Under the Gun: U.S. Firearm Violence Is a Human Rights Crisis

By Alfonso Serrano Sep 12, 2018

Gun violence in the United States has degenerated into a full-blown human rights crisis, according to a extensive report released today (September 12).

More than 38,000 people were killed by firearms in 2016, the latest year for which statistics are available, according to “In the Line of Fire: Human Rights and the U.S. Gun Violence Crisis,” a report from Amnesty International. That’s 106 people each day.

The toll is exceptionally painful for communities of color, with Black and Latinx people disproportionately impacted by firearm homicides. Although Blacks represent about 13 percent of the population, they made up 58 percent of gun homicide victims in 2016. Gun-related homicides were the leading cause of death for Black men and adolescents ages 15 to 34 in 2016, and it was the second leading cause of death among Latinxs in the same cohort. In all, Black men and boys were 20 times more likely to die from firearm violence in 2016 compared to their White peers.

The disparity is a symptom of larger problems in U.S., according to Amnesty International, which calls out the failure of federal and local governments to address institutional racism. Gun violence flourishes, the report says, in an amalgam of joblessness, inadequately-funded violence prevention programs and disinvestment in at-risk communities.

"The U.S. government is prioritizing gun ownership over basic human rights. While many solutions have been offered, there has been a stunning lack of political will to save lives," Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in a statement. "Despite the huge number of guns in circulation and the sheer numbers of people killed by guns each year, there is a shocking lack of federal regulations that could save thousands."

In addition to the lost lives, the report also underlines the plight of those who survive gun violence. More than 300 people are shot in the U.S. every day and survive. In 2016, 116,000 people suffered non-fatal gun injuries. The long- and short-term health issues related to their injuries—anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress, for example—constitute a massive public health crisis that forever shapes victims’ lives.

Jamie Wiliford was 16 years old when she was shot. “I heard three shots before I realized they were shooting at us, and I tried to duck under the dashboard, but I got hit in the back and that’s the bullet that paralyzed me,” she told Amnesty. After months in the hospital, she regained use of her arms and began learning life skills like self-catheterization and transferring herself in and out of a wheelchair.

Anthony Davis, 33, has been shot six times in two separate incidents, the first when he was 15. “I still got a bullet in my hip, and it still hurts like shit…my arm cramps up. I can tell when it’s gonna rain,” he told Amnesty.

The criminal justice system, the report notes, is another factor that cripples communities of color. Racial profiling, excessive use of force by police and low homicide clearance rates all contribute to an erosion of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. This, according to Amnesty, means communities are often reluctant to cooperate with police to solve homicides.

The organization concludes that the lost lives, the hardship endured by gun violence survivors and an imbalanced criminal justice system amount to a failure by the U.S. government to meet its human rights obligations under international law. 

To meet those responsibilities, the authors say U.S. officials should adapt its policies to address specific community needs. Besides combating discrimination, law enforcement must buttress public safety with human rights-compliant policing and evidence-based violence reduction programs.

Other recommendations include comprehensive background checks, a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles and other military-grade firearms, stringent national regulations for firearm licensing and training, and investment in community-based gun violence prevention programs.

Consequential legislation addressing gun violence must also be included in any meaningful reform, according to the report, which notes that since the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting claimed the lives of 20 children and 6 adults, the introduction of hundreds of pieces of federal legislation has failed to amount to substantive laws regulating firearms.

"The ability to go about your daily life in security and dignity, free from fear, is at the very cornerstone of human rights," said Huang. "No one’s human rights can be considered secure as long as our leaders fail to do about gun violence."