Gun control laws escape crossfire of US massacre

Last Friday, a masked man invaded a screening of the new Batman film and opened fire randomly on audience members. The USA is in shock – but are its lax gun laws to blame?

One military assault rifle; a twelve-gauge shotgun; two semiautomatic pistols, and a six thousand rounds of ammunition.

Such was the ferocious arsenal that 24-year-old James Holmes amassed in a space of just two months. All of it was bought legally, and much was ordered online. Only the most fleeting background checks were made, and no questions were raised about what Holmes’ intentions might be.

Last Friday, a man walked into a suburban cinema during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, throwing down tear gas as he went. Then, he opened fire – first with an assault rifle, and when that jammed, a shotgun.

By the time the cinema was evacuated, twelve people were dead and fifty-eight wounded. Most of the dead were in their twenties; the youngest was just six. Minutes later, police found James Holmes, armed and dazed, sitting in a stationary car in a parking lot.

America is in a state of shock. President Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney have both given heartfelt statements of support. But one thing has been conspicuously absent from their reaction to the tragedy: both candidates have avoided any debate about the issue of gun control.

With nine guns for every ten people, the USA has far more guns per head than any other country in the world. The right to bear arms is enshrined in the second amendment of the US Constitution – an inheritance from the nation’s early days, when local armed bands were crucial to maintaining order in far-flung territories.

And for a developed country, the USA also has a strikingly high murder rate. Most of these killings are motivated by either personal relationships or gang warfare. But worryingly often, a shooting such as Friday’s occurs in which civilians are targeted at random.

The most famous of these is probably the Columbine High School Massacre, in which two heavily-armed students stalked their school killing classmates before turning their weapons on themselves.

Gun crazy

Is the high murder rate linked to the relaxed gun laws?

Of course, say liberals. These guns are brutal machines, designed to kill and maim. Yet in countries like America, almost anybody can gather an arsenal of them without an eyebrow being raised. This is senseless, they say: until the USA controls guns more strictly, these tragic massacres will continue.

But conservatives are contemptuous of this logic. To strip individuals of the right to bear arms is to take away their power of self-defence, they say. Would gun control laws have stopped James Holmes? No. But if more of the audience had been carrying weapons, innocent lives might have been saved.

You Decide

  1. Should ordinary civilians have the right to own lethal weapons like guns?
  2. Is it tasteless to use tragedies like this one to make a political point, or is it our responsibility to try to learn from them?


  1. Design a memorial for the victims of Friday’s shooting. It can take any form you choose.
  2. Write a newspaper editorial lamenting the massacre, including your opinions on why it occurred and what could be done to stop similar shootings in the future.

Some People Say...

“Guns don’t kill people, people do.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Isn’t it a little heartless to bring politics into a horrible tragedy like this?
Some say that political debate should be set to one side in the wake of such crises – and perhaps they are right. But the causes of these massacres and the way a society responds to them unquestionably reflect on the broader society: their prevalence varies enormously from one country to another, and many of the factors that affect that can be altered by politics.
So it’s not only about gun control?
Not only: policing, poverty, social exclusion and even population density all play a role. Then there are vaguer cultural factors, and specific factors like recent civil wars. With all these factors playing their part, it is very hard to determine how large a role gun control plays. But the debate still rages on.

Word Watch

Assault rifle
Assault rifles are automatic weapons (that is, they automatically fire many rounds in a row, like a machine gun). They are the standard type of weapon for infantry in modern armies, and their use by civilians is particularly controversial. The most famous assault rifle is the AK-47 or Kalashnikov, invented in Soviet Russia and used by guerrillas and insurgents all over the world.
Ordered online
In most of America, there is no limit to how many rounds of ammunition can be ordered online. Guns are a little more complicated: in most situations, the buyer must fill in forms and submit to a brief background check. But this check is not particularly rigorous, and at gun shows it is even easier to make a purchase.
US Constitution
Like the leaders of many nations, such as Germany, India and South Africa, those of the USA must govern according to a written document called a constitution. This sets forth the fundamental principles of the state and the rights of its citizens. Changes to a constitution, known as ‘amendments,’ are rare and difficult to make; in the USA, many of them are still subject to much dispute.
Columbine High School Massacre
Weirdly, the Columbine Massacre took place only a few miles away from Aurora, where Friday’s killings occurred. Columbine provoked a prolonged and fierce debate about gun laws, as well as debates about the influence of violent music, video games and bullying.


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