The steps announced today by United States President Barack Obama to reduce gun violence are a welcome and necessary departure from years of inaction –a recognition that the US can and should act to protect citizens from gun-related violence.
Mass shootings are tragically routine in the US. President Obama, in the 11th speech of his presidency and in the aftermath of one of these tragedies, sounded exasperated: “Our thoughts and prayers are not enough,” he said. “It’s not enough... it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted someplace else in America -- next week, or a couple of months from now.”
Worse, casualties in mass shootings are just tiny blip compared to the 11,000 or more people that are killed intentionally with firearms in the US each year.
At first glance, mass shootings and firearm fatalities may not appear to be a human rights issue. These are acts of violence by individuals, not directed by a government. Besides not committing rights abuses themselves, governments have a responsibility to protect people from actions by other individuals that threaten those rights. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) requires state parties – including the US – guarantee the rights to life and security of person. Rampant gun violence constitutes a widespread threat to those rights, one the US government should actively confront.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which interprets the ICCPR, has called on state parties to “protect their populations... against the risks posed by excessive availability of firearms.” And in a May 2015 review of its human rights record, several UN member states urged the US to consider addressing gun violence through expanded background checks and other means. The US subsequently said that it agreed in part with some of those recommendations, expressing support for expanding the number of firearms transfers that trigger a background check.
President Obama’s announcement today reinforces his administration’s commitment to take action. Yet, Congress, the branch of government that can do the most to reduce gun violence, continues to be silent, frozen at the “thoughts and prayers” stage, frozen as the list of innocents stacks up. They should stop being an obstacle to progress, show leadership, and act.