Anybody brought up in a different culture wonders, with considerable uneasiness, what is in American culture that allows such an easy ownership of guns in the United States. And although violent incidents occur in other countries, they are not as frequent – or as lethal - as in the US.
The recent shooting rampage in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, that resulted in the deaths of 20 children between the ages of 5 and 10, and 7 adults – including the gunman’s mother - should be the last wake up call to a country ravaged by civilian violence. According to the police, the gunman, Adam Lanza, a young man believed to be 20 years-old, had two handguns and an M4 carbine.
The issue of gun ownership is particularly relevant in the United States where civilians own an estimated 300 million guns, making Americans the most heavily armed people in the world on a per capita basis. Florida announced recently that it will soon be the first state to have issued one million permits allowing people to carry concealed guns.
The issue of gun ownership in the U.S. centers 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." They neglect to give much weight to the first part, which names a "'well-regulated militia" as the holders of this entitlement.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) has become one of the country’s most powerful political groups. According to the Washington Post, the NRA has helped elect four out of five candidates it has endorsed in a congressional election, and is actively trying to overturn gun-control laws in the courts of justice.
At the same time, landmark Supreme Court rulings in 2008 and 2010 dramatically curtailed the authority of state and local governments to limit gun ownership. In addition, approximately half of the 50 states in the US have adopted laws that allow gun owners to carry their guns openly in most public places.
Although self-defense is often cited to justify the people's right to bear arms, 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.
In a study by Dr. Arthur Kellermann published in The New England Journal of Medicine, it was found that, excluding factors such as previous history of violence, class, race, and other factors, a household where there is a gun is 2.7 times more likely to experience a murder than a household without one. It has been found that the number of teenagers who die from gunshot wounds in the U.S. is greater than for all other causes combined.
It is estimated that the gun market of $2 to $3 billion a year has had an extraordinary boom since the 2008 election of Barak Obama. According to a recent Gallup survey, 47 percent of American adults keep guns, a figure which is the highest since 1993. According to Peter Dreier, Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College, among modern democracies the US is the one that has more guns per capita and weaker gun control laws. In addition, there are more gun dealers than McDonald’s restaurants in the US.
Groups opposed to gun control in the U.S. spend enormous sums of money lobbying elected and government officials. It is estimated that the National Rifle Association, one of the most powerful groups advocating gun ownership, has spent more than ten times as much as gun control interest groups on its lobbying efforts in 2011 and the first three quarters of 2012.
A recent incident in China, just hours before the massacre in Connecticut, shows how tougher, better laws, can avoid this kind of tragedies. In Henan Province, a man wielding an 8-inch knife viciously attacked 22 children. Unlike the incident in Newtown, however, all children survived their injuries.
After this last tragedy, there is no excuse for lawmakers not to enact laws that control gun ownership by private citizens. The "right" to bear arms argument is a step backward from controlling violence. Now free from reelection concerns, it is up to President Barak Obama to promote the passing of laws that will contribute to lower the criminal impact of widespread and easy gun ownership in the US.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and the author of the Pan American Health Organization publication "Violence in the Americas."