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GOVERNMENT & ECONOMICS
 
Toy guns in Massachussets.
Toy guns in Massachussets. Photo by Svadilfari, Flickr

Issue Overview: Guns in America

Each new mass shooting in the United States fires up debate over the country’s gun laws. Many feel that the right to carry a gun is almost sacred. Americans own more guns than anybody else on Earth, even when you take population into account. Firearms are involved in the deaths of more than 30,000 people in the U.S. annually, about two-thirds of which are suicides. Guns are also central to the story of the nation’s founding. The National Rifle Association (NRA), the main pro-gun group, has been on a decadeslong winning streak convincing courts and lawmakers to loosen gun restrictions and to prevent the passage of tougher laws.

The Situation

On June 12, 2016, a shooter pledging allegiance to the extremist group Islamic State killed 49 people in a gay bar in Orlando, Florida. The week after that, half a dozen proposals intended to keep suspected terrorists from buying guns failed in the Senate. Islamic State is attempting to set up its own country governed by its version of Islamic law. The group's fighters have captured parts of Syria and Iraq.

President Barack Obama became frustrated by the lack of action in the Senate. In January 2016, he issued a series of executive orders aimed at reducing gun violence. Most importantly, they required that more gun sellers do background checks on people wanting to buy guns. Gun-rights advocates have challenged Obama’s orders in court. 

A congressional bill to expand background checks was defeated in 2013, after a massacre the year before at a school in Newtown, Connecticut. States led by Democrats increased bans on assault weapons. These are guns that can fire many bullets at the same time. California created a new type of order meant to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. But a majority of states weakened their gun laws. Many now allow guns in more places, including schools, restaurants, churches and public buildings. Hidden guns are now allowed in all 50 states, and many states have expanded the rights of people to use guns in self-defense. The laws are very different by state, though. The U.S. has a higher per-person rate of murders committed with firearms than any other industrialized nation. Harvard and Northeastern University researchers say mass shootings have been increasing since 2011.

The Background

The U.S. is one of three countries whose constitutions let people own guns. Mexico and Guatemala are the two others. The right “of the people to keep and bear arms” is part of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It was created more than 200 years ago to allow states to form militias to protect themselves. The interpretation of the Second Amendment has evolved over time, and in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it protected the gun rights of individuals, not just militias.

Beyond that, the gun is a cultural icon in the U.S. — carried by soldiers in the Revolutionary War, frontiersmen conquering the Great Plains and cowboys roaming the Wild West. The number of guns in private hands has grown to as high as 310 million in the U.S. Meanwhile, recent surveys show that just 32 percent of Americans own at least one gun or live with someone who does, compared to 50 percent in the late 1970s to early 1980s. Shootings in other countries also led to debates over gun laws. Switzerland, for instance, combines a high gun ownership rate with a low murder rate. But the European country began considering weapons-control measures in 2013 after mass shootings.

The Argument

The well-funded NRA and its allies argue that gun regulations only hurt law-abiding gun owners, since criminals simply ignore them. They say that since Congress stopped banning assault rifles in 2004, violent crime in America has fallen significantly, and shootings are also down slightly.

Meanwhile, gun-control advocates say limiting weapons will reduce gun-related crimes. Australia passed strict gun ownership laws after a massacre left 35 people dead in 1996. Since then, there have been no mass shootings, and the firearms murder and suicide rates have plummeted. An editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine said the level of gun violence in the U.S. amounts to a public health crisis. The left-leaning magazine Mother Jones says it costs the U.S. $229 billion each year.

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1
Anchor 2: Central Idea

Which two of the following sentences from the article would be MOST important to include in a summary?

  1. Each new mass shooting in the United States fires up debate over the country’s gun laws.

  2. On June 12, 2016, a shooter pledging allegiance to the extremist group Islamic State killed 49 people in a gay bar in Orlando, Florida.

  3. The U.S. has a higher per-person rate of murders committed with firearms than any other industrialized nation.

  4. Australia passed strict gun ownership laws after a massacre left 35 people dead in 1996.

A

1 and 2

B

3 and 4

C

1 and 3

D

2 and 4

2
Anchor 2: Central Idea

The central idea of the article is developed by:

A

illustrating the benefits of gun ownership with charts and graphs

B

comparing gun laws in the U.S. with those of other countries whose constitutions let people own guns

C

explaining the conflicting views and history of gun laws

D

showing how lawmakers are negotiating to enact stricter gun control laws in the U.S.

3
Anchor 7: Multimedia

Look at the chart labeled "Civilian Firearms by Country."

Which statement BEST explains why the chart is included with the article?

A

It shows the difference in the number of guns between the U.S. and countries that have enacted stricter gun laws.

B

It gives visual data to support the statement that Americans own many more guns than any other nation.

C

It illustrates the differences in the rate of gun violence between the U.S. and other industrialized nations.

D

It illustrates the relatively small difference in the number of guns in Russia, Brazil and Mexico.

4
Anchor 7: Multimedia

Look at the chart labeled "The Gun Toll," then read the selection below.

The well-funded NRA and its allies argue that gun regulations only hurt law-abiding gun owners, since criminals simply ignore them. They say that since Congress stopped banning assault rifles in 2004, violent crime in America has fallen significantly, and shootings are also down slightly.

Which statement accurately explains the relationship between the excerpt and the chart?

A

The NRA's statement about crime and shootings after 2004 appears to contradict the information in the chart.

B

The information on the chart reinforces the statement made by the NRA regarding crime and shootings after 2004.

C

The chart illustrates the number of law-abiding gun owners who are hurt by stricter regulations.

D

The excerpt gives more specific details about the meaning of the numbers shown by the bars on the chart.

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