Racism and the black hole of gun control in the US

Would tighter gun laws help protect African Americans or make them more vulnerable to racism and police brutality?

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I will never forget the day in eighth grade when my friend pointed a pistol at my face and pulled the trigger.

I am old enough now that many of my childhood memories have faded into blurry black and white pictures, but 30 years later, that scene is a vivid colour film in my memory.

I can see the smirk in his brown eyes as he points the pistol at my forehead, the slightly blue shimmer of the metal in the afternoon light, the way that the flat side of the barrel reached a nipple of an opening, suddenly curving inward, and the explosion of sound as he pulled the trigger.

Time stretches in moments like these, and as time expanded before me, I thought about my teacher, Mr Levi, and what he told me about space. He had taken a piece of paper from a binder and, twisting it, folded it upon itself so the holes lined up. He drew an arrow going into the hole on one side, and another coming out of it on the other. Then he unfolded the paper, showing me an arrow going into a hole in the top of the page, and coming out of a hole in the bottom, on the other side.

“This is a black hole,” he said in his heavy German Jewish accent, sounding every bit like Albert Einstein. “Once you cross the event horizon, you cannot get out. The gravity is so strong not even light can escape. You are sucked into the black hole and you come out somewhere else in space entirely. And you can never come back.”

As I stared into the barrel of that pistol, the light of the room seemed to disappear into its curvature just like a black hole. I remember thinking that it looked like a place from which nothing could escape.

Latchkey kids

My friend, we will call him Ralph, was a “latchkey kid” like myself. We were young children left to our own devices between the time we got home from school and the time our parents returned from work.

Latchkey kids grow up fast, learning to do things for themselves at a young age. We learned to explore the world of our parents with a freedom other kids never know. The assurance of solitude provides many opportunities to experiment, and sometimes to hide the resulting mistakes.

I remember the meticulous care Ralph took in opening the top drawer of his father’s dresser, and how he intently noted the placement of everything before pulling out the key. I remember the way he brought the chair from his room to reach the shelf in the closet, smoothing clothes he had disturbed and rubbing down the marks on the carpet afterwards. Looking back, it is obvious he had practised this carefully for weeks, learning exactly how to remove and open his father’s gun safe so that he could show me the contents, the most magical talisman a James Bond fan could ever see.

ONLY FOR : Racism and the black hole of gun control in the US
[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

When Ralph pointed his father’s Walther PPK at my face and pulled the trigger, when I heard the loud “CRACK” bounce off the walls in the room as the firing pin found an empty chamber, I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen.

As I watch my own children grow, that memory haunts me. My children can take great care with the smallest details of toy trains, yet remain oblivious to the consequences of major actions like pushing their siblings while standing on a cliff. It was not until I had children that I realised how close that dichotomy between care and carelessness had brought me to the event horizon of death.

Despite the care with which Ralph removed the safe and covered the evidence of his passing, I have no memory of him checking the chamber. I am not even sure he knew how. With a minuscule change in the location of one small piece of metal, any light that I may have brought into this world could have been sucked into the black hole of that gun barrel, never to escape.

I am not a fan of guns. Whether it is the memory of the Walther PPK, my preference for a good bow, or some fundamental aspect of my character, I see no reason why we need to have access to guns at all. My inclination is to support restrictive gun laws and possibly even remove guns entirely.

But the more I consider the subject of guns, the more I find that the entire topic is, itself, a black hole. The closer I get, the more distorted it becomes, and nowhere is that more obvious or dangerous than at the intersection of guns and race.

A house full of guns

I do not think it is an exaggeration to suggest that lax gun laws and easy access to firearms are a fundamental reason for the success of the civil rights movement. Charles E Cobb Jr notes this eloquently in his excellent treatise on the subject titled This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed.

“The tradition of armed self-defense in Afro-American history,” writes Cobb, “cannot be disconnected from the successes of what today is called the nonviolent civil rights movement.”

This is something many people either forget or never learn: Guns protected the black people who were marching for freedom. If not for the threat of gunfire, many more peaceful protests – and possibly the movement itself – would have been silenced by violence.

“Simply put,” Cobb continues, “because nonviolence worked so well as a tactic for effecting change and was demonstrably improving their lives, some black people chose to use weapons to defend the nonviolent Freedom Movement.”

The tradition of armed self-defense in Afro-American history cannot be disconnected from the successes of what today is called the nonviolent civil rights movement.

CHARLES E COBB JR

Today, our view of the civil rights movement is far removed from the realities of the time. I never experienced the violence and bloodshed of white supremacy during that era, and I cannot even really imagine it. Even modern media representations of the civil rights movement make it seem as though success was all but inevitable, hardly a deadly and dangerous situation at all. As Julian Bond quipped: “Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, and the white kids came down and saved the day.”

Civil rights icons such as Martin Luther King, Jr, and W E B DuBois come across in our polished history as gentle pacifists, but Cobb notes that even Martin Luther King, Jr had a house full of guns, while W E B DuBois wrote after the 1906 Atlanta massacre: “If a white mob had stepped on the campus where I lived I would without hesitation have sprayed their guts over the grass.”

Black people’s access to guns was fundamental to the success of the Black Freedom Movement. This is in no small part because the main opponent of black freedom was the government itself. American history is written with the blood of black families killed by white people who found themselves protected by our government’s belief in the supremacy of its white citizens.

Unable to rely on the government for security, black people turned to the best protection they had: constitutionally protected access to firearms. In their practice of “copwatching,” the Black Panthers used open gun policies to protect innocent black people from victimisation by the authorities. This was so threatening to the white establishment that it resulted in the Mulford Act, a law repealing the public’s right to carry a loaded weapon in public. In fact, some of the first laws restricting gun rights in the US were specifically designed to limit black people’s access to firearms.

So, do we really want more restrictive gun laws in a society where the government has a history of being the largest threat to some people’s freedom? Do we want that government removing those people’s right to protect themselves?

ONLY FOR Racism and the black hole of gun control in the US
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You’ll shoot your eye out

Of course, we are now blessedly removed from the brutality of the Civil Rights Movement. Still, it seems our country places a greater value on some lives than others. Few people listen to the choruses of “You’ll shoot your eye out” during A Christmas Story and assume young Ralphie will be shot by a police officer at the end of the movie. Yet this has happened in black communities for decades. Small Tamir Rice, model student, alumni of Space Camp, was by no means the first to fall.

And here we come to an event horizon: the lax gun laws that allowed the Civil Rights Movement to succeed are now applied unevenly.

Five years ago, on November 22, 2014, 12-year-old Tamir was shot less than two seconds after policemen arrived at the playground in Cleveland, Ohio, where he and his sister were playing. He was told to “drop the weapon,” and in less time than it takes to think “but I don’t have a weapon,” his life was sucked into the black hole of a gun barrel, never to escape.

Following a settlement by the city of Cleveland, the Police Officer’s Union issued a statement that essentially supported the shooting by saying: “Something positive must come from this tragic loss. That would be educating youth of the dangers of possessing a real or replica firearm.”

The irony of this statement is astounding when we consider that in Ohio, a state where it is legal to openly carry a firearm, Tamir was shot for carrying a toy. His life was taken by a member of a police force that then justified the shooting by essentially saying that the law itself is dangerous.

We spend every Christmas romanticising the story of a young boy who wants to play with a rifle. Tamir was different from Ralphie in only in one respect: he was Playing While Black.

If black lives mattered

The US has always had an uneasy time with the idea of black agency. That is especially true when it comes to owning weapons. Even the National Rifle Association, arguably the strongest and most aggressively vocal lobby in the US, is eerily silent when black people are killed for legally possessing firearms, or toys. Yet, as uneasy as the US is with black gun ownership, it is apparently just as uneasy with black healthcare.

As many have already noted, it is easier to access a firearm than mental health services. This is especially true in black communities where mental health is most often treated as a criminal justice issue, the outcome too often being imprisonment or murder.

Black people are also more likely to be imprisoned (and to be imprisoned for longer) for the same offence as a white person. Black people are less likely to be given a job than a white counterpart, and more likely to be fired from that job. Even before adulthood, black children are subject to unfair disciplinary practices in school and suspended for infractions that are considered minor when committed by white children – and this happens as early as preschool.

It is easier to access a firearm than mental health services. This is especially true in black communities where mental health is most often treated as a criminal justice issue.

JOHN METTA

This is the situation in which guns wreak unspeakable damage, and herein lies another event horizon: “black on black crime,” a phrase which illustrates exactly how Black America is seen as “other.”

Our media never discusses “white on white” crime, and never suggests that lower-class white people will not be able to rise out of poverty until they stop fighting among themselves. Blacks (and Latinos, Muslims, etc.) are the other – outside the norm of our culture and society. Because of this, “black on black crime” is actually considered an intelligible phrase.

Because of the consistent view of them as “other,” many black people feel they need to protect themselves from the government itself, a government that has a great many guns. At the same time, the government has until recently refused to allow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to even study the issue of gun violence. Suddenly, crackpot gun rights activists spouting theories about government overreach look a lot less crackpot. The police bombing of the compound of a black liberation group called MOVE, in which 11 people were killed, including five children, and an entire neighbourhood destroyed, in Philadelphia in 1985, and the siege of the Branch Davidians at their compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993, start looking much more similar than I want to admit.

The relationship between communities and their police force will never improve while the police see and treat the community as an “other”.

ONLY FOR Racism and the black hole of gun control in the US
[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

We arrive again at the black hole. I want to believe a public disarmament could result in a de-escalation of the police force. If we had fewer guns on the streets, could police afford to appear less like an occupying army working in a war zone? Could our police forces become a part of our communities and learn to de-escalate violence instead of appearing to encourage it? With tougher gun laws, could healthcare and even just basic humanitarian concern become our primary mode of response rather than a tactical encounter?

Sadly, both history and current trends in the US government suggest otherwise.

When I was in Ralph’s house looking into the barrel of a Walther PPK, I had no idea that I really was staring into a black hole from which I would never escape.

Remembering that moment, I thought my answer to the question of gun control would be easy. Yet the more I look at the issue, the more the light bends and the picture distorts. Thirty years later, I’m still looking down that barrel into a black hole from which I feel I will never escape.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Again: Four killed at California family gathering in ‘targeted’ shooting

People react near the scene of a shooting in FresnoPeople react near the scene of the shooting in Fresno, where a gunman opened fire on a family gathering

Four men have been killed and six injured in what police believe was a targeted shooting at a family gathering in California.

Police say about 40 people had gathered to watch football in the backyard of a home in Fresno on Sunday, when at least one gunman came in and opened fire.

“It’s very likely that it was targeted, we just don’t know why,” Fresno police chief Michael Reid told reporters.

The attack occurred just days after a school shooting in southern California.

No suspects have been identified so far.

Police described the victims as Asian men between 25- and 30-years-old. Three were found dead at the scene. The fourth died in hospital.

Five others who were injured are recovering.

A view of the house where a shooting occurred, in Fresno, California, USA, 17 November 2019Dozens of people had gathered at a Fresno home when the shooting occurred late on Sunday

On Sunday night, police chief Reid told reporters: “Somebody picked that house and came up and shot several times.”

“It looks like there was a target, we just don’t know what the reasoning for the targeting was.”

The gunman – or gunmen – opened fire in the backyard when most of the women and children were inside the house, police said.

Officers are looking for surveillance video from the area to help identify suspects.

This latest mass shooting came three days after a school shooting in Santa Clarita, just north of Los Angeles.

The 14 November attack on the Saugus High School by a 16-year-old gunman left two students, aged 16 and 14, dead, and three others injured.

nSaugus High School students “barricaded doors” during shooting

California school shooting: Two teenage students killed in Santa Clarita

There were 24 such incidents last year, it says, but the casualty toll was higher, at 114. That includes the 17 people killed in the deadliest incident – at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day.

Emotional reunions after the California school shooting

Two students, aged 16 and 14, have been killed and three others injured by a gunman who opened fire at a secondary school in California, officials say.

The victims died in a brief, 16-second gun attack shortly before classes began on Thursday at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles.

The attack came on the 16th birthday of the suspect, named by US media as fellow student, Nathaniel Berhow.

The suspect then shot himself in the head and is in a critical condition.

Students and teachers spoke of how they barricaded themselves in classrooms amid chaotic scenes, carrying out an active shooter drill that many schools have implemented in recent years following deadly attacks around the country.

What do we know about the shooting?

It was first reported at 07:38 local time (15:38 GMT) on Thursday, LA county sheriff Alex Villanueva said, adding that police were at the scene within two minutes.

LA county sheriff: “I hate to have Saugus added to Sandy Hook and Columbine”

The suspect was standing in the school courtyard when he took a .45-calibre semi-automatic pistol from his backpack and opened fire for about 16 seconds before turning the gun on himself, Sheriff’s Captain Kent Wegener said.

“He just fires from where he is. He doesn’t chase anybody. He doesn’t move,” Capt Wegener said.

Students barricaded themselves in classrooms under an active shooter drill for more than an hour as police tried to determine if the gunman was still at large.

Officers found six people suffering from gunshot wounds and transferred them to local hospitals. The suspect was later identified as one of those injured.

What do we know of the victims?

The names of those who died have not yet been released. They were a 16-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy.

The three injured, also as-yet unnamed, were two girls, aged 14 and 15, and a 14-year-old boy. They are all in a stable condition.

All attended Saugus High School.

The suspect had no known connection to the victims, Capt Wegener said.

What has been revealed about the gunman?

The attack came on the suspect’s 16th birthday. The motive for the attack is unknown.

The FBI said it appeared he had acted alone and was not affiliated with any particular group or ideology.

The Associated Press quoted a fellow student, Brooke Risley, as saying the suspect was introverted but “naturally smart”, adding that he had a girlfriend and was a boy scout.

AP said the boy lived locally in a modest home, and that his father died two years ago. A neighbour told Reuters the boy had struggled with his father’s death.

Investigators have searched the home and interviewed the boy’s mother and girlfriend.

There were no initial indications that he had been bullied at school.

There were reports of an Instagram posting saying “Saugus have fun at school tomorrow”, but it was later revealed the account was not owned by the suspect.

How did students and parents react?

One student told NBC she was doing her homework when people started running. “I was really, really scared. I was shaking,” she said.

Saugus High School students “barricaded doors” during shooting

Another student, named as Azalea, told CBS she and her classmates had barricaded the classroom door with chairs. “It was just really scary, having everybody panic and call their parents, saying they love you.”

Teacher Katie Holt told NBC she was huddled in her office with 30 students when a girl ran in saying she had been shot. Ms Holt dressed the injuries as best she could her with her gunshot-wound kit, with a fellow student applying pressure.

There were emotional reunions once the lockdown was lifted.

Jeff Turner, 58, told the New York Times he found his daughter, Micah, upset and crying.

“She was saying, ‘I feel guilty that I didn’t stay and help the people who were shot,'” he said. “And that was the thing that made me break down in tears.”

How much security is there at Saugus?

The school has an unarmed sheriff’s deputy and nine “campus supervisors” with guard training, district administrator Collyn Nielson told Associated Press.

There are a number of security cameras but no metal detectors, and lockdown drills are held three times a year.

How have officials responded?

News of the attack emerged during a Senate debate on gun control legislation. Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, was arguing for gun control when he was given a note with the news.

“We are complicit if we fail to act,” he said. “It is not just a political responsibility, it is a moral imperative.”

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said in a statement that his department took school shootings “very seriously” and would help the authorities “develop trainings and resources to improve response capabilities and better protect soft targets”.

Gun control, and the right to bear arms, is a divisive political issue in the US. About 40% of Americans say they own a gun or live in a household with one, according to a 2017 survey, and the rate of murder or manslaughter by firearm in the country is the highest in the developed world.

According to the Washington Post, more than 230,000 young people in the US have experienced gun violence at school since the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado in 1999.

The US journal Education Week has been listing school shootings since 2018. It says there have been 22 incidents that have resulted in death or injury so far in 2019.

There were 24 such incidents last year, it says, but the casualty toll was higher, at 114. That includes the 17 people killed in the deadliest incident – at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day.

Figures for 2019 as of 15 November

Source: Education Week
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The Everytown gun control advocacy group, using separate methodology, said Saugus was the 85th incident of gunfire at a school this year, but that includes those where there were no casualties.

BBC: Why so many US ‘mass shooting’ arrests suddenly?

A makeshift memorial at the scene of Dayton, Ohio's mass shooting in AugustA makeshift memorial after the shooting in Dayton, Ohio

In the last three weeks US authorities have arrested at least 28 people accused of threatening acts of mass violence. What’s behind this surge and could they all be convicted?

The threats ranged from posts on social media and video gaming sites to verbal comments to colleagues and friends. In at least two cases, suspects sent text messages to ex-partners. Hoards of weapons were also found in some cases.

The FBI won’t say what is behind the steep bump in apprehensions, some carried out by that agency, others by local police. It’s not clear if it marks a growth in threats or simply a rise in awareness and tip-offs.

But former FBI boss Andrew McCabe said on Friday there was undoubtedly a “renewed awareness” focused on the sort of threats that a few months ago might have been ignored by investigators mindful of the right to free speech as enshrined in the US Constitution.

The first amendment offers broad protection of free speech, even if that speech is racist or of a violent nature. Prosecutions in the US are further complicated by the second amendment which safeguards the right to bear arms.

So what can be done to stop a shooter before they strike?

When a threat becomes a crime

More than two dozen people are reported to have been arrested for making threats to carry out mass violence since the 3 August shooting in El Paso.

Many of the alleged plots foiled by US law enforcement included plans to target specific minority groups. But without any federal penalties in place for acts of domestic terrorism – like those that exist for international terrorism – the charges varied – false threats, terrorist threats, illegal possession of weapons and disorderly conduct.

It’s unclear how these various cases will fare at trial. For charges asserting threats of violence, the threats must be highly specific, accompanied by evidence of imminent danger.

FBI investigators arrive at the home of suspected nightclub shooter Ian David Long on November 8 2018, in Thousand Oaks, CalifornianFBI investigators approach the home of a suspected mass shooter

“The whole test is whether something is a clear or present danger,” says Martin Stolar, a civil rights lawyer based in New York. You must be expressing a clear intention to commit a crime, he continued, and close to committing it.

A case in Vermont shows how tricky it can be to prosecute. Jack Sawyer, 18, was arrested in 2018 after he threatened to cause mass casualties at his former high school. A friend had informed police, who searched his car and found a 31-page diary entitled Journal of an Active Shooter.

The state’s attorney charged Mr Sawyer with four felonies – two counts of attempted aggravated murder, and one count each of attempted first-degree murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, among the most serious charges in Vermont.

A memorial for victims of the Dayton, Ohio shootingA memorial for victims of the Dayton, Ohio shooting

But within months, all four felony charges were dropped. Mr Sawyer walked free in April 2018 and has now been adjudicated as a youthful offender for carrying a dangerous weapon. He will remain under state supervision until he turns 22.

The court found that he had stated his intentions to commit harm but no action followed, says Vermont-based lawyer David Sleigh. “Simply contemplating a crime is not a crime in Vermont.”

All states have laws that bar violent threats. Threats made by US mail or interstate commerce, for example, are considered criminal. But those threats generally must include the incitement or solicitation of specific violent acts to be considered criminal.

“You don’t criticise someone for speaking, you criticise people for picking up a gun,” says Mr Stolar. “When speech crosses the line.”

A candlelight vigil for the victims of the El Paso and Dayton shootings was held at the 6th Presbyterian Church in the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood of Pittsburgh, blocks from the Tree of Life SynagogueA candlelight vigil for the victims of the El Paso and Dayton shootings in Pittsburgh

Without a designated target, an immediate timeline, or clear preparations to commit assault, violent words may be protected speech.

There must be “action and imminent danger,” Mr Sleigh says. “As opposed to trying to criminalise evil or unpalatable thinking.”

What happens in other countries?

In terms of free speech protections, the US is singular.

“In some countries, they’ve criminalised certain types of hate speech that are protected here,” says Mary McCord, a former senior national security prosecutor, now legal director at Georgetown University’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.

“They have a tool available in those countries to prevent some of the type of speech that can be used to recruit new adherents to an ideology.”

What about other countries?

In the UK, for example, an expression of hatred related to a victim’s race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal.

In Canada, too, there are more restrictions on free speech than in the US. The federal criminal code includes multiple provisions barring hate speech, including those that impose criminal sanctions against anyone who willfully incites hatred in public against an identifiable group, including those distinguished by race, sexual orientation, or mental or physical disability.

Such sensitivities “present barriers,” Ms McCord says, “to effectively combat the spread of violent ideologies.”

But in the US, she continues, “we respect the first amendment.”

Is an arsenal legal?

The implications of the first amendment are complicated by the second, which enshrines the right to gun ownership.

In many of the recent arrests, suspects were found in possession of firearms and other weapons. But even where suspects were found with a hoard of firearms – like 18-year-old Justin Olsen, who was found with more than a dozen rifles and 10,000 rounds of ammunition – the cache of weapons uncovered were legally acquired, and do not provide grounds to prosecute.

Police seized weapons including an assault rifle from a man in California, accused of plotting a mass shootingPolice seized weapons including an assault rifle from a man in California, accused of plotting a mass shooting

“If a person’s not prohibited for having a weapon, he could have a bunch of weapons, he could not be breaking any laws at all,” says Ms McCord.

She has drafted a proposal to criminalise the stockpiling of weapons for use in a domestic attack.

“That would enable the government to prove his intent,” says Ms McCord, giving law enforcement an additional tool to thwart potential offenders before they act. Without standing law specifically addressing domestic terrorism, “law enforcement has to find something to charge [suspects] with because there’s nothing that directly applies. They’re cobbling things together to charge.”

Ms McCord is among a growing number of those within the intelligence community calling for domestic terrorism to be classified as a federal crime, giving law enforcement expanded preventative powers – similar to those that apply to international terrorist groups.

But some civil rights advocates and attorneys balk at giving the US government any more power. They argue that existing laws, when enforced, are sufficient.

“I think the rush to try to expand police authority into regulating rights of free speech or rights to gun ownership should be taken very, very carefully,” Mr Sleigh says.

Does the combination of the first and second amendment create a volatility that does not exist elsewhere, he asks.

“I suspect it does. But it’s been part of our national project to embrace that liberty and freedom, knowing that it comes with risk.”

BBC: America’s gun culture in charts (must read)

Two mass shootings within 24 hours, leaving 31 people dead, has once again brought the spotlight on gun ownership in the United States.

An attack on a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas on Saturday left 20 dead, while nine died in a shooting in Dayton, Ohio on Sunday.

But where does America stand on the right to bear arms and gun control?

What do young people think about gun control?

Chart showing how fewer 18 to 29 year old Americans favour gun control now than did in 2000

When looking at the period before the Parkland school shooting in 2018, it is interesting to track how young people have felt about gun control.

Support for gun control over the protection of gun rights in America is highest among 18 to 29-year-olds, according to a study by the Pew Research Centre, with a spike after the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016. The overall trend though suggests a slight decrease in support for gun control over gun rights since 2000.

Pew found that one third of over-50s said they owned a gun. The rate of gun ownership was lower for younger adults – about 28%. White men are especially likely to own a gun.

How does the US compare with other countries?

About 40% of Americans say they own a gun or live in a household with one, according to a 2017 survey, and the rate of murder or manslaughter by firearm is the highest in the developed world. There were almost 11,000 deaths as a result of murder or manslaughter involving a firearm in 2017.

Chart comparing gun-related deaths as % of total homicides - 73% in US, 38% in Canada, 13% in Australia, and 3% in England and Wales

Homicides are taken here to include murder and manslaughter. The FBI separates statistics for what it calls justifiable homicide, which includes the killing of a criminal by a police officer or private citizen in certain circumstances, which are not included.

In about 13% of cases, the FBI does not have data on the weapon used. By removing these cases from the overall total of gun deaths in the US, the proportion of gun-related killings rises to 73% of homicides.

Who owns the world’s guns?

While it is difficult to know exactly how many guns civilians own around the world, by every estimate the US with more than 390 million is far out in front.

Chart showing civilian gun owneship around the world

Switzerland and Finland are two of the European countries with the most guns per person – they both have compulsory military service for all men over the age of 18. The Finnish interior ministry says about 60% of gun permits are granted for hunting – a popular pastime in Finland. Cyprus and Yemen also have military service.

How do US gun deaths break down?

There have been more than 110 mass shootings in the US since 1982, according to investigative magazine Mother Jones.

Up until 2012, a mass shooting was defined as when an attacker had killed four or more victims in an indiscriminate rampage – and since 2013 the figures include attacks with three or more victims. The shootings do not include killings related to other crimes such as armed robbery or gang violence.

The overall number of people killed in mass shootings each year represents only a tiny percentage of the total number.

Tree map showing total number of gun deaths and how many were suicides and homicides

Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show there were a total of more than 38,600 deaths from guns in 2016 – of which more than 22,900 were suicides. Suicide by firearm accounts for almost half of all suicides in the US, according to the CDC.

A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found there was a strong relationship between higher levels of gun ownership in a state and higher firearm suicide rates for both men and women.

Attacks in US become deadlier

The Las Vegas attack in 2017 was the worst in recent US history – and eight of the shootings with the highest number of casualties happened within the past 10 years.

Chart showing worst mass shootings in US since 1991
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What types of guns kill Americans?

Military-style assault-style weapons have been blamed for some of the major mass shootings such as the attack in an Orlando nightclub and at the Sandy Hook School in Connecticut.

Dozens of rifles were recovered from the scene of the Las Vegas shooting, police reported.

Chart showing types of guns used in US murders
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A few US states have banned assault-style weapons, which were totally restricted for a decade until 2004.

However most murders caused by guns involve handguns, according to FBI data.

How much do guns cost to buy?

For those from countries where guns are not widely owned, it can be a surprise to discover that they are relatively cheap to purchase in the US.

Among the arsenal of weapons recovered from the hotel room of Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock were handguns, which can cost from as little $200 (£151) – comparable to a Chromebook laptop.

Graphic showing price of an assault rifle $1500 and handgun $200

Assault-style rifles, also recovered from Paddock’s room, can cost from around $1,500 (£1,132).

In addition to the 23 weapons at the hotel, a further 19 were recovered from Paddock’s home. It is estimated that he may have spent more than $70,000 (£52,800) on firearms and accessories such as tripods, scopes, ammunition and cartridges.

Who supports gun control?

US public opinion on the banning of handguns has changed dramatically over the last 60 years. Support has shifted over time and now a significant majority opposes a ban on handguns, according to polling by Gallup.

But a majority of Americans say they are dissatisfied with US gun laws and policies, and most of those who are unhappy want stricter legislation.

Chart showing Americans unhappy with US gun laws want stricter rules

Some states have taken steps to ban or strictly regulate ownership of assault weapons. Laws vary by state but California, for example, has banned around 75 types and models of assault weapon.

States with assault weapons restrictions
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Some controls are widely supported by people across the political divide – such as restricting the sale of guns to people who are mentally ill, or on “watch” lists.

72% of Republicans, or adults who lean Republican, believe that 'concealed carry' should be allowed in more places while only 26% of Democrats do.
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But Republicans and Democrats are much more divided over other policy proposals, such as whether to allow ordinary citizens increased rights to carry concealed weapons – according to a survey from Pew Research Center.

Who opposes gun control?

The National Rifle Association (NRA) campaigns against all forms of gun control in the US and argues that more guns make the country safer.

It is among the most powerful special interest lobby groups in the US, with a substantial budget to influence members of Congress on gun policy.

Chart showing lobbying by NRA

In total, about one in five US gun owners say they are members of the NRA – and it has especially widespread support from Republican-leaning gun owners, according to Pew Research.

In terms of lobbying to influence gun policy, the NRA’s spending jumped from about $3m per year to more than $5m in 2017.

The chart shows only the recorded contributions to lawmakers published by the Senate Office of Public Records.

The NRA spends millions more elsewhere, such as on supporting the election campaigns of political candidates who oppose gun controls.

California school shooting: ‘Five injured’ in attack

Aerial views of the scene show students being evacuated

At least five people have been injured after a gunman wearing black clothing opened fire on the grounds of a high school in California, officials say.

The shooting took place at the Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles, minutes before the school day was due to begin.

Police say a suspect, described as an Asian male, is in custody.

Saugus High School and other neighbouring schools have been placed on lockdown.

According to the LA Times website, the suspect is a 15-year-old boy.

Live video from helicopter showed officers swarming the school, and injured victims being placed in ambulances.

The LA county sheriff said the suspect was being treated in a local hospital.

Many US schools have implemented active shooter drills in recent years, following a string of attacks.

According to the Washington Post, more than 230,000 young people have experienced gun violence at school since the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado in 1999.

US Supreme Court won’t shield gun maker from Sandy Hook lawsuit

Court says lawsuit against maker of rifle used to kill 26 people in Sandy Hook school massacre can go ahead.

A firearms training unit detective of the Connecticut State Police, holds up a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, the same make and model of gun used by Adam Lanza in the December 2012 Sandy Hook School shooting [File: Jessica Hill/AP Photo]
A firearms training unit detective of the Connecticut State Police, holds up a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, the same make and model of gun used by Adam Lanza in the December 2012 Sandy Hook School shooting [File: Jessica Hill/AP Photo]

The United States Supreme Court on Tuesday dealt a blow to the firearms industry, rejecting Remington Arms Co’s bid to escape a lawsuit by families of victims aiming to hold the gun maker liable for its marketing of the assault-style rifle used in the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre that killed 20 children and six adults.

The justices turned away Remington’s appeal of a ruling by Connecticut’s top court to let the lawsuit proceed despite a federal law that broadly shields firearms manufacturers from liability when their weapons are used in crimes. The lawsuit will move forward at a time of high passions in the US over the issue of gun control.

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The family members of nine people slain and one survivor of the Sandy Hook massacre filed the lawsuit in 2014. Remington was backed in the case by a number of gun rights groups and lobbying organisations including the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), which is closely aligned with Republicans including President Donald Trump. The NRA called the lawsuit “company-killing”.

The December 14, 2012, rampage was carried out by a 20-year-old gunman named Adam Lanza, who shot his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and fired on the first-graders and adult staff before fatally shooting himself as police closed in.

The US has experienced a succession of mass shootings in recent decades, including several that have staggered the public such as the 2017 attack at a Las Vegas concert that killed 58 and one at a nightclub in Orlando in 2016 that killed 49. Assault-type rifles have been a recurring feature in many of the massacres.

Timeline: The deadliest mass shootings in the US

The US Congress has not enacted new gun control laws in the wake of the mass shootings largely because of Republican opposition.

The plaintiffs have argued that Remington bears some of the blame for the Sandy Hook tragedy. They said the Bushmaster AR-15 gun that Lanza used – a semi-automatic civilian version of the US military’s M-16 – had been illegally marketed by the company to civilians as a combat weapon for waging war and killing human beings.

The plaintiffs said that Connecticut’s consumer protection law forbids advertising that promotes violent, criminal behaviour and yet even though these rifles have become the “weapon of choice for mass shooters” Remington’s ads “continued to exploit the fantasy of an all-conquering lone gunman”. One of them, they noted, stated: “Forces of opposition, bow down.”

Remington argued that it should be insulated from the lawsuit by a 2005 federal law known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which was aimed at blocking a wave of lawsuits damaging to the firearms industry.

The case hinges on an exception to this shield for claims in which a gun manufacturer knowingly violates the law to sell or market guns. Remington has argued that the Connecticut Supreme Court interpreted the exception too broadly when it decided to let the case go ahead.

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Though the case does not directly implicate the US Constitution’s Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, the NRA told the justices in a filing that the lawsuit could put gun manufacturers out of business, making the right meaningless.

A state trial court initially threw out the claims but the Connecticut Supreme Court revived the lawsuit in March, prompting Remington’s appeal.

The US Supreme Court has already taken up one important gun rights case in their current term.

They are due to hear arguments on December 2 in a lawsuit by gun owners and the state’s NRA affiliate challenging New York City restrictions on handgun owners transporting firearms outside the home. The city had asked the justices to cancel the arguments because its measure was recently amended, meaning there was no longer any reason to hear the dispute. But the court has decided to go ahead with the case.