The United States has come under fire recently for their gun control laws (no pun intended); with the deadliest mass shooting in the country’s history happening this past October (Las Vegas), and with the tragic school shooting at Majory Stoneman Douglas High School happening just last month on February 14th, 2018. Are these mass shootings enough to change gun control? The National Rifle Association (NRA) probably thinks not, but with the movement gaining strength with Millennials and Generation Zer’s behind it, are these Baby Boomer era gun laws about to change? We might not find out anytime soon, but shouldn’t this be the time we look into changing? Thoughts and prayers have become insufficient means of coping with mass shootings, but what laws should the United States enact? Will the Legislature take the next step, or will the Supreme Court need to overrule past cases to create a new precedent? We may not know what venue will be taken, but what we can know is how to implement successful gun laws. We can look to the neighbouring countries and find concrete coping mechanisms that aren’t just tweets of “thoughts and prayers to the victims’ families.”
To lay the ground work, the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution simply 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.”[i]
At first instance, one can think that this simply allows the right to bear arms under the presumption that the arms belong to the independent state militia – or at least that was my first thought the first time I read the United States Constitution thoroughly, when I was 23 years old and about to start law school in Pennsylvania. However, I really only truly understood the constitution when I was a 1L and took a constitutional law class. You see, the United States is the home of the “oldest [working] written constitution still in use today.”[ii] So it can be confusing to understand how something written in 1787 translate into eighteen-year-old Nikolas Cruz[iii] walking into a shop and buying an AR-15 assault rifle?
Well, long story short, judicial interpretation is really the main reason the Second Amendment has given power to the citizens of the United States to be able to obtain and hold guns as individuals.[iv] In 2008, everything changed when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (a justice who believes in the originalist interpretation of the Constitution – which means exactly what you think it means, he believes the constitution should be given the meaning that the Framer’s intended when it was written over 200 years ago in a practically different civilization) wrote the majority opinion for the Supreme Court of the United States and found that “The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.”[v]
Now, let’s compare this right to bear arms that was so hard fought for by Justice Scalia to how the world handles gun laws. Firstly, let us look at the statistics and numbers that are directly related to gun ownership, and the derivative of that, homicide by gun violence rates.
Gun ownership rates in America is nearly triple the next country, Norway, as you can see in the graph above. While it is interesting to note that gun ownership in America is massively disproportionate to the next country, we will give it to the fact that America does have a population 65 times that of Norway and about 10 times that of Canada, the third country in high gun ownership rates. But, how does this relate to gun homicides per country?
It’s remarkable that the only country, besides the United States, that has reached the milestone of more than 100,000 gun homicides is Israel, a country that since 2000 has experience five separate wars.
Now the question to ask is, how does Norway, with the second highest gun ownership rates, keep their homicide rates so low? Or how does Canada, Australia, or the United Kingdom keep their homicide rates so low?
Well, in America to obtain a gun “you can buy a semi-automatic gun ‘in 15 minutes’” it took even less time when “a reporter from the Philly Inquirer” bought an AR-15 in “seven minutes.”[vii] The gun laws in America vary by state, as with most other laws in America. While in some states the “store will run two background checks, a state check, and a federal check … provid[ing] nearly instantaneous results[,]” it is still alarming that “in 33 states, private sellers are allowed to sell guns without performing any kind of background check – state or federal.” [viii]
In America’s neighbours to the North, Canada, only the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (the federal police) are allowed to distribute gun licenses for restricted guns, which include handguns or any other restricted firearms.[ix]
When these mass shootings occur, the world is quick to compare America to Canada, but a country that responded beautifully to a mass shooting – and has not since had one – Australia should not be overlooked. In 1996, Australia was devastated by a mass shooting that resulting in 35 people dying and 23 being wounded.[x] What was the response that Australia had? Well, twitter wasn’t invented then, certainly not “thoughts and prayers” the response was to enact some of the “most comprehensive firearm laws in the world.”[xi]
“Less than two weeks after the [Australian] massacre, all six … states agreed to enact the same sweeping gun laws banning semi-automatic rifles and shotguns – weapons that can kill many people quickly.”[xii] Now, to obtain a gun in Australia, it is plainly illegal to own anything automatic, or semi-automatic or anything that would allow a shooter to go on a devastating shooting spree. What was the result of these bans? There has not been another mass shooting since 1996. Today, citizens in Australia must be judged as fit and proper persons, must be 18 years old or over, have to “have undergone firearms safety training course[s] and; have provided documentation about the storage arrangements in which they will secure the firearm.”[xiii] And of course, firearms need to be registered.[xiv]
So, do the reinforced, restrictive gun laws that were enacted post-massacre in Australia have any correlation to the fact that haven’t had another mass shooting since then? I think yes. So, what should America do? Firstly, its repulsive that the NRA has used this time post-school shooting to up their PR and fundraise, tripling their donations.[xv] But you can’t blame that on all Americans, but what you can get angry about is the fact that legislation has given more pushback to the proposed bans on semi-automatic weapons than they have supported it. America needs to learn from these mistakes, instead of letting history repeat itself. America needs gun reform. The literal children who sound more educated than some elected representatives, simply want reform. They want it to be harder to obtain guns, to put in screening tests like Australia. To have gun registration and licenses to be fully regulated, perhaps like in Canada by the federal police. This is not just about the rights under the United States Constitution anymore, this about lives that are recklessly being lost.
Justice Stevens, who famously dissented to Justice Scalia’s opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on March 27th, 2018, summarized the opinions of many today, post-Newton, post-Orlando, post-Las Vegas, post-Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and I’ll leave you with this, these kids who are demanded for change, demanding for reform, “should demand a repeal of the Second Amendment.”[xvi]
About the Author: Pooja Toor is a 2L at Penn State Law.
[i] U.S.C.A. Const. Amend. II
[ii] Goodlatte says U.S. has the oldest working national constitution, @politifact,
http://www.politifact.com/virginia/statements/2014/sep/22/bob-goodlatte/goodlatte-says-us-has-oldest-working-national-cons/ (last visited Mar 20, 2018).
[iii] CBS News, Florida school shooting suspect bought 7 rifles in past year, law enforcement
source says CBS News (2018), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/florida-school-shooting-suspect-nikolas-cruz-bought-seven-rifles/ (last visited Mar 18, 2018).
[iv]D.C. v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 128 S. Ct. 2783, 2786, 171 L. Ed. 2d 637 (2008)
[v] D.C. v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 128 S. Ct. 2783, 2786, 171 L. Ed. 2d 637 (2008)
[vi] U.S. Gun Policy: Global Comparisons, Council on Foreign Relations,
https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/us-gun-policy-global-comparisons (last visited Mar 23, 2018).
[vii] Kate Taylor, Here’s how easy it is to legally buy a semiautomatic gun in the US Business
Insider (2018), http://www.businessinsider.com/how-to-buy-a-gun-2017-10 (last visited Mar 23, 2018).
[ix] Government of Canada, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Frequently Asked Questions –
General Frequently Asked Questions – General – Royal Canadian Mounted Police (2013), http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/cfp-pcaf/faq/index-eng.htm (last visited Mar 23, 2018).
[x] Krishnadev Calamur, Australia’s Lessons on Gun Control The Atlantic (2017),
https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/10/australia-gun-control/541710/ (last visited Mar 23, 2018).
[xi] Australian Institute of Criminology, Publications search Australian Institute of Criminology
(2018), https://aic.gov.au/publications/current series/rpp/100-120/rpp116/06_reforms.html (last visited Mar 23, 2018).
[xii] Katie Beck, Are Australia’s gun laws the solution for the US? BBC News (2017),
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-35048251 (last visited Mar 23, 2018).
[xiii] Sylvia Varnham O’Regan, How easy is it to get a gun in Australia? SBS News (2015),
https://www.sbs.com.au/news/how-easy-is-it-to-get-a-gun-in-australia (last visited Mar 23, 2018).
[xv] AJ Willingham, Donations to the NRA tripled after the Parkland shooting CNN (2018),
https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/28/us/nra-donations-spike-parkland-shooting-trnd/index.html (last visited Mar 29, 2018).
[xvi] John Paul Stevens, John Paul Stevens: Repeal the Second Amendment The New York Times
(2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/27/opinion/john-paul-stevens-repeal-second-amendment.html (last visited Mar 29, 2018).