The United States has a serious and urgent gun violence problem. Gun violence is broadly defined as any violence committed using a firearm (including pistols, assault rifles, and shotguns). Gun ownership is an acutely politicized and polarized issue in the US, since many citizens consider it integral to American identity. They argue that the Constitution’s Second Amendment enshrines their right to bear arms, which they frame as a fundamental American freedom. However, access to guns can be effectively monitored and restricted without infringing on Americans’ Constitutional freedoms. It is imperative that the US implement more rigorous and stringently enforced background checks, as well as federally mandated red flag laws, to ensure that guns are owned and used responsibly.
This issue is relevant now because gun violence in America is on the rise. The CDC reported that 2020 saw more Americans die from gun-related violence than any previous year, and studies forecast a continued increase in numbers. Many experts, including authorities and community leaders in Austin, Texas, attribute this trend to the ease with which Americans can access guns. In other words, these mounting deaths are preventable: tighter regulations around gun ownership could reduce the rise in fatalities. This is a national crisis requiring immediate action, and more lives are lost each day the government delays taking decisive measures.
Because this issue affects Americans nationwide and is highly politicized, gun violence needs to be addressed at the federal level. Myriad populations across the country feel the impacts of gun violence. In 2020 alone, the United States saw 45,222 gun-related deaths, the second-highest number worldwide. Of these, 43% — double the global average — can be attributed to violent causes such as murder. Rising gun violence has prompted more and more Americans to buy guns for self-defense, feeding a vicious cycle that can be stemmed by restricting access to guns. Since the right to bear arms is Constitutionally protected, any action taken to ensure that people exercise this right responsibly — without threatening their compatriots’ Constitutionally guaranteed right to life and the pursuit of happiness — must also be national in scope.
How exactly can this be done? The solution need not introduce radically new measures. Rather, it should focus on expanding and more stringently enforcing existing restrictions. Currently, gun buyers must pass a “background check” to verify that they do not have a criminal record and are in no other way ineligible to purchase a firearm. However, in the first nine months of 2020, the Federal Bureau of Investigation failed to complete over 316,000 background checks. This figure omits the months of October, November, and December, when gun purchases peaked, and it also excludes private sellers. Such bureaucratic delays have dire consequences: Dylann Roof, who killed nine people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, had a criminal record that should have shown up on his background check, but the FBI examiner did not receive his file in time. Clearly, the current system could be made substantially more effective simply through timely enforcement, without changing its framework.
In addition, current background checks are simply insufficient. Beyond just screening for a criminal record, firearm dealers should require buyers to complete gun violence training and a psychological examination, and gun owners should have to renew their licenses more frequently than once every five years. Rigorous background checks are an obvious and commonsensical measure, and researchers have also proven their efficacy: a 2017 Harvard University study found that more comprehensive background checks led to lower rates of firearm homicide and violence.
Finally, gun violence could be further reduced through “red flag laws,” which allow police or family to petition a court to temporarily remove firearms from people who may present a danger to themselves or others. 19 states have already implemented these laws, some with bipartisan support. Especially as the formal, bureaucratic background check process continues to lag, these laws create an alternative pathway for authorities to respond swiftly to dangerous situations. They form an essential component of effective gun policy and should be federally mandated.
The reforms required to begin curbing gun violence are not radical. They could entail simply expanding and more rigorously enforcing legislation that already exists. Every day the United States fails to act, more American lives are lost to gun violence. There is no reasonable argument against taking these life-saving measures; the federal government must act now to protect its citizens against this increasingly dire threat.
Coco Boehm (PPS ’24) is a Public Policy Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ’22 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.