Gun Violence & Public Health

March 13, 2020

The Gun Violence Initiative at the Institute for Public Health turns five in April 2020. This blog is part of a special series related to the key themes of the initiative: What we know, what we need to know, and what to do about this critical issue.

U.S. Gun Violence is a Public Health and Human Rights Crisis

By Leila Nadya Sadat, Director, Whitney. R Harris World Law Institute and Madaline M. George, Senior Fellow, Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute

Gun violence in the United States has reached crisis proportions. Nearly 40,000 people were killed by firearms in 2017, making the United States an extreme global outlier. Mass shootings take place with alarming frequency in schools, places of worship, theaters, as well as at concerts and other public places. Yet legislative efforts to protect the U.S. population from violent death by firearms have been nearly impossible to achieve for a variety of legal and political reasons. In late fall 2017, Harris Institute Director Professor Leila Sadat launched a new initiative on gun violence that examines the U.S. response to gun violence in light of U.S. obligations under international human rights law. The Harris Institute’s Gun Violence and Human Rights Initiative challenges the prevailing “gun rights” and Second Amendment narratives by using a human rights lens to research, analyze, and propose concrete actions to address the U.S. gun violence crisis. Our research demonstrates that the U.S. gun violence crisis implicates the rights enshrined in human rights treaties and customary international law that protect individuals living in the United States. These rights are intersectional and many have parallel rights in the U.S. Constitution.

We conclude that the United States is breaching its legal obligation to protect its population through inaction, because gun violence is preventable via the implementation of common, widely-accepted, and constitutional gun control measures.

To establish that the U.S. government is legally required to prevent gun violence, three elements are required: (1) that the harm rises to a certain level, (2) that it is attributable to the government, and (3) that a remedy exists. The important information and data collected by public health and medical science researchers is useful to establish the first and third criteria. It provides evidence of physical injuries and deaths, as well as how certain groups – particularly women, children, and communities of color – are uniquely affected. It also established that certain firearm regulations can reduce these harms. Human rights connects this research to the legal framework to establish the second category. For example, the U.N. Committee Against Torture has found that States have an obligation to prevent ill-treatment, included when it is committed by private actors, and that there is a special responsibility on the State to prevent harm “in all contexts of custody or control, for example, in . . . schools [and] institutions that engage in the care of children.” Public health research demonstrates the mental and physiological harm caused by school shootings and the developmental effects that widespread gun violence has on children, as well as suggests further detrimental effects resulting from active shooter drills. As such, the government’s failure to enact certain best practices that are proven to reduce this violence is a violation of its obligation to protect children and prevent ill-treatment.

Harris Institute’s Gun Violence and Human Rights Initiative has submitted shadow reports to the U.N. Human Rights Committee and the U.N. Human Rights Council., which are both scheduled to review the U.S. government’s compliance with human rights protection in spring 2020, and representatives from the Institute presented testimony at two hearings before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on U.S. gun violence and firearm regulations. The Washington University Journal of Law and Policy recently published a special symposium edition on Gun Violence and Human Rights as a result of a conference held by the Harris Institute and the Institute from Public Health in November 2018.