This week the Senate concluded hearings on the hot topic of gun control reform, hearing voices from all sides of the debate including former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a victim of gun violence, as well as chief executive of the National Rifle Association Wayne LaPierre. On the table are measures ranging from assault weapons bans, ammunition limits, and mandatory background checks for all gun purchases. Whether through executive order or Congressional legislation, the Obama administration has put up a full court press to push forward with significant gun regulation amidst a wave of public support as it rides into a second term.
Should any of the proposals pass it would represent a major shift not only in current federal gun policy but also in the ability of the country to rally around what have become recurring and persistent national tragedies prompted by gun violence. Over the past decade large-scale gun tragedies akin to the Newtown massacre prompted periods of national mourning and instigated much discussion and debate on guns, mental health issues, and public security, but these debates have not translated to tangible change at the state or federal level. The Columbine massacre in 1999 shocked the conscience of America and made gun control central to the 2000 presidential debates. Yet when all was said and done, the President’s bill on stricter regulations for gun shows remained in a Senate lock-down, seven gun control bills in Colorado, the state of the tragedy, died in the House, and NRA membership and sales of guns skyrocketed. Since 2000 repeated cycles of killings and debate have followed a similar trend. The best evidence of debate turning to action occurred after the 2008 Virginia Tech massacre, when President Bush beefed up a law already on the books to strengthen state reporting to the federal background check system. Current debates proposing strict bans, or mandatory checks, are at an entirely different stage in the debate that has surpassed mere gradations of security in favor of blanket sweeps. Any consensus this round will radically affect the American populace.
Where does a glance across the Atlantic to Turkey come into play? The American debate on guns consistently features graphs and statistics decrying the level of gun violence in the United States compared to its Western counterparts and many non-Western countries to which the United States sends millions of aid dollars earmarked for security and law enforcement reform (including, until recently, Syria). What’s fascinating is that Turkey, in opposition to almost all other developing and developed nations, closely mirrors United States trends in abnormally high rates of gun violence and gun ownership. The OECD reports that gun related murders in the U.S. are 4.8 per 100,000; in Turkey the number is slightly lower at 3.3 (down from 5.6 a decade ago). Both are still much higher than comparable countries in Europe, the Arabian Peninsula, Asia, and North Africa where rates remain significantly less than 2.0. Gun ownership per person, while almost 1:1 in the United States, has also taken off in Turkey. In the past decade gun ownership has risen 83 %, and stores such as Silah Dünyası (Gun World), look very profitable to capital investors.
Given the striking similarities on the facts, one might ask why a major discrepancy exists between the two countries’ overall attitudes towards gun violence. While a vitriolic debate surges in America from pulpits to podiums to dinner tables, public opinion in Turkey remains tepid on the concern of gun violence despite its relative prevalence. Historical and political differences give the most surface level explanation. The founders of the United States codified the right to bear arms in the 2nd amendment of the Constitution, and Americans have since cherished this right as fundamental and supreme. Once debate on the subject begins, the two sides are bound to take arguments to extremes because the debate cuts to the core of citizenship guarantees, a fact unique to America. Similarly, the historical trajectory of American hesitation and reluctance to implement army power within its domestic boundaries strengthens support for an individual’s right to self-defense and gun ownership; in Turkey, frequent interludes of military power and a very active and noticeable military presence throughout the country impinges on the force of arguments necessitating gun ownership as a means of self-defense.
The framing of the debate has morphed the core issues of gun rights in America to alternate security and social concerns in Turkey. In America we talk about “gun control”-inherently suggesting a limitation on pre-existing rights. Vice President Joe Biden now wants to re-characterize the debate in terms of gun safety. In Turkey, the issue of gun violence is subsumed within larger issues of illegal arms trafficking across borders, making it an international issue, or women’s rights, insofar as a perception remains that much gun violence relates to issues of the family or home disputes. Common perceptions of gun-related deaths as accidental deaths at celebrations also mis-conceptualizes the debate in Turkey by focusing on the happenstance quality of gun deaths at an otherwise acceptable fora for gun use (celebrations). Discussion should focus on the danger of gun death as a result of intentional actions. The power and wealth of the NRA as well as other lobbies ensures that when the gun debate arises in America, both sides are well funded and outspoken. Absence of similarly strong lobbies in Turkey mutes the debate both at the political and individual levels (to my understanding there is just one group working on gun reform in Turkey-the Umut Foundation-and its efforts have dwindled in recent years). Perhaps most obviously, the trend of gun related-deaths in national tragedies continually reignites public debate in America absent similar horrors (thankfully) in Turkey.
As a rare similarly-situated country, Turkey presents an interesting case of comparison to the United States on gun safety. While the lack of Turkish debate in the public and political forum remains the most salient comparison, it is perhaps moot given the ease the Turkish government would have in passing legislation should it choose to do so. On the matter of actual reform, America will have to wait and see if this time around the virtues of pluralism are not all talk.
Juris Doctor Candidate, Yale Law School 2015
Fulbright Scholar 2010-2012