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Analysis: Gun violence keeps supercharging America’s Second Amendment debate

“We heard a lot of loud pops,” another recalled.

“There was police coming in. There was emergency vehicles pouring in,” an additional eyewitness recounted.

“We’re facing a problem that is hitting our entire nation right now and that is why this is a national response,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams told CNN’s Dana Bash. “We need a national response to this issue.”

It’s hard not to view this incident as yet another result of America’s polarized gun debate.

Many Americans hold their right to bear arms, enshrined in the US Constitution, as sacrosanct. But critics of the Second Amendment say that right threatens another: the right to life.

Each shooting seems to entrench everyone’s respective convictions.

A most American problem

While there’s a roiling debate over how to handle gun violence in the US, there’s no question about its prevalence.

A rash of shootings over the weekend underscored the nationwide issue: Four people, including two teens, were shot near Nationals Park shortly after a Major League Baseball game in Washington, DC, on Saturday night, police said. In Illinois, six people were found injured after a shooting in a residential neighborhood early Sunday morning.
Police are investigating a shooting at a weekend birthday party in Indianapolis where six people were shot and one was killed. And two people were killed and 10 injured after a “targeted attack” at a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, nightclub, police say.
The head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even deemed gun violence a “serious public health threat” last year.

“Something has to be done about this,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in an exclusive interview with CNN in August. “Now is the time — it’s pedal to the metal time.”

Unlike the Covid-19 pandemic, which has spread through populations worldwide, or the opioid epidemic gripping countries near and far, gun violence is a uniquely American tragedy.

From a detailed CNN report late last year: The US has more deaths from gun violence than any other developed country per capita. The rate in the US is eight times greater than in Canada, which has the seventh highest rate of gun ownership in the world; 22 times higher than in the European Union and 23 times greater than in Australia, according to Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) data from 2019.

Deadly division

In an all too familiar cycle, a shooting will prompt some to push for more gun control and others to lobby for less firearm regulation. A tense debate plays out before the issue fades from the national conversation.

Then another shooting occurs — and we start the cycle over again.

Underscoring this trend on Tuesday was Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who signed a new law that allows eligible residents to carry concealed guns in public without licenses.

The move makes Georgia the 23rd state to not have a policy that requires a permit to carry concealed guns in public, per data compiled by Everytown for Gun Safety, a non-profit that focuses on gun violence prevention.

Overall, a narrow majority of Americans are in favor of stricter laws on gun sales, and recent polling suggests broad support for measures that would restrict access to guns — but about half of the public says that neither stricter laws nor stricter enforcement would reduce the amount of violent crime in the US.

Gallup’s polling in October found that 52% of Americans think the laws covering the sales of firearms should be more strict, while just 11% said they should be less strict and 35% say they should remain as they are now.

That represents a decline in the share supporting stricter laws in recent years: About two-thirds said they favored stricter laws in Gallup polling conducted in 2018 and 2019.

Support for stricter gun laws tends to spike after high-profile mass shootings, such as the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, which had occurred a few weeks before Gallup measured its recent high of 67% support for stricter laws in March 2018.

A Pew Research Center analysis of polling on gun laws in 2021 showed more than 8 in 10 in favor of preventing people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns (87%) and of making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks (81%).

Smaller majorities backed creating a federal database to track gun sales (66%), “banning high-capacity ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds” (64%) and “banning assault-style weapons” (63%). (Note that the results of polling on gun laws can be sensitive to question wording. Phrases noted in quotes here represent the exact wording of the poll’s questions).

An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in June 2021 found that 46% of Americans thought stricter gun laws would reduce the amount of violent crime in this country, while 53% said they would not. Slightly more, 51%, said stricter enforcement of gun laws would reduce the amount of violent crime, with 47% saying that would not reduce crime.

What is Biden doing?

President Joe Biden has made modest progress on gun control, but major steps like banning assault weapons or closing background check loopholes would require congressional action.

With those steps remaining long shots, the Biden administration has turned its attention to so-called “ghost guns,” announcing on Monday a new regulation addressing the government’s ability to track the unregulated, untraceable weapons made from kits.

The regulation specifically requires background checks before kit purchases and the inclusion of serial numbers on some components used to assemble weapons.

“If you buy a couch you have to assemble, it’s still a couch. If you order a package like this one over here that includes the parts that you need and directs the assembly of a functioning firearm, you bought a gun,” Biden declared from the Rose Garden, striding over to the kit and demonstrating the ease of constructing the weapon.

“It doesn’t take very long,” he said. “Anyone can order it in the mail.”

Calls for something to be done about ghost guns have grown as their use in shootings across the US has proliferated, with the weapons recovered at crime scenes in some big cities more frequently.

While ghost guns make up a relatively small percentage of the guns recovered by law enforcement, officials in several cities have reported sharp increases in those tallies, a CNN analysis of 2021 data found:
  • In San Francisco, for example, about 20% of the nearly 1,100 guns seized in 2021 were ghost guns, police there told CNN.
  • New York is on pace to again shatter the previous year’s total, according to data shared with CNN. Since the start of this year, the New York Police Department has recovered 163 ghost guns, compared with 29 over the same period in 2021, Adams said Monday. In 2021, New York authorities seized 4,497 firearms — 375, or 8.33%, were ghost guns.
  • Of the 12,088 guns recovered in Chicago last year, 455, or 3.76%, were ghost guns, according to data from the city, up from 130 recovered in 2020, when ghost guns made up 1.15% of the 11,343 guns recovered.
The President has also named Steve Dettelbach, a former US attorney from Ohio, as his nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The President’s previous nominee was forced to withdraw amid opposition in the Senate.

What we can learn from other countries

Countries that have introduced laws to reduce gun-related deaths have achieved significant changes, CNN’s detailed report found last year:

A decade of gun violence, culminating with the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, prompted the Australian government to take action.

Less than two weeks after Australia’s worst mass shooting, the federal government implemented a new program, banning rapid-fire rifles and shotguns, and unifying gun owner licensing and registrations across the country. In the next 10 years gun deaths in Australia fell by more than 50%. A 2010 study found the government’s 1997 buyback program — part of the overall reform — led to an average drop in firearm suicide rates of 74% in the five years that followed.

Other countries are also showing promising results after changing their gun laws.

In South Africa, gun-related deaths almost halved over a 10-year-period after new gun legislation, the Firearms Control Act of 2000, went into force in July 2004. The new laws made it much more difficult to obtain a firearm.

In New Zealand, gun laws were swiftly amended after the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings. Just 24 hours after the attack, in which 51 people were killed, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the law would change. New Zealand’s parliament voted almost unanimously to change the country’s gun laws less than a month later, banning all military-style semi-automatic weapons.

Britain tightened its gun laws and banned most private handgun ownership after a mass shooting in 1996, a move that saw gun deaths drop by almost a quarter over a decade.

But America’s relationship to gun ownership is unique, and our gun culture is a global outlier. For now, the deadly cycle of violence seems destined to continue.

CNN’s Jennifer Agiesta and Dakin Andone contributed to this report.

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