You can’t care for the environment and accept a world where people own guns.
It may be shorthand to protest, ‘Save the Planet’. 1 What we want saved is ourselves, the world as we know it, with all the creatures and plants, the clean air, clean water and climate that we need to survive. Killing the people we want to save does not make sense. While planetary deterioration threatens our health and our lives with more than enough indirect association, we should be crying out loud, that we will not facilitate the outright, direct killing of our species and co-species with guns.
It’s my right – the US gun death epidemic
It doesn’t make sense for American citizens to own assault rifles. Two US Presidents, Obama and Biden agree it doesn’t make sense. For the group-think of the Republican Party, vested interests, laissez faire libertarianism, and the powerful gun lobby it makes perfect sense.
The more weapons there are the greater potential for their use. For countries with greatest gun ownership, we see highest rates of gun violence. Japan with the lowest gun ownership, shows the lowest gun violence. More than 390 million guns are owned by US civilians. Around one for every man woman and child. Four in ten Americans live in a household with a gun. In the US nearly 1000 people a year are killed by the police. A police officer is killed every five days.2 We can say with some certainty, that fear of guns, manifested in an undertrained, defensive, shoot first policeman’s mindset is a cause of many shootings of suspects, whether a gun is in the suspects hands or not. The US is a society of gun owners in fear of other people with guns.
The US has the highest rate of gun deaths of any wealthy nation, 45,222 in 2020 or 124 per day, exceeded only by Brazil and the second per capita of gun related suicides. Over 4,300 young Americans died of firearm-related injuries in 2020, making guns the number one killer of children in the US. (Centre for Disease Control)3
Specific demands by President Biden include a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, stronger background checks on gun buyers and the repeal of legal immunity for gun manufacturers. The Republican Party, true to itself, allowed a law of 1994 to ban assault weapons to expire after 10 years. Since then, mass shootings have tripled. In June 2022 Biden biggest successes in gun control were signing the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, expanding background checks on buyers and invested in mental health and violence intervention programmes. A proposal for an assault weapons ban has stalled in the Senate.4
Jonathan Friedman 5 searches for accountability for the fatal shooting of 19 pupils and two teachers at Uvalde elementary school in Texas in 2022. Accountability needs to be found; be it the gun lobby, the gun industry, senators, voters who support the Republican Party, the party of gun lovers, be it back in time, to the founding fathers, architects of the constitution, who unfathomably failed to foresee that the society of their day would not be the same more than two or three hundred years later. Retribution needs to be given.
In the absence of a surviving killer to bring to court it is likely that no one will be punished and the bereaved families will not see justice for the murders of their children. Even if a killer is convicted and jailed the killer does not compensate for the carnage. The state may step in. The second amendment, the constitutional right to bear arms of 1791, should not be used to absolve, the suppliers of guns and ammunition.
When a person tries to buy a firearm in America, two criteria need to be met, the suitability of the purchaser and their age. The seller carries out a computerised background check that verifies that the buyer does not have a criminal record or isn’t otherwise ineligible to purchase or own a firearm. Under federal law, the minimum age to buy a handgun from a licensed dealer is 21. But the age limit is lower, at 18, if the gun is being purchased from a private, unlicensed seller, which could be a neighbour or someone online, or at gun show.6
Japan on the other hand has one of the world’s lowest rates of gun violence. Gun ownership in Japan is not easy. It takes the following 13 steps: join a hunting or shooting club, take a firearms class and pass a written exam, get a doctor to state they are mentally fit and have no history of drug dependence; apply for a full day course on how to fire a gun and store it safely; a police interview asking the applicant about why they want a gun and a thorough background check that involves interviewing members of their family and looking at their relationships with neighbours, employment history and financial status. If they pass, they can then apply for a gun powder permit and get a certificate from a dealer about what sort of firearm they want. They then need to buy an ammunition locker and gun safe which is inspected by police who then do another background check. Civilian ownership of hand guns is banned. In 2020 there were twenty-one arrests for use of firearms. In a country of 126 million people, the number of gun deaths each year rarely exceeds ten. Only shotguns and air rifles are allowed. The law restricts the number of gun shops. In most of Japan’s 40 or so prefectures there can be no more than three. What seems to be a particularly effective policy is of only allowing a person to buy fresh cartridges if they return the spent cartridges they bought on their previous visit. 7
‘Give a child a key to the gun cupboard and don’t be surprised if he doesn’t one day take one out and use it.’ (Storyville’s School Shooters 8 ) And it is especially significant that the father of one school shooter can casually mention, ‘I didn’t know where he got the ammunition’, exemplifying not just his own lack of control of his guns but societies lack of control, crucially of ammunition, the vital accessory to the murders. The Right to Bear Arms is so entrenched in the US psyche that even when an adult puts gun in their child’s hands they have no case in law to answer. Except this may be changing;
The father of a man charged with the Highland Park shootings of 4 July 2022, in which 7 people were killed and 48 wounded has been charged in connection with the attack for signing an affidavit supporting his son’s application for a gun licence. Under Illinois’s laws if a person is under 21 and signed for, the signee agrees to be held liable for ‘any damages resulting from the minor’s applicant’s use of firearms or firearms ammunition’. The fathers defence attorney stated that the decision “should alarm every single parent in the United States of America” who could be held criminally liable for the actions of their adult children. 9
Yes, well, quite.
A case in Michigan in which the parents of a boy of fifteen who killed four classmates in 2021, were charged with involuntary manslaughter. 10
The mother of a six-year-old child who shot his teacher at a school in Virginia has been criminally charged with child neglect and a misdemeanour.11
There is a mismatch between the problems and the gun control responses. There are three fairly distinct categories of gun deaths in the US: gun suicides which make up 60% of gun deaths being mainly white middle-aged men; gun homicides of which 18,000 victims a year are disproportionately young African Americans with illegal guns; and mass shootings making up 1% of annual gun deaths.12
Solutions need to be designed to specifically tackle each of these three issues- illegal and legal gun ownership and the mental health crisis, while re-figuring the gun lobby’s response, ‘It’s the person not the gun.’
Money, Guns and the Industry
In the decade since the massacre of 20 children at Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012 the National Rifle Association (NRA) has spent more than $100 million to help elect Republicans who support its agenda. US gun manufacturers have made more than $1 billion from sales of AR-15 style guns, used for most mass shootings over the past decade. The gun industry profits off the blood of Americans, with guns often marketed to young men to prove their masculinity. The running commentary from the gun company executives is to deflect responsibility for mass shootings blaming individual bad actors and policy failures. They say it is wrong to blame the ‘inanimate object’ of a firearm for deaths caused by gun violence. They unquestionably believe it is wrong to deprive citizens of their constitutional right to purchase a lawful firearm because of acts of wicked people. ‘A firearm, any firearm, can be used for good or for evil, which should be the focus of any investigation into the root causes of criminal violence involving firearms.’13
The fire arms industry accounts for £15 billion in the US but it is likely there would in fact be some economic gain if there were no guns, by accounting for gun deaths, police costs, hospital care, rehabilitation, lost wages, costs to the judicial system and other factors.14
The tobacco industry provides an interesting case study in legal redress from companies that deal with knowingly harmful products. The first big win for plaintiffs in a tobacco lawsuit occurred in February 2000, In November 1998, the attorneys general of 46 states and four of the largest tobacco companies agreed to settle state lawsuits. These tobacco companies agreed to pay annual sums of money to the states to compensate them for health-care costs related to smoking.15
An aspect of capitalist economics is that of collateral damage – waste, pollution, social inequality, environmental degradation, health problems – that fall out of the traditional economic model. As part of a Western society, we live in an incomplete capitalist system, accepting that the state and the law are necessary to control and regulate manufacturers for self-evident reasons that include preventing harm to others.
Mass killings are associated with wars, disease and natural disasters and these differ in ways from another causative category of mass killing especially in the US which are cars, recreational drugs and guns. What groups this unholy trinity of cars, guns and legal recreational drugs is that they are human made, individually used and are ‘productive’ components of the market economy. Gun deaths exceed trauma related car deaths in many US states16 while guns have a primary purpose, not of transport nor of fundamentally recreation, but a primary design purpose to shoot bullets that kill, and guns remain the only consumer products not regulated for health and safety in the United States. This unique exemption has allowed gunmakers to innovate for lethality rather than safety. As a result, today’s gun industry thrives on developing, manufacturing, and marketing highly militarized firearms including high-capacity pistols, assault weapons, and 50 calibre sniper rifles. 18
In 2002, two men killed ten individuals in the Maryland, Washington D.C, and Virginia area, known as the D.C. Sniper Attack using a Bushmaster XM-15 gun, from Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply store. On January 16, 2003, a lawsuit was filed against the store due to its grossly negligent sales practices, which allowed the shooters to acquire the weapon. After the trial court held that the dealer and manufacturer could be held liable for the shootings, the Bull’s Eye store agreed to a settlement $2 million to the families and Bushmaster would pay $568,000 out of its insurance policies.19 And we got the push back – scrambling into action, the firearms industry pressurised the Republican-controlled Congress to enact, just one year after this settlement, a federal law known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, (PLCAA).
The PLCAA is a U.S law, passed in 2005, that protects firearms manufacturers and dealers from being held liable when crimes have been committed with their products. The PLCAA was signed into law on October 26, 2005, by President George W. Bush. The National Rifle Association vice president was jubilant, “This is an historic day for freedom. I would like to thank President Bush for signing the most significant piece of pro-gun legislation in twenty years into law. History will show that this law helped save the American firearms industry from collapse under the burden of these ruinous and politically motivated lawsuits”. 20 You can’t politicise mass murder, can you?
Nine families who lost loved ones in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting announced they had secured a $73 million settlement against Remington Arms, ending a landmark lawsuit over how the company marketed the rifle used in the massacre in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 14, 2012. This marks the first time a U.S. gun maker has settled in a lawsuit related to a mass shooting—a nearly impossible feat due to the PLCAA Law.
That this success was unprecedent and there are doubts about wider implications in gaining successful outcomes in future litigations. For one, Remington’s poor financial status likely helped. The gun maker filed for bankruptcy in 2018 and again in 2020, at which time its assets were auctioned and sold and the bankruptcy reorganization may have made Remington’s representatives more willing to come to the table in a way that other gun manufacturers would not be. The $73 million is being paid by four insurance companies that had represented Remington. The company did not accept liability as part of the settlement.
A crucial role was the Connecticut Supreme Court’s broad interpretation of a state statute that allowed the case to proceed in the first place. A few exceptions in the PLCAA federal law make it possible to take on a gun maker. If a defective weapon causes death or injury, for example, or if a manufacturer is found to have violated a law applicable to the sale or marketing of the product, a lawsuit may be filed. The Sandy Hook families argued that their lawsuit fell under the latter exception, claiming Remington’s marketing of its Bushmaster rifle, the weapon used in the attack, was unethical and therefore violated Connecticut’s Unfair Trade Practices Act. The general statute for consumer protection isn’t specific to firearms, but the plaintiffs argued it was applicable to the sale of guns. Connecticut’s high court agreed. But courts in similar lawsuits elsewhere, in other states have not. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearm trade association, insists Remington would have prevailed if the case had gone to trial. In a statement, they said the settlement “has no impact on the strength and efficacy” of the PLCAA.21
The fixation with guns is an American nightmare. The killings. The barely imaginable disabilities and trauma of the survivors. The families bereaved. No closure. No meaningful accountability.
Wildlife destruction from guns.
It hard to forget the killing of Cecil, the Lion in Zimbabwe. Killed by an American dentist. Trophy hunting kills lots of animals.
The USA legally imports around 126,000 animal trophies every year, and the EU around 11,000–12,000 (representing 140 species, including everything from African elephants to American black bears). Allowing endangered species to be killed for sport is counterintuitive. Poachers are slaughtering about 100 elephants and 3–4 rhinos every day so allowing trophy hunters to kill is absurd. There are the mixed messages it sends local people: they can’t hunt endangered species, but rich Westerners can..22
In the UK MPs have at last voted to support a ban on importing hunting trophies from thousands of species into the UK, preventing British hunters from bringing the body parts of lions, elephants and giraffes into the country.23
People with guns go hunting and some will justify their gun ownership in this way. In the US the big hunted animals are bears, foxes, bob cats, coyotes. More than 100 million animals are reported killed by hunters in the United States each year. However, it’s believed that only between one and five percent of poachers are caught.24
Wild mammal biomass has declined by 85% since the rise of humans and while we can attribute the loss to the advent of agriculture and hence habitat change25, the invention of guns in the fourteenth century and their further mechanisation occurring over the next four hundred years has evidently also been a major decimator of large mammal species. Hunting with guns nearly pushed bison to extinction in the 19th Century and is doing so today with elephants, wolves, and rhinos.
An accidental real life shooting on a film set is a tragedy but the films of people shooting people be they Native Americans by cow boys, gangsters by police, bad guys by hard men are as popular as ever and the bigger the body count, it seems the greater the entertainment. Men, and mainly men have not stopped wanting to be little boys playing with guns. Anecdotally parents who disapprove and actively discourage shooting games find their children improvising. A behaviour that borders on the innate. A child playing a video game shooting a gun (computerised) at a dinosaur (computerised and bloodied) and we may wonder, what’s the harm. Well, we just do not know. And because we do not know it would be wiser to make constructive, nurturing and play, the more pleasant option. There is a cowardliness about civilians that use guns to intimidate others, demonstrating inadequacies as a complete person without one. We want our young people to have emotional strength and empathy and not need some deadly add-on to gain respect.
Can we remove guns? Put the genie back? Probably. If we treat guns as an environmental epidemic. We could ban the sale of ammunition. We could prosecute people with associations with shooters whether that’s parents or gun traders. Above all it is a matter of morality, a humanistic compassion. All that needs to be discovered and recentered.
Although I have concentrated on the USA global gun issue, civilian gun death is a global problem. Perhaps the UN has a role. Through the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), litigation on tobacco matters takes place under international trade and investment law or international human rights law, and litigation strategies are shared across countries by transnational networks of lawyers.26
The UN Firearms Protocol provides for a framework for States to control and regulate legal arms and arms flows at a global level, preventing their diversion into the illegal trade market, but the Protocol does not suggest this control for legitimate transfers. 27 Maybe it should.
Guns kill people. There have been 200 mass shootings in the US in 2023.28 We cannot justify that guns keep us safe because that is empirically not true. Nor can we afford to ignore that the survival of wild animals is at sake. Guns kill us, main us and they demean us and it is nonsense to believe other than that guns are about killing living things, rather than life savers. The money made in the manufacture of guns is the bottom line in raising citizen shooters and perpetuating myths of unalienable rights.
- Guardian supplement 30/10/21 -Saving Planet Earth
- Number of US police officers murdered up by 59% – FBI – BBC News
- New Report Highlights U.S. 2020 Gun-Related Deaths: Highest Number Ever Recorded by CDC, Gun Homicides Increase by More Than One-Third | Johns Hopkins | Bloomberg School of Public Health (jhu.edu)
- Guardian Newspaper 28 July 2022
- Jonathan Friedman 28 May 2022 Guardian Newspaper
- FBI Firearms Checks (NICS) — FBI
- Guardian Newspaper 9 July 2022
- BBC iPlayer – Storyville – Raising a School Shooter
- Father of Highland Park Shooting Suspect Charged with Reckless Conduct – The New York Times (nytimes.com)
- Guardian Newspaper 8 July 2022
- Mother of 6-year-old who shot Virginia teacher is charged – BBC News
- Letter Guardian Newspaper 3 June 2022
- Guardian Newspaper 28 July 2022
- What if all guns disappeared? – BBC Future
- Tobacco Lawsuits in 2022 | Litigation History | Nolo
- Guns overtake car crashes as leading cause of US trauma-related deaths, study says | CNN
- Regulate Firearms Like Other Consumer Products | Violence Policy Center (vpc.org)
- Johnson v. Bull’s Eye | Brady (bradyunited.org)
- Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act – Wikipedia
- NRA-PVF | President Bush Signs “Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act” Landmark NRA Victory Now Law (nrapvf.org)
- Why It’s So Difficult to Sue Gun Makers, Despite Sandy Hook | Time
- BBC Wildlife columnist Mark Carwardine. An introduction to trophy hunting | Discover Wildlife
- Guardian 17/March /2023
- Facts – Wildlife | Animal Matters
- Wild mammals have declined by 85% since the rise of humans, but there is a possible future where they flourish – Our World in Data
- Litigation in tobacco control: past, present and future | Tobacco Control (bmj.com)
- The Firearms Protocol (unodc.org)
- Guardian Newspaper 8 May 2023