Need for suitable gun laws in the USA

Published : 25 May 2021 08:29 PM | Updated : 26 May 2021 12:42 AM

On 20 April, President Biden called systemic racism a “strain on our nation’s soul”. He and Vice President Kamala Harris in remarks called the conviction of former US police officer Derek Chauvin a step toward a more just America, but emphasized that more needs to be done.

It may be recalled that a US jury found on that date the former police officer guilty of murder over the death of African-American George Floyd on a Minneapolis street last year. 

Chauvin was found guilty on three charges: second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter. He will remain in custody until he is sentenced and could spend decades in jail. The 12-member jury took less than a day to reach their verdict, which followed a highly-charged, three-week trial that left Minneapolis on edge. 

Some of the most powerful testimony came from eyewitnesses. Several broke down in tears as they watched graphic footage of the incident and described feeling "helpless" as events unfolded.

After both sides presented closing arguments on 19 April, the jury was isolated in a hotel with no outside contact so they could deliberate on a verdict, a process known as sequestration. Jurors had to agree unanimously and were told they could not return home until they had made their decision. The verdict prompted celebratory scenes outside the court, where several hundred people cheered as it was announced.

This underlined that law enforcement also had to deal with accountability. President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris also called the Floyd family right after the verdict. Mr Biden was heard saying that "at least now there is some justice".  The President also added that "We are going to get a lot more done. This is going to be a first shot at dealing with genuine systemic racism."

One would like to add here that for the rest of the world, particularly South Asia, including Bangladesh, this was an example which demonstrated that law enforcement authorities were not above the law.

We, living in different countries, have no hesitation in agreeing with such a trend of thinking.  The new US Administration clearly believes in transparency and accountability. It, for some time, has also reiterated that there is need to create a safe dimension in a society which believes in social safety and personal security. 

It is such a view that should now lead the relevant authorities- both in the government and also those in the leadership role in civil society- to step forward and create a consensus on the basis of least common denominators for framing laws to control gun ownership in the USA also the use of such weapons by the police force on an instinctive spontaneous basis. 

This dynamics is urgently required given the continuing violation of personal rights through the use of force and illegal weapons in different States of the USA. This is becoming a threat to different communities.

The world electronic and print media on a regular basis draw our attention to most unfortunate incidents that result in death from mass shootings carried out on innocent persons. The BBC reported on 16 April that eight people had been killed and many injured in a shooting in the US city of Indianapolis. Witnesses later indicated that they had heard several gunshots at a FedEx facility and seen one man firing an automatic weapon. The gunman, said to have been acting alone, is reported to have later killed himself.

Another shooting incident has also raised questions in the US media in the recent past. It is related to a police officer shooting dead a 13 year old boy- Adam Toledo- in a dark alley in Chicago. Body cam video has shown the policeman shouting "Drop it" before shooting Adam Toledo once in the chest on 29 March. 

The boy does not appear to be holding a weapon in the split second he was shot, but police video shows a handgun near the spot where he fell. The video's release followed the fatal police shooting on 11 April of Daunte Wright by a police officer in a Minneapolis suburb. That shooting also sparked violent protests as the city awaited the outcome of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the officer accused in the death of George Floyd.

Similarly, on 20 April, the print and electronic media all over the world carried reports that six people had been killed in shooting incidents that took place on the same day in Texas, Wisconsin and Louisiana. CBS-affiliated television station KSLA reported about these shooting incidents. In Austin, Texas a manhunt has been undertaken for a former Sheriff’s Deputy wanted for the fatal shooting of three people.

These are alarming reports and totally unacceptable. After recent mass shootings, gun-control activists have also called on Joe Biden to impose new regulations on firearms.

Added to this paradigm is the international embarrassment that is being caused to the Biden Administration by such US gun violence. Speaking in the White House Rose Garden recently Mr Biden has sadly observed that 106 people are killed every day in the USA by guns and that "this is an epidemic for God's sake- and it has to stop."

The world is monitoring very carefully how the Administration will be tackling this misuse of governance and also the absence of realization that owning a gun –legally or illegally- does not mean that you are not culpable when you cause an unnecessary offence.

It has consequently been most satisfying to note that the Biden Administration is now actively engaged in widening the justice dimension through suitable gun laws in the United States. Biden has already issued an order targeting homemade guns, known as "ghost guns" because they are unregistered and untraceable. In this regard he has also stated that- "Gun violence in this country is an epidemic, and it's an international embarrassment." The President is attempting to enact new measures through an executive order. This is a format where he does not need approval from the US Congress. This includes efforts not only to set rules for certain guns but also to bolster background checks that will support local violence prevention.

Analysts have however pointed out that the President is likely to have an uphill task. They have pointed out in this regard that the right to bear arms is protected by the Second Amendment to the US Constitution and many people feel that enactment of gun control laws and measures will be infringing on this constitutional right.

This aspect of the coin having two sides was demonstrated hours after the President's address, when a gunman killed one person and injured five others at a cabinet-making shop in Bryan, Texas. A state trooper was also shot and injured while taking the suspect into custody. It would also be worth mentioning that around the same time frame five people, including two young children were killed in South Carolina. This followed two mass shootings in March, which left a total of 18 people dead - one in Boulder, Colorado and the other in Atlanta, Georgia.

Biden's executive order has given the Justice Department 30 days to propose a rule that will help reduce the number of so-called "ghost guns". It may be clarified that these guns are self-assembled, which means they do not contain a serial number and cannot be traced. Background checks are also not required to purchase the assembly kits. Biden has noted in this regard that "anyone from a criminal to a terrorist can buy this kit and, in as little as 30 minutes and put together a weapon". What a horrible scenario! Experts have indicated that these homemade guns are increasingly being used in crimes. Interestingly, over 40% of guns being seized in Los Angeles are ghost guns according to federal firearms officials.

President Biden has also given the US Justice Department two months to come up with a rule on stabilizing braces for pistols. Under the rule, a pistol used with a stabilizing brace would be classified as a short-barreled rifle, which requires much more stringent background checks under the National Firearms Act. The Justice Department has also been asked to draft a "red flag law" which States can then use to create their own legislation. These laws authorize the courts and law enforcement to remove guns from people thought to be a risk to the community.

However, like past US Presidents who have sought to address US gun violence, Biden is confronting a hard reality. Getting further gun measures through US Congress will be difficult. The US Senate is currently split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, with Vice-President Harris holding the deciding vote. However, current US Senate rules mean that in practice, 60 votes are needed to pass legislation, meaning some Republican support is required. Republicans have however blocked significant gun control laws in the past. There are not enough votes also in the US Congress to enact even modest new gun laws. Consequently, the steps the President can take unilaterally are limited in scope. He will have to expend more of his political capital.

Biden knows the difficulties associated with the required process but has already taken the initiative to nominate the Head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – for this purpose. In a tacit acknowledgement that the scope of these actions is limited, Biden has also assured his supporters that "this is just a start".

The National Rifle Association (NRA), the biggest gun rights lobby group in the US, as expected has however described the measures as “extreme” and declared that it will oppose any regulatory or legal changes.  As usual, they seem to be forgetting what public safety is. In this context, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has already labeled Biden's order as "a new liberal power grab to take away our guns", promising not to allow this in his State. There should not be such sad misunderstanding, in a country known for abiding by the rules of democratic institutions that can unfold a brighter future for its diverse ethnic communities and citizens.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance