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Guns and Violence
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This Discussion Guide is part of Community Conversations at FOCUS St. Louis.  It is meant to initiate civil discourse around the policies that affect the St. Louis region; to hear each other’s perspective. As is the case with all public policies, this issue is complex and multi-faceted, with many stakeholders. Please keep this in mind as you discuss guns and violence in your community.

Guns and Violence

On December 14, 2012, a mentally disturbed young man opened fire at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, and murdered 26 people, including 20 children. In the wake of this tragedy, President Obama addressed a grieving crowd in which he issued a call to action:

We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.

The purpose of this paper is not to endorse any specific course of action, but rather to assemble some facts about guns and violence, and to list some of the solutions that have been proposed from a variety of perspectives.  We are writing another discussion guide that addresses mental health in the context of violence – we will provide a link as soon as that paper is posted.

Background facts:
  • The estimated total number of guns owned by civilians in the U.S. is 270 million. That translates into 88.8 firearms per 100 people.
  • Of the homicides for which the FBI received weapons data, two thirds (67.8 %) involved the use of firearms. Handguns comprised 72.5 % of the firearms used in reported incidents in 2011.
  • According to the FBI, rifles, including assault rifles, accounted for only 323 of the 12,664 murders in 2011 for which the FBI received supplemental information. Extrapolating, rifles accounted for less than 3% of the murders in 2011.
  • The Harvard School of Public Health conducted an extensive literature review and concluded that more guns lead to more homicides.
  • States with stricter gun control laws have fewer deaths from gun-related violence.
  • In the District of Columbia v. Heller decision of 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to possess a firearm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home. However, the Courts have often ruled that guns and ammunition can be regulated. (For instance, it is illegal in the U.S. to buy or sell fully automatic rifles.)
  • Guns sold through regular retail outlets must comply with state and federal regulations, which include a criminal and mental health background check.
  • Critics complain that many "private sales” at gun shows do not require the same background checks required by guns sales at regular retail outlets. According to some estimates, 40% of guns sold in the U.S. are sold without a background check.
  • In a 2011 Gallup poll, 73% of Americans opposed handgun control.
Some changes that have been discussed since the shootings in Newtown CT:
The following positions have been advocated in a variety of public forums. This is not necessarily an exhaustive list of all policy options, and FOCUS St. Louis does not advocate for any single policy on this issue.
  • There should be armed guards at all schools.
  • Instead of making schools "gun-free zones,” we should work instead to ensure that at least some teachers and staff are armed.
  • We need to outlaw or heavily regulate the sales and possession of semi-automatic assault rifles, which have been used by assailants in most of the mass shootings since Columbine.
  • We need to tighten the "gun show loopholes” that allow people to purchase weapons without significant background checks.
  • We need to create and maintain a registry of all gun owners in the U.S.
  • We should pass laws or, if need be, a constitutional amendment to outlaw guns in America.
  • We need a better registry of people with mental illnesses to ensure that they cannot purchase firearms.

Three Possible Perspectives:

Person A agrees with the NRA statement that "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." Thus, we need policies that facilitate gun ownership by law-abiding citizens.

Person B believes that the main problem is that there are too many guns in America, and we need to (a) pass laws that make it harder to purchase guns, and (b) enact programs, such as buy-back programs, that will decrease the number of guns in circulation in America.

Person C believes in increased regulation of guns, such as regulating the types of bullets or magazines allowed, or limiting the firepower of guns that can be legally purchased.  

Discussion Questions:

  1. Which person (A, B or C) do you most identify with? Why?
  2. Would we be safer if more people carried firearms to defend themselves and others from criminals or mentally unbalanced people?
  3. How can we keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people? Is this an appropriate policy goal?
  4. What other strategies can you suggest to avoid or reduce the number of mass shootings in America?

Links for further reading:

  1. Federal Bureau of Investigation: Expanded Homicide Data 2011
  2. Harvard Injury Control Research Center
  3. July 16, 2013 St. Louis Beacon Article: Zimmerman verdict raises questions about fairness, profiling and guns
  4. October 26, 2011 Gallup Politics: Record Low 26% in U.S. Favor Handgun Ban
  5. December 14, 2012 Washington Post article: Twelve Facts about Guns and Mass Shootings in the U.S.
  6. December 2012 The Atlantic article: The Case for More Guns (And More Gun Control)
  7. National Council of State Legislatures: Possession of a Firearm by People with Mental Illness
  8. Gun Policy.Org - United States Gun Facts, Figures and the Law
  9. About.Com: Gun Show Rules and Gun Laws
  10. St. Louis Public Radio/The Beacon Missouri Legislative Tracker
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