incidents as well as gang violence and domestic violence. Their records show that as of September 2, 2019, there have been 289 incidents of mass shootings in America in which 313 people have
lost their lives.
The total number of violent incidents involving guns (not just mass shootings and excluding suicides) stood at 56,952, in which 14,641 people lost their lives. 2019 has already seen 38,584 incidents of gun violence (excluding suicides), in which 10,173 people have lost their lives, till September.
The FBI, however, does not use the term ‘mass shooting’. They instead refer to them as “Active Shooter Incidents” which is defined as an incident where “one or more individuals actively engage in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.” According to the FBI, there have been only 27 active shooter incidents in 2018.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) database, the number of people who died due to firearms in 2017 was 39,773 (which includes suicides using guns). Between 1999 and 2017, 6,12,310 people in America have lost their lives by the gun.
Gun ownership in America
The Small Arms Survey of 2018 estimates that the total number of civilian-held legal and illicit firearms in the United States is over 393 million and the estimated number of civilian firearms per 100 residents is 120.5, which means there are more guns
In America, the right to bear arms is constitutionally protected. According to the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”There are some gun control laws, for example, the Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits mentally challenged individuals, individuals less than 18 years of age and convicted criminals from purchasing firearms. Between 1994 and 2004, there was a brief restriction on assault weapons, but that was allowed to expire. America banned the use of “bump stocks” which are devices which allow semi-automatic rifles to shoot like machine guns, after the Las Vegas gunman used it to kill 58 people in 2017.
Background checks are required for purchasing guns, but it does not apply to private sales, gun shows or unlicensed sellers online. The Texas gunman who killed seven people in late August failed the background check, but he purchased an assault rifle from private sellers.
Gun laws also differ from one state to another within the US. For example, the State of California has strict gun laws and has a ban on the possession and sale of certain types of semi-automatic guns which it defines as “assault weapons”. But a gunman purchased a semi-automatic rifle in the neighbouring State of Nevada where there is no such ban, and brought it to California and used it to kill three people in July. As of 2019, there are no universal laws in the US banning military-style rifles, semi-automatic weapons or large-capacity magazines in all states. A semi-automatic weapon is a gun that fires a bullet or a round every time a trigger is pulled and then automatically reloads. A large-capacity magazine can hold nearly 100 rounds of ammunition, which allows for many shots to be fired before reloading.
Role of NRA
America’s most powerful gun rights advocacy group, the National Rifle Association (NRA), plays a huge role in the gun control debate. Founded in 1871, its main motive was to "promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis”. With a huge membership and massive spending for gun lobbying, it is a formidable force.
After the El Paso attack, Walmart President and CEO Doug McMillon announced a change in its gun policy. After selling through current inventories, Walmart said it would discontinue sales of short-barrel rifle ammunition such as the .223 Caliber and 5.56 Caliber, handgun ammunition and also discontinue handgun sales in Alaska, marking a complete exit from handguns. The National Rifle Association, however, has called Walmart’s decision “shameful”. In a statement released recently it said, “Rather than place the blame on the criminal, Walmart has chosen to victimise law abiding citizens. Our leaders must be willing to approach the problems of crime, violence and mental health with sincerity and honesty.”
In September, the San Francisco city government labelled the NRA a "domestic terrorist organisation". In its resolution, it stated, “The National Rifle Association musters its considerable wealth and organizational strength to promote gun ownership and incite gun owners to acts of violence” and that “all countries have violent and hateful people, but only in America do we give them ready access to assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, thanks, in large part, to the National Rifle Association’s
At this moment, things seem to be in favour of gun control lobbyists. The NRA is facing many lawsuits and is also being investigated for misappropriation of funds which could potentially make it lose its status as a non-profit organisation.
The gun control debate
Children and college students have been targeted in many of these incidents, setting off a huge debate on whether private ownership guns should be allowed at all or subjected to greater controls.
According to the Pew Research Centre, 67 per cent of gun owners in America say they own a firearm for protection and 57 per cent say gun laws should be stricter. But they are divided on whether making it difficult to obtain guns would prevent mass shootings.
About 47 per cent of American adults say that if it was harder for people to obtain guns legally, there would be fewer mass shootings and nearly a similar share of them, 46 per cent say that it won’t make much of a difference.
A majority of both Republicans and Democrats agree that people with mental illnesses should be prevented from buying guns, people on the federal no-fly or watch lists should be barred from purchasing firearms and that there should be background checks for private gun sales and sales at gun shows.
But while the Republicans are more in favour of allowing teachers and school officials to carry guns to schools and allowing people to carry concealed weapons in public places, the Democrats are advocating banning of assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.
According to the US Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center’s report, ‘Mass Attacks in Public Spaces 2018’, nearly all shooters had at least one significant stressor within the last five years, and over half of them had indications of financial instability in that timeframe.
Two-thirds of shooters had mental health symptoms, including depressive or suicidal symptoms and half of them had a grievance related to a domestic situation, workplace, or other personal issues. These figures mean than there can be no one single profile for a shooter and thus there is considerable difficulty in spotting them ahead of time.
What is Trump’s take?
In a public statement in August after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, American President Donald Trump said, “Mental illness pulls the trigger, not guns.” He also gave a five-point plan to prevent mass shooting incidents:
1. The Department of Justice working along with local state and federal agencies as well as social media companies to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike.
2. Ending the glorification of violence in grizzly and violent video games.
3. Reforming mental health laws to better identify mentally disturbed individuals who may commit acts of violence and make sure that they not only get treatment but also when necessary, “involuntary confinement”.
4. Red Flag Laws through which people judged to pose a grave risk to public safety should not have access to firearms and if they own them, a rapid process to allow law enforcement officers to take them away.
5. Death penalty for the shooters in quick processes.
A universal ban on military-style rifles, semi-automatic weapons and large capacity magazines in all states and complete background checks for gun purchases without loopholes, like being able to buy them from private sellers or gun shows, however, does not seem to be on the agenda.
The Indian connection
Over the past few years, a number of Indians have fallen victim to shooting incidents in the US. Many of them were students pursuing higher education there.
In 2017, 26-year-old Indian student Vamsi Reddy Mamidala was shot and killed in California. His killer, Stuart Baronngaue, was a drug addict out on parole. He was later arrested.
In 2017, 32-year-old Indian techie, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, was shot and killed in Kansas by a US Navy veteran, Adam Purinton, who was later awarded life imprisonment. In 2018, 25-year-old Indian student Sharath Koppula was shot and killed in Kansas. Srinivas was the victim of a hate crime whereas the other two were caught in the cross fire of a shootout.