Gun control laws are controversial across the United States, owing to the long history of gun violence that has positioned gun ownership as a dangerous right to society. In most states, gun ownership remains a right of every citizen, and criminalization of the act only applies to specific public spaces. Recently, the U.S president has established a different approach toward gun ownership through the gun control law that requires agencies to perform tougher checks on young buyers. The law also requires states to confiscate firearms from individuals deemed a threat to society. In the past few decades, debates about laws relating to gun control and the possibility of more restrictive legislation have intensified. The debates are based on conflicting ideologies about the need for societal or individual safety as the reference to the Second Amendment of the American Constitution. The law, which gives the right to Americans to bear firearms, allows Americans to live at risk of gun violence as long as they protect their constitutional rights. On the contrary, opponents of this ideology believe that more restrictive laws could minimize the harm caused by gun violence. While the issue of gun control has been based on the law, using a social harm approach could improve the understanding of how gun ownership causes harm and help develop better policies that guard society’s welfare.
The social harm perspective developed as a result of the frustration experienced with the limitations that criminology presented when assessing “criminal acts.” For years, crime was understood in relation to the law. Actions were only perceived as a crime if they were against the law. This definition of crime ignores the geographical, time, and ideological variations in relation to law-making processes. For instance, while some states permit full gun ownership, others restrict gun ownership in certain spaces. Hence, scholars sought to understand crime from a social constructionist perspective. Social harm developed as they tried to examine crime in relation to its diverse impacts on society. The main role of the social harm approach is to develop a conceptual framework that demonstrates how societal organization results in harm that affects innocent people. The harms are not caused by the choices or behaviors of the victims. Rather, they occur due to the policies and legislations established by society. Hence, applying a social harm perspective to the understanding of how harms are produced, experienced, and sustained could lead to better choices and policies regarding gun control.
A social harm perspective provides a clearer framework for examining the range of harms that gun control laws have on people and society at large. Pemberton (2015) categorizes social harms into three groups, including relational harms, health harms, and autonomy harms. Health harms include acts that affect a person’s quality of life, including the ability to access basic needs, have a strong sense of self, and develop a feeling of self-control. For instance, physical/mental health harms limit the accessibility to quality healthcare, affordable housing, quality education, and equal employment opportunities. Such harms occur when society develops policies that fail or limit the needs from being met. Communities of color and those from other minority groups are greatly impacted by structural inequalities. The inequalities are in the form of norms, policies, and social structures that prevent people from gaining equal access to basic and security needs. Structural inequalities occur when systemic racism results in policies that segregate communities of color and let them live in poor neighborhoods and poor housing. The communities also have less access to economic opportunities. This generates the cycle of poverty and plays a huge role in fueling gun violence. Hence, gun control policies should focus on the root cause of gun violence rather than depending on factors such as mental health to blame for the rising cases of mass shootings.
Autonomy harms exist when people lack control over their lives and circumstances. Relational harms are caused by marginalization, misrepresentation, and social exclusion (Pemberton, 2015). Applying these categories to the issue of gun control establishes a relationship between gun violence and gun control laws. Laws that prohibit gun control force people from finding alternative ways to purchase and own firearms, hence operating illegally and increasing the risk of gun violence. On the contrary, laws that allow for gun ownership make more people have guns. This also threatens the safety of society. In either case, the laws hinder people from having control over their lives and circumstances. Also, laws that deny some people the right to own guns produce relational harm. Allowing others while restricting some from owning guns increases the existing harms as more people seek to own guns illegally. This exposes society to more gun violence.
A social harm perspective also categorizes harm as one that is caused by structural factors and processes. Yar (2012) believes that humans depend on each other to develop a sense of self and recognize their positive capabilities. Gun control policies can base their evaluations on this definition to develop measures that reduce gun violence among youths. Violent and aggressive behaviors among youth have become common in American society. Most school-rampant shootings and street shootings involve youths who grow up in environments that perpetuate the development of such behaviors (Bushman et al., 2016). Substance abuse, negative social relationships, and easy accessibility to guns increase the risk of such shootings. Here, society plays a huge role in harming its youths, which in turn harms them through gun violence. Hence, the understanding that youths, just like other people, depend on others for self-development and the establishment of a sense of self could help to create better measures to address predisposing factors.
Gun violence exists on a continuum and starts during early childhood as the child continuously interact with their environments. As parents bring up their children in neighborhoods characterized by high gun violence rates, the experiences impact their mental health. A survey in 2018 reported that 27% of adults in the African American community had witnessed a shooting (The Education Fund to Stop Gun Violence, 2020). Also, 42% of youths aged between 12 and 24 ages had witnessed some form of shooting. The exposure changes their brain chemistry and has lasting effects on the development and well-being of children. Research shows that early gun exposure is a social harm that increases the risk for anti-social behavior, depression, risky drug abuse, posttraumatic disorder, and engaging in violent acts. The limited access to mental healthcare services further exacerbates the problem among minority groups. As children grow up, they are more likely to engage in gun violence.
Social expectations and norms also play a key role in gun violence. Adherence to stereotypic masculinity is associated with violence, relationship problems, poor coping mechanisms, stress, and conflicts. From their childhood, the male gender is trained to adopt masculine characteristics. Such traits include limited ability to show their emotions, express their feelings and seek help when in need. Furthermore, male children have a higher likelihood of playing with toy guns than female children. A combination of these factors results in a male population that is emotionally restricted, aggressive, violent, or coercive (The Education Fund to Stop Gun Violence, 2020). Beliefs in such traditional forms of masculinity result in more suicide cases, increased alcohol abuse, and gun violence. Most mass shootings, street shootings, gun suicide, and partner violence are perpetrated by men. Male firearm suicide is high in adolescence and early adulthood. As the males develop, the beliefs and norms instilled in them impact their behaviors. Hence, culture is a social harm that must be addressed in relation to gun control and gun violence.
Rather than criminalizing gun ownership, the U.S government should first address the social harms perpetrated towards the potential “killers” in gun violence events. The problem of gun control transcends the criminal justice system to include many other societal structures and systems. Surprisingly, the government plays an indirect role in instituting gun violence. The presence of policies that limit the accessibility to basic needs such as equal employment opportunities, affordable housing, quality education, and healthcare services creates communities that live in poverty. Children who grow up in such environments are more likely to engage in crime and substance abuse to address their needs. The frustrations also increase the risk of gun violence. Besides, the environments within which parents bring up their children impact their mental health and well-being as they grow up. Hence, a social harm approach enhances the understanding that society develops structures that produce and sustain harm on its harm. The experiences increase the likelihood of gun violence.
Bushman, B. J., Newman, K., Calvert, S. L., Downey, G., Dredze, M., Gottfredson, M., … & Webster, D. W. (2016). Youth violence: What we know and what we need to know. American Psychologist, 71(1), 17. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/a0039687
Pemberton, S. (2015). Harmful societies: Understanding social harm. Bristol Policy Press.
The Education Fund to Stop Gun Violence. (2020). The root cause of gun violence. https://efsgv.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/EFSGV-The-Root-Causes-of-Gun-Violence-March-2020.pdf
Yar, M. (2012). Critical criminology, critical theory and social harm. In Hall & S. Winlow (Eds.), New Directions in Criminological Theory. Routledge