Orlando shootings: Is it time for tighter gun controls in the US?

Parents are reunited with their children following the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. (PA).
Parents are reunited with their children following the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. (PA).
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The mass killings in Orlando have shocked the world and brought the vexed question of gun control in the United States back into the spotlight. Chris Bond reports.

Columbine, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino and Virginia Tech University. These are just a few of the places that have become synonymous with mass shootings in the United States. Now Orlando, in central Florida, joins that growing list of names.

President Barack Obama pauses while speaking to members of the media in the Oval Office of the White House yesterday. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Barack Obama pauses while speaking to members of the media in the Oval Office of the White House yesterday. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

In the early hours of Sunday morning, Omar Mateen walked into the Pulse nightclub and opened fire, killing 50 people and injuring another 56, before being shot dead by police. The death toll makes it the worst mass shooting in American history, surpassing the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, which claimed 32 lives.

Mateen was armed with an assault-type rifle and handgun when he sprayed revellers with bullets at the popular venue. The brutal attack came with Orlando still reeling from the fatal shooting on Friday night of 22-year-old singer Christina Grimmie following a concert in the city.

The United States president Barack Obama called the latest shooting an “act of terror” and an “act of hate”. In a nationwide address he said: “This massacre is a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, in a house of worship or in a movie theatre or in a nightclub. We have to decide if that is the type of country we want to be.”

The Orlando shootings have raised fresh concerns over home-grown terrorism in the US, and have also once again highlighted the vexed question of gun control, with many people asking why ordinary citizens are able to get their hands on such military grade weapons.

Americans have long been divided on whether the country’s gun deaths could be reduced through tougher laws on gun ownership. Liberals argue that legal restrictions on gun ownership could save lives, while conservatives say that tougher gun laws would do nothing to change the behaviour of violent criminals and that tougher gun controls wouldn’t have prevented the Orlando shooting.

President Obama has often spoken of his determination to introduce tighter gun controls only to come up against a stubborn Congress and the powerful American gun lobby.

At the start of the year, he recommended several measures designed to keep guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous people who shouldn’t be allowed to own a deadly weapon. A main tenet of his plan required anyone who sells a gun to obtain a license, which would then mean they would have to perform background checks on any potential gun buyer.

However, opponents argue that an attacker could have a legal right to own a semi-automatic rifle and at the same time simply don’t believe that the answer is to ban the weapon itself.

Gun ownership in the US is deeply entrenched in the American psyche and any attempts to change that are fiercely opposed and seen as a direct attempt to destroy the country’s constitution.

The right to own guns is regarded by many as enshrined in the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, and fiercely defended by lobby groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA), which said that its membership surged to around five million in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012 that left 20 children and six adults dead.

Nevertheless, there are those who question the rationale behind the notion that the best way to solve gun violence is for more people to bear arms.

Dr Lars Berger, Associate Professor in International Security at Leeds University, says more people have been killed in gun violence on US streets since the 1960s, than have been killed fighting wars for its country during that period.

“There is indeed a problem in the US regarding weapons. With roughly 270 million guns, the United States has the highest gun ownership in the world, far ahead of countries such as Yemen. But it’s not just the amount of weapons, though that is a problem, it’s about the accessibility.

“The United States has more deaths through firearms per capita compared to other wealthy Western democracies. It is the ease with which individuals can obtain weapons which is a big issue.

“The Obama administration has been calling for more rigorous background checks but these have been torpedoed by the NRA and its Republican allies in Congress who argue that this is the first step to doing away with the right to bear arms and limiting the use of weapons.”

Dr Berger says the Orlando shootings also raise questions about the type of weapons that people are able to legally purchase. “One of the biggest problems is it is too easy for people with bad intentions to have access to the kind of weapons like those used in the Orlando shootings. What kind of logic says you need these sorts of advanced weapons for hunting or self-defence?”

Peter Squires, Professor of Criminology and Public Policy at the University of Brighton, is an expert on gun crime and says this is an issue that many Americans are vociferous about.

“In the last two or three decades the NRA’s advocacy rights position has been winning the day. But there was a backswing in the wake of the Sandy Hook killing,” he says.

At present, gun laws can vary from state to state although they are all subject to certain federal rules, so guns cannot be sold to anyone convicted of a serious crime or someone who has been mentally institutionalised.

Some states have gone further than this and included anyone who has been arrested for domestic violence as well as juveniles convicted of violent crimes, aimed in part at precluding gang members from legally getting hold of weapons.

Despite this, Prof Squires points out there are still deep flaws in the system. “Under the present laws you can buy a gun in the morning and sell it in the afternoon in the gun shop car park without the need for secondary checks.”

In other words a person who legally owns a load of guns and rifles could sell them at the equivalent of a car boot sale. The seller is supposed to ask the buyer if they have a criminal record but they aren’t legally obliged to tell them.

“Obama has been trying to bring in a law so the sale of all guns are checked through the system and authorised by a federally-licensed gun dealer.”

Some people will argue that nowhere else in the western world could the perpetrator of the Orlando killings have obtained these weapons this easily. In France, though, they have strict gun laws but these still weren’t enough to stop the terrorist attacks in Paris.

But as the number of mass killings in America continues to rise Prof Squires believes the mood is shifting. “Public attitudes are changing and it does seem as though more people are saying, ‘enough is enough.’”

As a nation mourns the death of 50 innocent people the challenge now is translating this into meaningful political action.