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Are gun laws useless?

Leah Gunn Barrett of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, Sheriff David Clarke & Rep. Rehwinkel Vasilinda debate Sun 6pET

Gun laws did not prevent Dylann Roof in Charleston, James Holmes in Aurora, Jared Loughner in Tucson, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez in Chattanooga, Elliot Rodger in Santa Barbara, and the list goes on, from getting a gun.

According to a new study by the U.S. Congressional Research Service, mass shootings (an incident in which four or more people are killed with a gun) have increased in frequency. An analysis of FBI data found that between 1999 and 2013, there were 317 mass shootings in which 1,554 people were killed and 441 were wounded.

Between 1999 and 2013, there were 317 mass shootings in which 1,554 people were killed.

Congressional Research Service

U.S. has more guns, more gun deaths than any other developed country in the world

Although mass shootings get the most national attention, fatalities in those incidents make up a small fraction of all gun deaths in the U.S.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there was a total of about 464,033 gun deaths between 1999 and 2013, some 45% of which were homicides and about 55% of which were suicides.

The gun death rate in the U.S. has been declining, but the U.S. still has the highest rate of firearm homicides among developed countries.  Many point to the roughly 350 million civilian-owned guns in the U.S. as part of the problem and call for stricter firearm regulations.  Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, an outspoken gun rights advocate, says the call for more gun laws is a political move. He says, “Somebody who would take a firearm and use it against a human being… it’s a behavior problem. It’s not a firearms problem,” adding that “the criminal is always going to find a way around the law.... All this does is frustrate law-abiding people.”  

Leah Gunn Barrett, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, says “the logic for that is then, why have laws at all?”  Barrett says stricter gun regulations like background checks on all purchases would save lives by ensuring “guns don't fall into the hands of criminals, domestic abusers, terrorists, [and] the seriously mentally ill.”  Sheriff Clarke questions whether mental health information belongs in a criminal database. He says it’s a violation of privacy and “an insult to the overwhelming majority of people who are mentally ill” that wouldn’t go out and do what James Holmes or Dylann Roof did.

"The criminal is always going to find a way around the law… All this does is frustrate law-abiding people.”

Sheriff David Clarke


Strong support for background checks, restricting mentally ill

According to many polls including a recent Pew Research Center poll, a majority of Americans support both background checks on all gun sales (85%) and laws to prevent the mentally ill from buying guns (79%).  In Spring 2013, the year after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting that left 28 people dead including 20 children, Congress failed to pass a measure that would have expanded background checks.

Federally licensed gun dealers, of which there were 139,244 in 2013, are required to run background checks before they make a sale.  Between 1994 and 2010, the FBI processed more than 118 million applications.  About 2.1 million of those (1.8%) were denied based on federal law that prohibits those with a pending felony charge, domestic assault conviction or restraining order, unlawful immigration status, dishonorable discharge from the military, deemed mentally incompetent by a judge, or involuntarily institutionalized from purchasing a gun from a federally licensed dealer.

Well, the logic for that is then why have laws at all?.... Why should we have laws against murders since people are gonna continue to kill each other?

Leah Gunn Barrett


Private sales

This month, Oregon became the eighth state to require background checks on all private gun sales, including transactions on the internet.  Nearly three dozen states don’t require background checks on private gun sales. Leah Gunn Barrett says these sales are “why guns are falling into the wrong hands.”  Sheriff Clarke refutes that claim and says we don’t know how many of these guns are actually being used in crimes. President Obama has repeatedly said that “as many as 40 percent of all gun purchases are conducted without a background check,” but the data he’s pulling from is about 20 years old. There isn’t recent research that confirms that claim.

In fact, there is a deficiency in gun research altogether. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the agency charged with regulating firearms continues to see its budget slashed every year and the CDC hasn’t had a budget for gun research in 20 years.

Tune into the debate

Sunday on Third Rail, we ask: Are gun laws useless? Leah Gunn Barrett, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke and Florida Representative Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda who is calling for allowing concealed weapon permit holders to have their guns legally on college campuses, join us for the debate. Tune in at 6pET/3pPT on Al Jazeera America.

Follow Third Rail on Twitter @AJAMThirdRail and on Facebook for more from the show.


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