“Given the potential harm and devastating impact of the misuse of firearms on the enjoyment of human rights, public policies with respect to civilian access to firearms should be … formulated through a human rights lens.” — United Nations, 2016
Simply put, universal background checks would help prevent dangerous people from having guns. It’d mean that if I want to buy a gun anywhere, any gun seller would first ensure that I don’t have a record of violent crimes, domestic abuse, restraining orders, or other factors that might prohibit me from owning a gun.
So, what do universal background checks have to do with human rights?
1. You have the right to stay alive
Your right to live makes all of your other human rights possible. But because of our government’s failure to curb gun violence, we see more and more people deprived of this fundamental right every day — both in the headlines, and in our own communities.
Your basic right to stay alive is put at risk when dangerous people are able to access guns. It could be taken away arbitrarily, in an act of random violence while walking down the street, or in a planned attack.
How would universal background checks help? Requiring each person who wants to buy a gun, no matter where they buy it from, to first pass a background check would mean fewer deadly weapons in the hands of people most likely to misuse them, and that means fewer people arbitrarily deprived of their right to live.
2. You have the right to health
I pray that my loved ones are never among the approx. 317 people that are non-fatally shot every day, because the devastating effects of gun violence don’t stop when the bullets stop flying.
Survivors of gun violence face lifelong physical and psychological consequences, and often require medical care that may be prohibitively expensive. If the current average of 116,000 people suffering non-fatal gun violence injuries every year is maintained, that could mean over 8 million people injured by gun violence over a single generation — a potential public health crisis of astonishing proportions.
We all have the right to health — both mental and physical. This is not to the same as the right to be healthy (no one can have perfect health all the time), but rather the right — enshrined in international law — to the highest attainable standard of mental and physical health. This means that we should all be able to access health care services and information regardless of who we are or where we live.
How would universal background checks help? Studies show that gun violence levels decrease where background checks are carried out on every gun purchase, which means less people enduring traumatic lifelong injuries.
3. You have the right to education
Between January 2013 and August 2018, there were at least 344 incidents of gunfire on school grounds in the U.S. Whether you go to school, have a child in school, or simply read the horrific stories in the news, we are all deeply affected by gun violence in and around schools. It impacts the right to education by creating an environment of fear that affects learning and can result in lifelong psychological effects.
One of the guns used in one of the most high-profile school shootings in U.S. history — Columbine — was acquired in a purchase that would not have been possible if universal background checks had been in place. And for some students, the prevalence of gun violence means that their journey to and from school itself can be deadly.
Ultimately, if your journey to school requires constant vigilance in order to avoid bullets, or if your school day involves stress triggers such as active shooter drills, armed teachers, and the ever-present threat of a school shooting, your right to a meaningfully accessible education is not able to be fully realized.
How would universal background checks help? Universal background checks could help make the journey to and from school safer by making it harder to traffic the weapons that flood our streets. They would also help prevent guns from ending up in the hands of people who are most likely to cause harm within our schools.
Many steps are needed to prevent gun violence in and around our schools, but universal background checks are an important step in the right direction.
4. You have the right to be free from domestic violence
If you are experiencing domestic abuse, your susceptibility to deadly gun violence goes way up: 4.5 million American women alive today have been threatened by an abuser with a firearm, and most intimate partner homicides are committed with guns.
Even if a convicted domestic abuser is forced to give up their gun(s), gaps in federal law mean that in most states they can simply go to a private online seller, bypass any background check, and buy another one.
How would universal background checks help? Studies show that in states that require background checks for the purchase of all guns, 46% fewer women are shot to death by an intimate partner. Until universal background checks are required for the purchase of every gun, people most likely to misuse firearms will remain armed and dangerous, threatening the rights of the most vulnerable.
You have the right to live.
You have the right to health.
You have the right to education.
You have the right to be free from domestic violence.
Until our government takes action to regulate firearms, these rights are under attack.
Your voice is more powerful than you think, and only you can use it.
Emily Walsh is Amnesty International USA’s Campaigner on Ending Gun Violence. For more information and opportunities to get involved, visit endgunviolence.amnestyusa.org.