In the United States, gun control is hotly debated and has been since the addition of the Second Amendment to the Constitution in 1791. Today, the right to bear arms is one of the most polarizing issues in terms of constitutionally protected freedoms. While gun owners and non-gun owners have similar views on the importance of other rights and freedoms, 74% of gun owners believe that gun ownership is essential to freedom, while only 35% of people who do not own guns agree.² While mass shootings and homicide get the most attention in gun control debates and legislation, domestic violence and suicide make up a significant proportion of gun violence statistics. Gun violence includes intentional or accidental suicides, deaths, and injuries caused by firearms.¹ It also disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income communities.
Includes references to potentially traumatic events and physical violence.
With the start of the American Revolutionary War, the necessity of having guns became more prominent throughout society as a means of defense. Before the war, American colonies primarily utilized guns for hunting and general self-protection.¹¹
While gun culture was starting to develop amongst white Americans, the Second Amendment often failed to protect African Americans from the unjust enforcement of gun laws. Owning a gun became increasingly dangerous for Black people due to their limited gun rights as they tried to protect themselves or others.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, attitudes surrounding the ideals about owning guns began to shift once again. White southerners now believed that guns were useful to protect property and family. Due to the widespread fear that legislation was starting to favor the interests of African Americans during the Reconstruction Era, armed white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) started to emerge in an effort to intimidate Black Americans.¹²
One instance of intimidation demonstrated by the KKK was in opposition to the 1872 Republican win, which allowed Republicans to retain control of the State. The Colfax Massacre that took place in Colfax, Louisiana on April 13, 1873, in which a force of white Democrats overpowered Black Republicans and Black State militia, murdering approximately 150, most after they surrendered,⁴ was an early example of the violence perpetuated towards those of different racial groups as a result of the abuse in the ownership of guns.
With the increasing aggression and intimidation from organizations like the KKK, African Americans began countering this violence by creating various groups. Black U.S. Army veterans from Jonesboro, Louisiana, created the Deacons for Defense and Justice in 1964, which was an armed self-defense group that intended to protect and support Civil Rights activists from the violence and opposition of white supremacist groups and discriminatory police under Jim Crow laws.¹³
For African Americans during the Civil Rights era, it was imperative that they create a means of protection and self-defense through gun ownership. The vastly different reasons why African Americans and white Americans owned guns have further been exemplified through other groups such as the Black Panther Party, which was founded in 1966 and famously supported the right of Black Americans to bear arms in public.⁸
Shannon Watts, the mother who founded the grassroots movement “Moms Demand Action” in 2012, began sharing her message that all Americans can and should do more to reduce gun violence⁹ using a Facebook group she created just a day after the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting. This grassroots movement mobilizes Americans from across the nation to fight for and establish effective public safety measures that would ensure the protection of all people from the impacts of gun violence.
On March 24, 2018, there was a student-led demonstration called “March For Our Lives” in Washington, D.C. It was led by a group of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as a call for gun control legislation shortly after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that took place in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018.
Since that single-day protest in 2018, March For Our Lives has grown into hundreds of chapters and has met with family members, community leaders, and survivors of gun violence from across the country.¹⁰ These organizations, along with many other movements, seek to combat the gun culture that has allowed gun violence to continue to survive throughout communities.
The topic of gun reform constantly resurfaces after high-profile mass shootings every few months. Throughout recent years, gun reform advocates have vocalized their concerns over the lack of gun reform policies that would ensure the safety of all people in public places. For example, following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the families of the victims sued the maker of the Bushmaster XM15-E2S semiautomatic rifle that was used by the gunman after little action was taken for gun reform.⁷
More recently, President Joe Biden has persistently urged Congress to take immediate action toward gun reform by proposing a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.⁶ Additionally, Biden has pushed for raising the age for those that can purchase assault weapons
from 18 to 21, strengthening background checks, and publishing examples of how states can implement “red flag” legislation, which would allow police or family members to petition a court to bar an individual from accessing firearms.³
As of March 2023, there have been 12 school shootings this year that have resulted in injuries or deaths.²¹ Young people across America are seeing the impacts of gun violence first hand within their schools and/or universities. Additionally, in 2020 alone, 4,300 children died from firearms, and many of today’s youth have grown up practicing active shooter drills in schools.²⁰ Countless schools in America have taken these necessary precautions due to shootings being a critical emergency.
In 2022, 46 shootings occurred in K-12 schools, which exceeded 2021’s number of 42 schools, according to the Washington Post.¹⁵ To put this into perspective, more than 344,000 students in school have experienced forms of gun violence since the Columbine High School shooting that took place in 1999, where 13 people were killed.¹⁴
Guns have exacerbated the issue of gender-based violence (GBV). The International Rescue Committee defines GBV as acts of abuse perpetrated against a person’s will and rooted in a system of unequal power between women and men.²³ The World Health Organization discusses and defines IPV as any behavior that results in physical, sexual, or psychological harm within an intimate relationship.¹⁸
Add firearms to the equation, and IPV victims face an even graver threat. Furthermore, perpetrators continuously escape consequences through gaps in weak gun laws, such as the “boyfriend loophole.”
Gun violence has played a significant role in hate crimes and attacks. The United States Department of Justice defines a hate crime as “a crime motivated by bias against race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability.”¹⁹
Alongside the issue of gun violence that has been causing insurmountable distress for minoritized groups of people, those in the public health field have cited that the role gun violence plays in hate crimes is a public health issue.¹⁷
As a result of the effects of white supremacy on society, those with varying backgrounds and identities have been a target for violent attacks, and this violence can intertwine with racism, antisemitism, homophobia, and transphobia.¹⁷ The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) is in support of addressing gun violence through a comprehensive public health approach.¹⁷ In this approach, some suggestions include working with social movements to further social justice and health equity, banning assault rifles, and expanding background checks.