Guns in the US


THE TRAGIC shootings in Fort Hood, Texas, have drawn attention again to the frightening availability of guns in the US – a staggering 97 guns for every 100 people. Although the killings took place on an army base, neither of the pistols used were army-issue. And the state of Texas, ranked 27th by a gun control lobby group in terms of the ease with which guns can be bought, has no requirement that handgun buyers obtain a licence or undergo any type of safety training. Police do not know how many guns are in the state or where they are.

US domestic firearm sales are likely be about $3 billion in 2009, two to three times the usual amount. The dramatic surge in demand coincided with the election of President Obama, partly – observers say – out of concerns that he would move to tighten controls despite his conservatism on the issue, and partly in response to fears of economic calamity.

Chillingly, at a number of anti-Obama demonstrations over the summer, protesters openly flaunted weapons. In Pittsburgh one strutted through the crowd with an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle over his shoulder. Such weapons were banned for a time until a bipartisan retreat following pressure from the gun-lobby.

The Fort Hood massacre recalled other mass shootings in the US, including 13 killed at a centre for immigrants in upstate New York last April, the deaths of 10 during a gunman’s rampage in Alabama in March and 32 people killed at Virginia Tech in 2007.

But such episodes and the country’s 12,000 gun homicides a year – three-quarters of them with handguns – have only had a peripheral impact in recent years on legislative or judicial attempts at control. The Senate in July narrowly voted down a provision to allow gun owners with valid permits from one state to carry concealed weapons in other states. But in May, Congress allowed gun owners with proper permits to carry loaded and concealed weapons in national parks.

The Supreme Court in September agreed to consider whether states are bound by an important ruling last year when it decided, in a case restricted to federal application, that the constitution protects an individual right to own firearms rather than just a collective right tied to state militias. The decision struck down parts of gun control law in the District of Columbia, a federal enclave. Precedent suggests the court will allow individual states to exercise their own discretion. Unfortunately, in most cases, that will not mean greater gun control.