Gun control is a highly contentious and sensitive issue in the United States. It is one of the few countries in the world where regular everyday citizens and residents are allowed to possess a firearm of virtually any kind. The Second Amendment to the Constitution which directly grants the “right to bear arms” has been ingrained into the culture and social norms. This has resulted in the presence of a highly prosperous gun manufacturing and sale industry as well as a strong lobbying force with a majority of the population supporting gun ownership (Constitutional Rights Foundation, 2012). At the same time, such widespread availability and easy access to guns have also been correlated to the rise of gun homicides and mass shootings, with the US leading other industrialized nations for gun-related deaths with 39,000 firearm-related fatalities annually (Schell et al., 2020). This paper will explore the available research on gun control practices and examine the historical, existing, and potential legislation in regard to criminal justice policies.
Association with Criminal Justice
Guns and firearms are directly associated with criminal justice since their use as a lethal weapon is both heavily regulated and often leads to criminal outcomes. Gun violence is a highly prevalent issue in the US. It is present in three primary categories: 1) individual or domestic conflicts where the gun is used to intimidate, harm, or kill someone, which are all crimes; 2) criminal activity such as murder, robberies, or gang-on-gang violence; and 3) mass shootings, where an individual (usually acting alone) discharges firearms in public settings with the purpose to injure or kill indistinctly. As evident, these listed activities involving guns are all criminal violations of the law, resulting in the subsequent arrest and persecution of the perpetrator. Criminal justice is involved in investigating and charging crimes committed with guns. For example, homicides in the United States are most often committed with handguns, with 79% involving a firearm (Gramlich, 2022). Statistics of violent crimes involve weapons, particularly a wide variety of gun types are increasing. Both, crimes of passion and pre-meditated crimes, no matter if the individual is a regular person or a hardened criminal, are more likely to use guns due to its lethal potential and the availability to intimidate others who most likely do not carry guns, fulfilling the criminal intent they intend to commit.
In general, research done both globally and in the US, supports the notion that gun control policies tend to reduce gun violence and firearm-related deaths. While such policies do not conclusively reduce gun deaths, as firearms can be obtained illegally or bypassing any potential legal barriers, gun control policies generally generate tendencies of decreased homicides and firearm-involved crime. Many scholars on the topic support the hypothesis known as the weapon instrumentality effect. It suggests that the presence or access to guns contributes to higher levels of aggression and a higher chance that a firearm will be used leading to lethality in conflicts. While the presence of guns is not the only contributor to crime rates and criminal activity, it exacerbates the context, since even if the intent to kill is not present, the rate of lethality associated with guns goes up significantly in comparison to other potential weapons (Spieller, 2020).
Research typically indicates that proposed solutions such as tougher gun control laws in the form of full or partial restrictions, background checks, banning certain types of guns, and denying ownership are only effective if used in combination with other solutions. Particularly, gun control is associated with lower rates of gun deaths and non-suicide gun deaths if combined with greater access to mental health services or provider help experiencing mental issues and attempting to purchase a gun (Smith & Spiegler, 2017).
There are several examples when countries have completely banned firearms, such as the U.K, New Zealand, and Australia after experiencing mass shootings. Respectively, most European countries as well as in Asia have strict gun policies as well, requiring specific permissions and licenses that are difficult for everyday citizens to obtain. As a result, gun deaths per million people in most of these industrialized nations remains low, with the significant majority being unintentional deaths or suicides, and less than 5 per million being gun homicides. That is comparable to the US where nearly 36 per million deaths are firearm homicides (Dewan & Tarabay, 2017).
Suggestions for Improvement
Implementing the outright gun bans and heavy restrictions virtually excluding regular citizens from owning guns as other countries would be virtually impossible in the US. Due to the constitutionally protected right to bear arms, most courts would dismiss comprehensive and heavily restrictive gun control policies. At the same time, the political reality would not allow for any potential constitutional change or even realistically a federal bill that has strong restrictions. Realistically, policies to improve the situation have to begin at the state level, where there is a much greater success of implementation. Even if outright bans are not possible, individual restrictions as well as a combination of laws can have a significant effect of reducing firearm homicides between 5 and 20 percent (Santaella-Tenorio et al., 2016). There is a range of policies that can be pursued with a softer approach than outright limiting ownership limitations. There is legislation targeting firearm storage, specific firearms types (such as assault weapons), and increasing punishments and sentences for gun offenders. Background checks and increasing standards for gun ownership are also potentially effective measures. Furthermore, as research indicated, addressing the mental health crisis within the context of gun ownership can specifically target some concerns and potentially prevent violence.
Constitutional Rights Foundation. (2012). Policies on guns. Web.
Dewan, A., & Tarabay, J. (2017, December 6). What the UK and Australia did differently after mass shootings. CNN. Web.
Gramlich, J. (2022). What the data says about gun deaths in the U.S. Web.
Schell, T. L., Cefalu, M., Griffin, B. A., Smart, R., & Morral, A. R. (2020). Changes in firearm mortality following the implementation of state laws regulating firearm access and use. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(26), 14906–14910. Web.
Smith, J., & Spiegler, J. (2017). Explaining gun deaths: Gun control, mental illness, and policymaking in the American States. Policy Studies Journal, 48(1). Web.
Spieller, L. (2020). Gun control in America: A global comparison. Themis: Research Journal of Justice Studies and Forensic Science, 8(7), 1-14. Web.