Letters From America: To Bear or Not to Bear?

The 2015 UK General Election is now a possession of history, but here in the colonies the political machines are revving up in anticipation of the 2016 Presidential Election.

The American political landscape is an increasingly polarized one, and the highly politicized topic of gun control is reflective of this. Already it is being brought into focus as political hopefuls give vent to their thoughts on the issue.

On one extreme can be found gun control advocates calling for stringent gun laws and even the outright banning of many firearms, while on the other end of the spectrum hardliner gun rights lobbyists point to what they feel is a clearly stated constitutional right to bear arms.

There exists in the middle both gun control and gun rights advocates alike who voice their support for modest reform, such as mandatory background checks for gun purchases and increased firearms education. Leaders from both sides of the aisle (and an overwhelming number of Americans in national opinion polls) support expanded background checks before the purchase of guns. Guns sales to felons and the mentally ill are prohibited, and background checks help enforce this. But when it comes to specifics, the divide shows- and it has proven difficult to make progress in the direction of compromise and reformed gun legislation.

For instance, some congressional Democrats are pushing not only for expanded background checks, but also for broadening the requirement for records of sale transactions. Many gun rights supporters see this as a move towards establishing a national gun registry, and vigorously oppose it. In their corner is the might of the gun manufacturing industry, which directs the political stance of gun ownership clubs like the National Rifle Association.

Furthermore, this is not just a federal matter but one state rights, as each state puts forth individual state laws regarding gun sales. This lends further ravelment to an already thorny issue.

Gun related death rates in the United States dwarf those of most industrialized Western countries. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2013 Crime Report, 69 percent of murders were gun related. With mind towards gun fatalities the U.S. ranked 4th, with 669 times more murders with firearms than the UK, which ranked 39th. The U.S. had nearly 7 times the number of gun homicides per capita that did Portugal, which lays claim to one of the higher rates in Western Europe. In fact, overall gun violence in the U.S. readily compares to that of some of the deadliest places in the world, including South Africa, El Salvador, Pakistan, and The Democratic Republic of the Congo. Staggeringly, at least 1.4 million Americans have been slain by guns since 1968, comparable to the U.S.’s accumulated war dead in that same period.

The U.K. has had plenty of experience with gun legislation; its first gun policies date back to the reign of Henry VII in the 15th century. Today, its method of gun licensing is thorough and strictly regulated- and it has one of the lowest rates of gun violence in the world. Yet despite Europe’s model of strict gun control policies, scrupulous licensing practices, and lower levels of gun violence, not everyone here is convinced that more vigorous gun laws are the answer for America. Looking closer to home, they point to stringent guns laws as not always delivering the desired results.

For example the state of Illinois, which has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, suffered 364 murders by firearm in 2013. By way of comparison, the state of Vermont, which has the loosest gun laws in the country had 5. The District of Columbia (Washington D.C.) prohibits the ownership of guns, yet bears witness to its fair share of gun violence’s. In this nation’s capitol, which has a population a shade higher than Vermont’s, 103 murders occurred in 2013, 81 of which were gun related. In fact, from 1985 through 2012, Washington D.C. had the nation’s highest murder rate eight times, most recently in 1999. During these periods the city had mortality rates of 70 or more per 100,000 citizens.

And thus follows an argument– if the bad guys are always going to get their hands on guns, why shouldn’t I be able to defend myself with one? Supporting this mentality, the 2007 Harvard Gun Study came to the conclusion that stricter gun laws do not prevent gun violence, pointing to high gun murder countries like Russian- where guns are banned.

According to a 2014 FBI study, there were 160 active shooter/mass shooting incidents between 2000 and 2013 in this country. In light of the recent mass shootings in America, supporters of gun control cite lax gun licensing practices as a serious factor. There are contrary arguments that gun laws are not the problem here, but rather the mental health status of Americans, with the mass-shooting phenomenon emblematic of a surplus of physic tension among our citizenry. Additionally, they argue, five of these incidents were ended by the intervention of armed citizens, a boon to the argument for gun rights.

At their core, the issues of gun violence and gun control in this country have deeply rooted social origins. Mine is a comparatively young nation, one that was a frontier not all that long ago, and our blood-steeped Civil War had political and social ramifications that resonate to this very day. This coupled with an unfortunate history of racial tension do factor into the equation. Be it the prevalence and accessibility of firearms, a mental health crisis of national proportion, or an admixture of both, one thing is certain. Gun violence is on the rise in this country and in the bloody wake of gang violence, riots, hellish mass shootings, and a lamentable body count, some solution must be identified.

Edward Swanson is a journalist from Vermont in the United States and the author of two historical thrillers, Mesmer’s Disciple and Madoc’s Legacy (Ranked by Kirkus Reviews as “Best Books of 2014”).