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The Lethal and Lasting Impacts of Gun Violence in America

By Paul Morrow & Shelley Inglis

Although 2022 is not yet half over, the year has already proved deadly for gun violence in America. Two weeks ago, racially and politically motivated shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Laguna Woods, Calif., left 11 people dead. This week, an 18-year-old man murdered 19 schoolchildren and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. The perpetrator of the Buffalo killings was also an 18-year-old male. Overall, according to the Gun Violence Archive, more than 200 mass shootings have taken place in the U.S. so far this year. 

In Dayton, these killings hit close to home. Since the August 2019 mass shooting in the Oregon District, perpetrated by a young area resident, the Human Rights Center has been engaged in research and education on gun violence. We hosted a community roundtable on gun violence featuring survivors and city officials just before the onset of the COVID pandemic. Students and staff subsequently contributed to the Facing Gun Violence oral history project, to advocacy campaigns led by Moms Demand Action and the League of Women Voters and to other local, state and national gun safety efforts. 

In August 2021, the HRC submitted a memo on the human rights implications of youth acquisition, possession, and use of firearms to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Drawing on UD law student research, we identified major regulatory gaps in federal and state gun policies which enable youth gun violence. One key gap concerns the wide differences among states in how residents can report dangerous or threatening behavior by young people who may seek to acquire firearms. Another gap centers on the perplexing fact that youths aged 18-20 are prohibited under federal law from possessing handguns, but are freely permitted in many states to possess more lethal semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15. Such semi-automatic weapons are heavily marketed to young men, and have been used in almost all major mass shootings over the past decade. 

One predictable response to mass shootings, especially among opponents of strict gun laws, is to look for signs of mental health issues or substance abuse among perpetrators, including youth perpetrators. Leading prevention frameworks rightly regard both of these as risk factors for violence. In some cases, as in the 2019 Dayton mass shooting, investigations found that both factors may have contributed to the perpetrator’s actions. However, while the contributions of mental health and substance abuse issues vary by case, and while racist, sexist, and other motivations for mass shootings also differ, the clear common denominator is easy access to guns. Research shows that decreasing access to guns reduces gun violence. The contrary argument, that widespread possession of guns increases public safety, simply has no evidentiary basis. 

Governments have a responsibility to prevent gun violence, because it violates a range of fundamental rights. They also are responsible for conducting thorough investigations in the wake of shootings, and for taking other remedial actions. Shootings violate the right to life, right to health, and right to bodily integrity; they may also undermine the right to assembly, right to freedom of worship, and right to expression. In the US, where firearms recently became the leading cause of death for children, the right to a quality education provided by the government is also undermined. Attacks targeting members of a particular race, gender, or ethnicity, such as this month’s mass shooting in Buffalo or the August 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, compound the damage done to individuals’ rights to equal participation in social, political, and cultural life and to equal protection under the law. 

Gun violence represents an enduring assault on human life and dignity for the families of victims and survivors. In his contribution to the Facing Gun Violence project, Oregon District shooting survivor Dion Green remarked that “this is something I’m going to have to live with for the rest of my life.”

During the past two weeks alone, hundreds more Americans have suffered similar traumas, and awakened to similar realities of what it means to live in a society marked by such a systemic rights violation. 

International human rights law does not recognize a right to bear arms. In the U.S., both the federal and the various state constitutions establish such a right, but this does not mean that restrictions on firearm usage or ownership cannot be established. At present, however, the legislative processes that might enact such restrictions have broken down completely. Gun safety legislation introduced at the state and federal levels in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, the 2017 Parkland shooting and the 2019 Oregon District shooting failed to pass; at the same time, restrictions on the acquisition and use of firearms were loosened in many states. In Ohio, even after the Dayton mass shooting, laws have been enacted that permit “Stand Your Ground” or “Shoot First” defenses in criminal trials, and expand residents’ rights to concealed carry of firearms.

America’s courts, like its legislatures, are failing to uphold the human rights of U.S. residents. In March, a federal appeals court overturned California’s state law banning the sale of semiautomatic weapons, such as the AR-15 rifle, to 18- to 20-year-olds. Next month, the US Supreme Court may throw out a New York law that requires residents to show proper cause before receiving a concealed carry permit. 

The United Nations human rights report mentioned above points out that although mass shootings have taken place in schools in Finland, Germany, Ukraine and Russia over the past decade, the incidence of such attacks in the U.S. is significantly higher than in any other country. The US is a global outlier insofar as its public institutions intentionally sustain a culture of gun violence: prioritizing access to guns, even by youth, over the life and safety of its most vulnerable residents, particularly youth and children. Black, Hispanic, Asian American and Pacific Islander and other communities pay a substantial cost for such policies. 

Ultimately, the failure of US leaders and institutions to deal with the scourge of gun violence damages the social fabric of American life and jeopardizes the health and well-being of all who call the US home. As declared by the Human Rights Council, “the effects of firearms on the enjoyment of human rights are devastating [...] children and youth, the world’s future generations, are the hardest hit.”

Paul Morrow is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Human Rights Fellow at the University of Dayton Human Rights Center, where he has worked since August 2019. 

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