Gun Control Reform in America: a Study

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Gun Control Reform & Mass Shootings in the United States


Gun control reform and mass shootings within the United States has been a hot topic for several years and has been one of the major points of contention among the Government leaders. The research and literature addressing gun culture throughout the years within America is vast. Quantitative analyses, ethnographic work, as well as comparative work has been thus far produced by scholars; however, debates regarding gun culture, mass shootings, and gun reform in the U.S. still occur frequently and end up being highly controversial, sparking heated debates on whether or not there should be more reform or if we, as a people, need to stick to our second amendment, and not allow anyone to infringe upon it. This paper will discuss the impact of gun reform or lack thereof as well as the background, key arguments for both sides, empirical evidence, results and conclusions in regard to gun violence and reform.

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Literary Review

The Second Amendment of the Constitution is most referred to because it is the amendment which specifically gives citizens of the United States of America the right to bear arms. It is far more prevalent for individuals to own guns in the United States than in other countries such as in Europe. Other comparably advanced democracies already have stricter gun control than the US. Because of this, gun violence within the U.S. has become a major issue for both health and safety of all citizens within its borders. If we were to take a non-institutional route to social change and formulate an oppositional movement, the leaders of the movement would need to consist of individuals who understood the diversity and complexity of the American public. Diversity has largely been missing from the prominent anti-gun groups that have thus far formed after certain mass shootings such as Sandy Hook. Movement organization must take place in major cities and contain groups that are ethnically as well as economically diverse. Above all, a potentially successful anti-gun movement needs to be based around a primary floating signifier of nonviolence.

Gun violence kills about ninety people every day in the United States, a toll measured in wasted and ruined lives and with an annual economic price tag exceeding $200 billion. Some policy makers suggest that reforming mental health care systems and improving point-of purchase background checks to keep guns from mentally disturbed people will address the problem. Epidemiological research shows that serious mental illness contributes little to the risk of interpersonal violence but is a strong factor in suicide, which accounts for most firearm fatalities.

Issues with the Topic

Many individuals have an interest in gun control. This includes politicians, civic groups, schools, non-profit organizations, rifle associations, hunters, and every-day normal productive contributing citizens. All of these individuals debate upon the implications of the Second Amendment as well as the short term and long-term effects of stricter gun control. There is no doubt that guns have been around for many years and it was the founding fathers that declared America would be different from other countries in many ways, one of which, is the right to have the ability to buy and carry firearms to protect themselves, their family, and their country. Guns are also very essential to hunters, which make up a large portion of the population. This is why gun control is stricter in States such as New York than in hunting States, such as Texas and New Mexico.

The initial idea that brought about the right to bear arms was actually enacted before the United States was founded, which in part, is what allowed the United States to break away from England and Europe altogether. One key fact that should be pointed out and emphasized is when the Amendment was enacted. This was a time of unrest, which was the colonial era. At that point in time, the citizens felt the need to fulfill an obligation to serve in the various formed militias and serve as part of the armed communities. In order to win wars, individuals must take up arms and defend themselves and their country.

Anisin (133), illustrates that this was in an era with no organized police forces. Anarchy and tyranny were feared by the general population. Without guns, civilians would have little to protect themselves from the potential formation of an authoritarian government. In a similar light, during this historical period, the dispersion of governmental power to the state level was significant as the Federal government had extremely limited power in comparison with the contemporary American state, and the majority of what was already a small population lived in rural areas. With this in mind, these monumental differences in context still can provide us with information on how to view the contemporary implications of the Second Amendment and right to bear arms. For example, after the processes of the founding of the United States, writing of the Constitution and ratification of the Bill of Rights, the United States emerged as a weak decentralized government. Public good provision was limited, and democratic institutions were limited in their development.


Restricting gun access and ownership would give birth or support black market. In 1920, America enacted an amendment that banned the sale, production, and transport of alcohol. In response to the change, some Americans created an illegal market to develop and distribute the banned substance. This has been the case for many items that have been banned. An assumption is that a comprehensive ban on gun possession would produce the same outcomes or much more deadly consequences. Prohibition of firearms may result in an influx of gang violence in the central urban areas. Furthermore, government’s effort to seize guns from people would lead to resistance on many fronts. Black markets are mainly associated with the distribution and sale of banned commodities. Due to this, firearm-related legislation would lead to illegal gun purchase and distribution. Such illegal acts can lead to an increase in illegal acquisition and illegitimate use of firearms.

Data and Research Methods

The effectiveness of gun restrictions focused on mental illness remains poorly understood and implemented. Swanson’s article examined gun-related suicide and violent crime in people with serious mental illnesses, and whether legal restrictions on firearm sales to people with a history of mental health adjudication are effective in preventing gun violence. Among the study population in two large Florida counties, we found that 62 percent of violent gun crime arrests and 28 percent of gun suicides involved individuals not legally permitted to have a gun at the time (Swanson 1067) . Suggested policy reforms include enacting risk-based gun removal laws and prohibiting guns from people involuntarily detained in short-term psychiatric hospitalizations.

Every day in the United States more than 230 people are injured by gunfire, and about ninety of them die (Kennedy 7) The circumstances range from suicide to drug-fueled gang disputes, domestic violence incidents, unintentional shootings, random rampages, and arguments gone bad between intoxicated young men carrying handguns. Beyond the toll of human tragedy measured in wasted and ruined lives, the annual monetized cost of American gun violence has been estimated lately at $229 billion (Kennedy 7). Any other commercial product implicated in such a large number of preventable injuries and deaths would surely rank as a high-priority public health problem.

The response of many federal lawmakers in Washington, D.C., who are wary of the powerful gun lobby (Swanson 1067) and how it plays on public fears of deranged killers, has largely been to implicate mental illness as the chief cause of gun violence and thus to avoid the topic of gun regulation (Swanson 1067). If untreated mental illness is the root of the problem, then the logical solution would seem to be to "fix the mental health system" and put more gun disqualifying mental health records into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) database (Kennedy 7) to stop dangerous people from buying guns. But will this response have a significant impact on firearm violence.

Major psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia and mood disorders, by themselves, contribute relatively little-about 4 percent-to the overall risk of interpersonal violence in the population, and most perpetrators of commonplace violent acts do not have serious psychopathology (Swanson 1067). According to Swanson, the landmark MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study, conducted between 1992 and 1995, found a low absolute risk of gun violence among 951 patients with serious mental illnesses who were followed for twelve months in the community after an acute psychiatric hospitalization: Twenty-three (2 percent) of the discharged patients used a gun to threaten or attack someone during the follow-up year, and 928 (98 percent) did not. However, national data show that more than 60 percent of gun deaths are suicides, and mental illness is a major underlying cause of suicide, with rates of population attributable risk between 47 percent and 74 percent (Swanson).

Thus, the link between gun violence and mental illness is complex, with a seemingly mixed message for policy (Swanson 1067) If gun violence is thought of more broadly as a public health problem that includes suicide, (Kennedy 7), then people with serious mental illnesses-and the actions of the behavioral health systems in which many are served-become quite relevant in designing and targeting strategies to reduce injury and mortality involving firearms.

Following the US Supreme Court's interpretation of the Second Amendment right as articulated in the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller13 and the 2010 MacDonald v. City of Chicago decisions, the role of law is limited in preventing gun violence mainly to keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals (Alcorn 233). An important task for research is thus to evaluate the criteria used to classify such individuals-those who pose a high enough risk of harming others or themselves to justify abridging their gun rights.

Research is lacking on the effectiveness of practical policies intended to prevent legally prohibited individuals from obtaining guns, such as the requirement that licensed gun dealers run background checks on prospective gun purchasers and states' varying practices in reporting their gun-disqualifying mental health records to NICS.

In another study, the population comprised 81,704 adults diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depressive disorder who were receiving services in the public behavioral health systems in two large Florida metropolitan counties, Miami-Dade and Pinellas (the Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater region) from 2002 to 2011. Deidentified administrative records pertaining to these individuals were matched and merged to form a comprehensive longitudinal database with variables originating from behavioral health information systems (psychiatric diagnoses, hospitalizations, demographic characteristics); civil and criminal courts (gun disqualifying adjudications); corrections (incarcerations); vital records (date and cause of death, gun involvement in suicide); and public safety (arrests, gun involvement in crime). The study was approved by the Institutional Review Boards at the University of South Florida and Duke University Medical Center (Swanson).

Outcome variables were suicide, arrest for violent crime, and whether guns were involved in these events. Violent crime included homicide, simple and aggravated assault, sexual battery, robbery, and kidnapping/abduction. Gun involvement in suicide was obtained from cause-of-death information in vital records. Gun involvement in violent crime was ascertained by a text search for mention of a firearm in the arresting charge descriptions. Violent crime charges with no mention of a gun were also classified as gun-involved crimes if accompanied by a separate nonviolent gun charge, such as illegal gun possession, occurring in the same month.

The key independent variables were as follows: whether a person was legally prohibited from possessing firearms in a particular month because of mental health adjudication, and whether Florida was reporting gun disqualifying mental health records to NICS at the time. Under federal and Florida state law, an individual is permanently disqualified from purchasing firearms following any of four mental health-related adjudications (unless the prohibited person applies for and receives restoration of gun rights): involuntary civil commitment (a court order for inpatient hospitalization or mandatory outpatient treatment resulting from a judicial proceeding with an opportunity for representation by counsel), a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity, a finding of incompetency to stand trial, or a finding of mental incapacity to manage one's affairs (Kennedy 1067).


The Florida Department of Law Enforcement serves as the point-of-contact state agency for the Federal Bureau of Investigation's NICS database. Prior to 2007, enforcement of the Brady Law's restrictions on firearm purchases by people with a history of a mental health adjudication relied on voluntary disclosure on an application by a potential gun buyer; legal barriers to data sharing between state agencies prevented the Florida Department of Law Enforcement from receiving gun-disqualifying mental health records from other state entities and reporting them to NICS. However, effective February 1, 2007, the law was changed to authorize the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to "review any records available" to determine whether a potential firearm purchaser is a prohibited person. Several state agencies also worked together to streamline the process of data gathering, entry, and retrieval. As a result, since 2007 the department has been capable of providing accurate mental health background information on potential firearm purchasers (Swanson).

Analysis Longitudinal regression analysis was conducted to estimate the adjusted statistical effects of legal gun restrictions and NICS reporting on the likelihood of violent crime arrest or suicide in any given month (Swanson). Categorical regression coefficients were estimated to compare the risk of violent crime associated with four possible combinations of individual gun disqualification and NICS reporting status. Additional results are reported from difference in differences regression analyses, which were conducted to estimate the statistical interaction effect of gun prohibited status with the NICS reporting period. These models tested whether observed changes in outcomes coinciding with the policy period were significantly greater among those legally affected by the policy. Separate models were estimated for violent crime, as well as violent gun crime and suicide (with key results summarized but not fully illustrated).

Gun-prohibited people were significantly more likely than others to be younger than age forty-four, to be African American, to have schizophrenia, and to have a co-occurring substance use disorder(Kennedy). The characteristics of those disqualified from possessing guns because of a mental health record versus a criminal conviction were quite similar, except that the former group was more likely to have schizophrenia. Almost three-quarters of the study sample remained legally eligible to purchase a firearm. Many who retained their gun rights (34 percent of the total sample) had a history of a short-term involuntary hold without being committed. The majority of the sample population who lost their gun rights (about one-fifth of the total population) lost them as a result of a felony criminal record. Fewer people were disqualified because of mental health adjudication. The average annualized arrest rate for violent crime in the study population was 1,687.5 per 100,000- somewhat less than double the average violent crime arrest rate of 906.3 per 100,000 for the general adult population in the same Florida counties over the same period (Kennedy) The annualized arrest rate for gun-involved violent crime in the study population was 213.9 per 100,000-virtually the same as the estimated general population rate of 217.4 per 100,000. Guns were involved in 13 percent of violent crime arrests in the study group), compared to 24 percent of such arrests in the general population.

A match with death records from the Florida Department of Health identified 254 individuals who died by suicide; of these, 50 (20 percent) used a firearm (Swanson). The average annualized rate of suicide for the study population was 64.4 per 100,000-approximately 3.8 times higher than the average suicide rate of 17.7 per 100,000 reported for the general adult population of Florida over the same period.1 However, the study group was less than half as likely as the general Florida population to use firearms in suicide (20 percent versus 48 percent)(Swanson).1

38 percent of violent gun crime arrests and 72 percent of gun suicides involved individuals who were legally eligible to purchase and possess a gun. However, about one-third of arrests for violent gun crimes committed by gun eligible individuals (Swanson)(11 percent of violent gun crime arrests) involved people with a record of a short-term involuntary hold under the Florida Mental Health Act of 1971, commonly known as the Baker Act (Swanson). Similarly, one-third of gun eligible individuals who used a gun to complete suicide (18 percent of all gun suicides) had an involuntary hold record.


Since the turn of the twenty-first century, the total age-adjusted mortality rate in the United States has declined 17 percent,(Alcorn 122) and the overall crime rate has fallen 30 percent.23 During the same period, the death rate from firearms has remained virtually unchanged, and the gun related suicide rate-an increasing component of firearm-related mortality-was actually 6.4 percent higher in 2014 than in 1999 (Swanson).

Policy Implications Other advanced countries have dramatically reduced gun violence by broadly limiting legal access to firearms.25 In the United States, policy makers must craft legal strategies to identify individuals who pose a sufficiently high risk of harming themselves or others to justify suspending their Second Amendment rights. This prospect is complicated because violence and suicide are low-base-rate events associated with multiple nonspecific risk factors.

Understanding the relationship between gun violence and mental illness in context is an important step in developing policies for prevention that will be both effective and fair. Epidemiological studies have shown that a diagnosis of mental illness alone contributes very little to the overall risk of interpersonal violence but is strongly linked to suicide.8 People with serious mental illnesses who receive services in public systems of care might have other risk factors for violence, including poverty and social disadvantage, unemployment, residential instability, substance use problems, history of violent victimization, exposure to neighborhood violence, or involvement with the criminal justice system. These factors might combine and interact in complex ways to increase risk for both interpersonal violence and suicide.


In the current status quo in the American political realm, many oppositional movements are disconnected. At the same time, institutional political challengers aiming to reform gun laws have encountered a tough opponent in the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA as a political interest group, has effectively lobbied Congress in favor of gun production and general gun rights. While this has gone on, the number of guns in America has grown and grown. No other advanced democracy has even close to the total of 300 million firearms that exist in the United States (Kennedy 7). Combatting gun proponents with violence, or coercion, would be a fatal mistake to make. Thus, we must turn to nonviolence, whether it be used as a protest strategy, or implemented as a discursive symbol in a larger oppositional project. The success of nonviolent practice has been historically significant. Not only has nonviolence been prevalent in the philosophies of historical figures such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Leo Tolstoy, but nonviolence is increasingly being used in empirical political struggles. Specifically, nonviolent protest movements have been quantitatively observed to be more successful than violent movements (Kennedy 7). When conceptualizing how nonviolent protest policy can be incorporated into an anti-gun movement, we come across an interesting dynamic. Guns are violent. They are perhaps the most violent item that a resident may possess and can use to take the lives of many unarmed civilians. To battle the violence of guns, we must draw upon ideas having to do with nonviolence. Gun violence must be negated by personal and collective nonviolence. Specifically, there is still much to learn from the nonviolent ideas and viewpoints found in the political philosophies of both Leo Tolstoy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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