Gun Violence is a Human Rights Issue
By Zeke Johnson, Senior Director of Programs at Amnesty International USA
There’s a crucial point missing from the debate about gun violence: Saving lives is not a policy choice for elected officials to consider or ignore — rather, it is a binding legal obligation on the US government under human rights treaties that the US has signed and ratified, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Taken together, these human rights treaties can be thought of as a constitution for the world, enshrining rights like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people in all places, without discrimination or prejudice of any kind.
Of course, a key challenge is how to enforce these obligations and that’s where activism — like the youth-led March for Our Lives on March 24 in DC and across the country — plays a critical role. We the people must demand that our elected officials respect, protect and fulfill our human rights — including those of people most impacted by gun violence: youth, women and people of color.
In that context, here are several steps that the US government can and should take to move closer to meeting its human rights obligations to protect our lives from gun violence. No elected official should ever claim that there’s nothing that can be done to stop gun violence. It’s the opposite — there’s plenty.
This list is not exhaustive nor are these measures in conflict with the Second Amendment. The US Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that restrictions on access to weapons can be consistent with the Second Amendment.
The US government can and should:
1) Pass universal background check legislation that ensures a minimum standard across the country to ensure firearms are not accessed by individuals at risk of misusing them. This should also include mandatory training in firearms law and safety, and comprehensive licensing and permitting systems at the state and local level. State and federal agencies should also be required to report records to the NICS database, to reduce the risk of dangerous individuals having access to firearms. Passing the “FixNICs” bill would be a good step toward creating transparency and accountability in how state and federal entities report records to the FBI, while establishing incentives and support for states to build systems for timely and accurate reporting.
2) Fund research into gun violence prevention a as a public health issues as well as research into gun safety, including by repealing policy riders including the Dickey Amendment, which are attached to federal appropriations bills, limiting funding and placing restrictions on research related to firearms by the Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health, and other government agencies, and passing a bill to authorize the appropriation of funds to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for conducting or supporting research on firearms safety or gun violence prevention. (S.884; H.R. 1832)
3) Pass legislation that protects survivors of domestic violence, prevents abusers from accessing guns, and expands the current federal law to prevent armed “dating partners” and misdemeanor stalkers from posing a threat to others, including the Domestic Violence Survivor Protection Act (H.R. 4186; S.2044), among others.
4) Fund, implement and evaluate evidence-based locally run youth and gun violence prevention and intervention programs, including by passing the Youth PROMISE Act (H.R. 2197; S.1770).
5) Ban so-called “assault” weapons. Military grade firearms that represent a high level of risk to public safety and significantly increase the risk of excessive injury should be prohibited for non-military use, including modifications for weapons that allow rapid firing and armor piercing ammunition
6) Reform the criminal justice system to ensure all aspects of law enforcement, including policing, prisons, and judicial systems, are human rights-compliant and not themselves contributing to the problem. Measures should include changing law enforcement policies that profile and target communities of color, providing implicit bias and de-escalation training, increasing transparency in systems of accountability and use of force policies, and where possible, creating accountability and review mechanisms/committees in collaboration with civilians in affected communities, and introducing or amending statutes that authorize the use of lethal force to ensure that they are in line with international standards — by limiting the use of lethal force by law enforcement to those instances in which it is necessary to protect against an imminent threat of death or serious injury.
7) Ensure that the human rights of communities most-impacted by gun violence are respected, protected and fulfilled, including full access to basic services, such as health care, education, water and sanitation.
8) Provide funding for direct services, especially those in the most impacted communities to address the physical and psychological health impacts of gun violence.
9) Ensure that gun manufacturers adopt measures to minimize the risk that their products are used to violate human rights and repeal legislation that provides broad immunity for gun manufacturers and dealers selling firearms, so that they are held to the same standard of accountability as manufacturers of other goods and services.
10) Defeat NRA-funded proposals to eliminate safeguards and oversight on the purchase and transfer of firearm silencers, arm teachers and make it easier to carry concealed weapons across the US. The last measure, passed the House and is currently stalled in the Senate. Call your Senators and urge them to vote NO on S.446, the Constitutional Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act.
Bigger picture, in my opinion, the systemic drivers of toxic masculinity, discrimination, inequality, poverty and white supremacy must also be addressed for there to be real safety, justice and human rights for all.
As a next step to claim your rights, join students and youth across the country at a March for Our Lives event on March 24th.