January 23, 2014
Gun control is a contentious topic because it raises constitutional, legal and safety issues. Clearly, Americans love their guns. The U.S. has nine weapons for every 10 citizens, more than double the runner-up (Switzerland), three times more than Canada and six times as many as Mexico. Consequently, it suffers the highest death toll amongst developed countries, most of it coming from gun-related violence.
A recent poll conducted by Professor Wu and Hamilton students demonstrated that high school students across the US feel that school shootings are a real concern. Nearly 60 percent were concerned about school shootings, yet over 90 percent feel safe in school. However, the students’ reliability was tested, as 21 percent said they heard about a school shooting in Scarsdale, NY, which never happened.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the study though is that students roughly grouped themselves into two camps with different opinions about guns: Democrats and Republicans. Little over 30,000 people died due to gun-related violence in the US in 2011, yet 17 percent of self-identified Democrat students thought it was over 50,000 (less than 5 percent of Republicans thought that was the figure). 39 percent of self-identified Republican students thought the figure was less than 10,000, compared to 24 percent of Democrats.
These figures are telling because it seems that students on average seem to think that there is less gun violence and fewer gun-related deaths than the actual figures denote. Is the media in the United States biased in favor of gun rights? Are American students being misinformed, and is this affecting their perception of safety?
Despite their misconception about the true number of annual gun deaths, students overwhelmingly agree that there should be tougher background checks for gun purchases (85 percent). However, they are equally divided when asked about the effectiveness of tougher gun laws; 52 percent disagreed they would decrease gun violence, 48 percent agreed. Finally, students seemed to be informed about recent school massacres, with 92 percent being familiar with Newtown and 88 percent being familiar with Columbine.
What we can gather from this evidence is that students, while being informed of high-profile school shootings, are misinformed about the impact of gun violence, and although they support more stringent background checks, are indecisive as to whether it will have an effect on gun-related deaths. It seems that U.S. students may be tackling an issue that they do not fully understand, and perhaps they would benefit from school-instituted gun education.
This is not so far-fetched. After all, the U.S. public school system does a stellar job informing students of safe sex and the dangers of smoking. The U.S. has an aggressive, comprehensive and wide-reaching educational policy on both, and as a result has halved the number of teen pregnancies and the number of student smokers in the past 20 years. This is not to say that owning a gun is inherently wrong, for clearly smoking a cigarette or having sex is not intrinsically wrong either, but if people are more aware of their actions they can take more responsible choices, and prevent behaviour that negatively affects society.
The United States media is also a pervasive and important player in the gun debate. Most TV shows do not portray smoking a cigarette or having unprotected intercourse in a negative light, but because of the state-enforced education, those actions are nevertheless dissuaded. However, television channels like Fox News who take a pro-gun stance have shown to be impactful in Americans’ conception of gun violence. After a school shooting, there is often a significant increase in the support for stricter gun laws, but this support is short-lived and returns to normal levels quickly afterwards. Furthermore, while in 1990 almost 80 percent of Americans supported stricter regulations, in 2010 only 43 percent wanted more control. In the most recent debate, sparked by the Newton massacre, the NRA viciously defended gun rights, refusing to relent in any way to stricter background checks. This non-profit organization, which now boasts a 230 million dollar annual budget, is acting more like a lobby group for gun manufacturers and gun activists than a registered charity. Its most vocal leader, Wayne LaPierre, is more akin to a politician than a philanthropist.
What is the solution? More education. To have an honest debate about gun control, our citizens need to be better informed. In high schools and colleges there should be gun education, just like we have sex ed. With informed citizens, we can take a step forward in carving a safer country.