The horrific and terrifying tragedy in Uvalde, Texas on May 24, 2022, where 19 children and 2 teachers were murdered in their elementary school classroom by a gunman with a semi-automatic rifle, was the second deadliest school shooting on record in the US (second only to the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012). As an American, a mother, and an educator, I care deeply about finding a solution to gun violence in the US. So when Al Jazeera English called to see if I would join a panel of guests to discuss the issue on the May 26 episode of Inside Story, I was honored to accept.
I’m a comparative political scientist, which means I try to understand the world through comparison. And when we compare the US to every other country in the world, we are an anomaly when it comes to both gun ownership and gun violence. US civilians (not counting our military) own about 400 million guns, which is about 120 guns per 100 people. This is far more civilian gun ownership than any other country in the world—the next closest country is Yemen, a failed state in the midst of a long-running civil war where civilians arguably need guns to provide basic protection for their families, and yet Yemen only has 50 guns per 100 people.
Keep in mind that gun ownership in the US is not spread equally among the population. About 40% of US households report having a gun, with 30% of Americans reporting that they personally own a gun, according to a 2021 Pew Research Survey. So these 400 million guns are actually concentrated in the hands of about 100 million Americans (out of a total population of 330 million Americans).
The important takeaway is this: We are not a nation of gun owners. We are a nation where a minority of the population owns a majority of the guns in the world.
The good news is that 70% of Americans agree that gun violence is an important problem to solve. The problem is that we are divided about how to solve this problem, due to different opinions between gun owners and non–gun owners, as well as the partisan division between Democrats and Republicans. A little more than half of Americans think we should have stricter gun laws, with Democrats, Democrat-leaning independents, and non–gun owners much more likely to favor stricter gun control laws. Many of these people have been sharing memes online that have “thoughts and prayers” crossed out, with “policy and change” written underneath. But 30% of Americans think the laws are about right, and 15% of Americans think the laws should be loosened. So what sort of policy changes can we accomplish in our polarized political environment?
We have bipartisan agreement on certain gun policy changes. Both Democrats (90%) and Republicans (85%) agree that we should prevent those with mental illness from purchasing guns. And we agree on the importance of requiring private gun sales and gun show sales to conduct background checks (with 90% of Democrats and 70% of Republicans in favor of this change, and plenty of evidence showing that background checks make a difference). But in terms of larger-scale policy reforms, such as banning high-capacity ammunition magazines and assault-style weapons, and creating a federal government database to track gun sales, Democrats are generally in favor while Republicans are generally against these measures.
Coach Steve Kerr’s impassioned plea for policy change focused on HR 8, a bill that the US House of Representatives had passed to tighten private gun sales by requiring background checks. The House had also recently passed HR 1446 and HR 350, two additional gun control measures. But the issue in our federal government is that the House can pass legislation by majority rule, while the Senate needs a supermajority—60 out of 100 votes—to get past any Senator who wants to obstruct the bill through a filibuster. So even highly bipartisan policies, like strengthening background checks, which are supported by 70% to 90% of Americans of both political parties, can be blocked by Senators who are against gun control measures.
The recent passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act in the Senate, with the backing of 15 Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, would be “the most significant action in decades to overhaul the nation’s gun laws,” according to the New York Times. It achieves this bipartisan support by focusing on what we can agree upon: strengthening background checks and red flag laws, ensuring that abusive dating partners cannot purchase firearms, and enhancing funding for mental health services and school safety programs. These policies will make a difference. But for many people, the bill still falls short of what they wish to see in terms of gun control in the US.
Here’s where the US system of federalism matters. Federalism means that the states have powers to regulate themselves. We already see this with some states having stricter gun policies than others. State and local level policy arenas can easily be ignored by people who want to see a big change on the national level, but that’s not the way that the US system of government was set up to function. It’s important for people who care about this issue to look into how they can reach out to their local and state politicians and make change happen on the state level. People have a lot more power than they realize when they switch from a focus on the national Congress to their own state and local governments. Big changes can happen at the state and local level that can make big differences to their communities.
The Inside Story guest program, “What’s stopping action on gun control in the US?”, begins four minutes into the show. The other speakers were interesting and it was a meaningful experience for me to be a part of the conversation. I encourage everyone to look not only at the national level but also at local and state-level politics for how they can help make their communities safer.