America owes enormous thanks to its youth. In the wake of the latest mass school shooting, this one at Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida, they have had enough of “thoughts and prayers” and have called out the country’s political leadership for its self-interested hypocrisy in the face of gun-lobby pressure. In thousands of rallies around the country, they have demanded action in the form of meaningful legislation to ban the sale of assault weapons and to make it harder for people with a record of violence to purchase guns. Perhaps most importantly, by demanding that adults finally take gun violence seriously, they are forcing us to ponder how it is that the United States has cultivated a culture that tolerates 35,000 deaths by shooting annually.
We stand with America’s young. We demand that our legislators ban the sale of assault weapons, such as the AR-15, which have no place in civilian life. We respect the right of qualified people to own guns, be they for hunting, sport, or self-protection. But we do not share the belief that the Second Amendment gives individuals the right to own any kind of weapon. We don’t allow people to own bazookas or to park tanks and jet fighters in their driveways, so there is no reason for them to own semi-automatic weapons or armor piercing bullets.
Along with the vast majority of Americans (some estimates claim over 90%), we are for universal background checks. Allowing people to buy and sell guns without such a requirement makes it extremely difficult to keep weapons out of the hands of people who should not have them. No system is foolproof, but virtually all nations in the industrialized world track gun ownership and are able to greatly reduce access to illegal arms. In states like Oregon, where the legislature has mandated such background checks, shootings of domestic partners, police officers, and suicides are about fifty percent lower than in other states.
We reject the NRA and President Trump’s inane call for arming teachers in our schools. Not only is this idea unfair to educators, whose job it is to teach rather than play armed deputy, but, as police departments around the country have said repeatedly, it is dangerous for students and staff because the police will have difficulty ascertaining who is actually a threat, and the armed teachers may do more harm than good in any shootout, regardless of training.
Contrary to the sensationalism of the news, our tens of thousands of schools remain among the safest places in our society and mass shootings have impacted only a relative handful. The goal should not be to transform schools into fortresses. It should, rather, be to change the violent broader environment in which the school remains a haven.
To that end, we must grapple with the murderous gun culture that pervades the United States, where there are 89 guns per 100 residents and 2.7 people per 100,000 are gunned down every year. Our rate of gun ownership is about triple that of most western European countries and our rate of death by shooting is over ten times as high. It is a travesty that federal lawmakers, in thrall to the National Rifle Association, passed legislation in the early 90s effectively banning federal expenditures on research into gun violence. Such restrictions must be immediately lifted.
The United States is not the only developed country to experience mass shootings in schools or in other public places, but we are the only one to do virtually nothing on a national level in response. In the wake of tragedies involving mass shootings, Australia, Sweden, and Britain all passed sweeping, effective legislation, backed by widespread public support, to restrict gun sales, tighten control over ownership, and to get many now illegal weapons out of circulation (e.g., through buybacks and amnesties). There is no reason the United States cannot also respond to this crisis reasonably and effectively, and we must do so now.