Gun control in the United States

Caoimhe Gordon speaks to two American students about gun control in their nation.

Illustration by Megan Luddy

Another day, another shocking headline, another series of weeping families photographed to convey the sense of shock that has brought another town to a standstill in America. Another fiery statement from Trump, another erupting debate about the availability of guns, another sense of confusion from other nations towards those Americans who constantly defend the right to bear arms despite the number of deaths caused by gun violence. With two large mass shootings within the space of five weeks, it is poignant that the interviews for this article were completed before the announcement of a shooting in a Baptist church in Texas. At the time, reports were still emerging from behind the scenes of the Las Vegas shooting. Yet this shows the omnipresence of mass shootings in America. When the furore surrounding one begins to pass, another small town becomes synonymous with terror, fear and a rising death toll. Not only that, but it is transformed into another statistic, tacked onto the end of an article about the next mass shooting that will be deemed breaking news in the weeks or months to come.

Anthony Cole Hughes is a recent graduate, hailing from Arkansas in the south-east of the USA.  In Arkansas, like Texas, gun laws are generally considered quite relaxed: “Typically anyone can own a fireman over the age of 18, whether rifle, shotgun or handgun. However, you cannot conceal your firearm without a proper licensure. You can, however, open carry after you turn 21.” Open arm denotes the practise of carrying the gun in a holster openly on your hip. However, this law is not applicable to all. Hughes explains that the same option is not open to felons: “your gun owning privileges are revoked and if you’re caught with one, you’ll typically have your parole revoked and face more punishment”.

Charlie Jersey is a student at Williams College in Massachusetts, originally from Connecticut.  He is not sure of the guns law in his state: “I know that they’re rather loose, but I don’t know the specifics.” Gun laws in Connecticut typically require training, background check and permitting requirements for the purchase of firearms. These is stricter than the equivalent legal set of rules in Arkansas. There are also bans on some firearms classed as “assault weapons”. Like Arkansas, the system for open and concealed carry is relatively permissive.

Both Hughes and Jersey agree that the chief problem with the sale of guns in America is the overwhelming lack of background checks. Jersey would “ban the sale of assault rifles to private individuals and would increase the scope of background checks into purchasers of all types of rifles. Any mental illness in the last 10 years should automatically disqualify you from owning a gun of any kind, as should having performed a violent felony or having a restraining order in place against you”.

Hughes focuses his attention on this matter on the private gun sales events. There are, for example, three-day gun markets where any private seller can sell a gun to any private buyer. “Since background checks are what show whether someone is a convicted criminal and whether they’re allowed to possess a firearm, I feel they need to be done at these private events.”

However, their opinions differ when questioned about the government response towards these attacks. Hughes maintains a philosophical outlook: “One cannot govern morality: shooting someone is illegal and typically warrants a heavy sentence if done improperly. Other than punishing the culprit after the crime, there isn’t much the government can do to stop these mentally ill from obtaining firearms or from using them. Due to the vastness of our country’s landscape, it would be literally impossible, to seize and secure every weapon there is available to a mentally ill person who feels the need to injure others in mass.” He draws reference to the onslaught of attacks this side of Atlantic, stating: “The strict gun laws [in Europe] have neither helped nor hindered these events from taking place.” He personally believes that guns are not the dominating issue that the America faces: “Each year in the US there are more deaths by car accident than by gun; there are more deaths due to prescription medications.” He cites the opioid crisis, which has reached epidemic levels according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

As well as increasing gun control measures, Jersey feels the unregulated frenzy is an issue that requires tackling: “The news cycle and media are not being regulated well enough to stop the mass hysteria resulting from these attacks.” He refers to the reasoning behind the rampages of such gunmen, explaining “Many mass shootings are done as statements, seeking fame or pushing an agenda. Without the publicity garnered through the hyper-reactive media, many of these attacks would not have been performed in the first place.”

Finally, the question that causes the most strikingly opposite reactions from the two American citizens of similar age occurs when I enquire about their own personal beliefs on owning a gun. Hughes refers to the Second Amendment, explaining that his beliefs is in gun ownership as an individual right: “We, as citizens of the United States, have an individual right to possess and bear arms when we feel it most necessary.” He quotes the need to maintain “domestic tranquillity” and the ability to personally defend himself as the most pressing reasons for his choice. He is open about his own choice to carry a gun, explaining that while he now only owns one gun, he previously possessed up to 4: “I own a Glock handgun. It’s a black pistol, the same model that many of our police officers carry. It can carry 17 or 32 rounds.” Hughes has owned the pistol for 4 years “without incident.” He typically wears it on his hip or in his car. He sees his gun as a symbol of protection against “any enemy, foreign or domestic that may seek to endanger myself or those around him.” He believes that citizens have a right to ultimately protect their fellow man and that “our police officers do not always have the time to be there.”

His comments echo those of the Republican Attorney General of Texas, Ken Paxton, following the shooting at Sutherland Springs. He advised that the churches have a need to be “arming some of the parishioners”. Texans can carry a concealed weapon and Republicans such as Paxton encourage the purchase and concealment of gun carrying while simultaneously blocking any new federal government laws. This statement has now garnered support since the gunman Devin Patrick Kelley in Texas only fled from the scene as a local resident shot at him with a weapon he was legally carrying.  Meanwhile, the Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott was faced with a blast from the past as a tweet from 2015 where he urged Texans to “pick up the pace” and move out of second place for most new gun purchases in a state resurfaced.

Jersey’s opinion presents a stark difference to that of Hughes in Arkansas. “I think that owning a gun is asking for trouble in so many ways. You’re far more likely to kill yourself or a family member than you are an intruder, and that’s just with pistols. The fact that we can purchase assault rifles is patently absurd, especially considering the name: Assault rifle. That is not a defensive weapon. If you, a sane non-felon, want a shotgun, fine. If you want a pistol, fine. But assault rifles are unnecessary for anything but a shooting range. Those do not fall into the category of a self-protective weapon; they are used to murder.”

During the summer I spent in the America, the moment that a group of us stumbled upon the gun display in Wal-Mart remains eerily present in my mind. Clutching various American treats, we stood staring, giggling nervously at the glass cases in front of us. It was such a foreign concept, one which we had never experienced personally. However, it is more than a difference of cultures that pervades the sale of guns. Trump has said that the worst shooting in modern Texan history is not an issue of guns but “a mental health problem at the highest level” despite the fact Kelley’s mental health status has not yet being disclosed. However, this causes further controversy for many as Trump recently blocked plans by his predecessor Obama and supported by Hughes and Jersey that would have prevented an estimated 75,000 people with mental health issues buying guns. This saga of gun control looks set to continue and many Americans wait in fear that their town may be the next to be featured in headlines across the globe. Ken Paxton did not try to sugar-coat this in an interview with Fox news, commenting eerily “It’s going to happen again”.