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BBC Newsnight's Peter Marshall reports (April 1999)
Guns, violence and the threat to America's schools
 real 56k

Tuesday, 6 March, 2001, 10:48 GMT
Firearms: A civil liberties issue?
A man holds a rifle in a gun shop
On sale: But for a limited time only?
In 1998, Americans recoiled in horror after the shooting dead of four students and a teacher at a school in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

Politicians, church leaders and ordinary members of the community said that it should never be allowed to happen again. Unfortunately, it did.

Since then, the US has witnessed more appalling and seemingly motiveless mass killings, three of the worst being at Columbine High School in Colorado in April 1999, another mass killing in the middle of Atlanta three months later, and a church shooting in Fort Worth, Texas, in September.

Deadly toll
Apr 1999: Columbine High, Denver - 15 dead
Jul 1999: Atlanta - 13 dead
Sep 1999: Wedgewood Baptist Church, Fort Worth - 8 dead
Dec 1999: Radisson Bay Harbor Inn, Tampa - 5 dead
Dec 2000: Wakefield Massachusetts - 7 shot
Mar 2001: Santee, Calif - 2 dead
None of these incidents have changed the fact that you can walk into household name retail stores and, subject to various state and federal laws, choose your weapon from a rack of guns and ammunition and walk away.

For many Americans, including the three million members of the National Rifle Association, the right to bear arms is not only enshrined in the constitution, it is a key civil liberty.

The right was born out of the War of Independence when armed militias had the right to protect property and people.

It grew in importance as the union headed west into an environment where the only law was that of the gun and the hangman's noose.

A well regulated militia being neccessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed

US Constitution Second Amendment
That was more than 100 years ago. Gun control campaigners say the case for scrapping what they regard as an anachronistic right is now overwhelming.

There are an estimated 200 million privately held guns in the USA. One million weapons are in the hands of students, some of whom take the guns into high school.

More than 14,000 homicides were committed with firearms in 1996. Of the dead, 68 were children below the age of four. More than 5,500 of those killed were aged between 15 and 24.

Overall, the highest death rate per capita is for men aged between 20 and 24 at 30 per 100,000. Black males in low-income, inner-city areas, are even more likely to be shot.

In the 12 months prior to Denver there were seven fatal school shootings, which left 16 dead. Many inner-city high schools now use airport-style security gates to screen out weapons.

US Firearms deaths, 1996
Homicide: 14,037
Suicide: 18,166
Unintentional: 1,134
Police intervention: 290
Undetermined: 413
TOTAL: 34,040
SOURCE: National Center for Injury Control and Prevention
While these figures are an improvement on previous years, public opinion has arguably been turning slowly towards more controls.

Many newspapers, including key opinion formers, are questioning the wisdom of widespread gun ownership.

Former President Bill Clinton and his wife Hilary have emerged as prominent supporters of tougher controls.

The law

State laws on ownership, carrying and use of firearms differ widely. There are various levels of checks depending on what kind of weapon you want.

Click here to find out about recent legislation.

Some states allow the purchase of both rifles and handguns without any form of prior licence. Others have totally banned the carrying of handguns and are moving against "concealed weapons".

State laws often mirror the demographic of the population - large rural populations have retained a more relaxed attitude towards firearms than cities.

But even before the Columbine killings, the debate had intensified - and nowhere more so than in Colorado.

The National Rifle Association campaigned for months to persuade the state legislature to pass laws allowing the carrying of concealed weapons.

Denver Mayor Wellington Webb took out full-page newspaper adverts against the measure, arguing that there had been a 42% drop in homicides since tighter laws in 1994.

His campaign - coupled with the killings - led to the proposal being hastily shelved. Despite the killings, the NRA went ahead with its annual conference in Denver, albeit in a much more toned down form.

Under the gun

Two of the major gun control successes in recent years came when gun firms agreed to manufacture child-proof locks following the accidental deaths of 200 children and then President Bill Clinton pushed the "Brady Bill" through Congress.

The Bill, a landmark in firearms legislation, outlawed some semi-automatic "assault weapons" and required background checks on gun purchasers.

Many members of his own Democratic Party then accused Mr Clinton of backing off from tougher measures after the Republicans, many of whom are backed by the NRA, gained control of Congress.

However, on 8 April 1999, anti-gun campaigners celebrated an important symbolic victory when Missouri narrowly rejected proposals to allow the carrying of concealed weapons.

The result, watched by the entire nation, came after high profile campaigning from Hilary Clinton and, on the other side, a $4m NRA offensive.

Campaigners heralded it as a step forward - but amending the constitution is not even up for discussion.

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See also:

21 Apr 99 | Americas
When children kill
30 Jul 99 | Americas
America wrestles with gun culture
30 Jul 99 | Americas
Atlanta gunman kills 12
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