Q & A: Reframing the conversation about gun control around human rights
Photo courtesy of Leila Sadat.
Professor Leila Sadat is the James Carr Professor of International Criminal Law at the Washington University School of Law and a recipient of the University’s Arthur Holly Compton faculty achievement award. She is the Special Adviser on Crimes Against Humanity to the International Criminal Court Prosecutor, and the Director and Founder of the Gun Violence and Human Rights Project and the Crimes Against Humanity Initiative at WashU. Editor-in-Chief Julia Robbins spoke with Sadat about her research into the field of human rights and gun violence following a shooting at a St. Louis high school in October.
SL: Can you talk about the significance of framing gun control as a question of the government’s legal obligations instead of as another piece of policy recommendation?
Sadat: The current focus in the United States is almost entirely on the “rights” of individuals wishing to purchase and wield arms, which they frame as “gun rights” guaranteed by the Second Amendment of the US constitution. I like to say there’s no such thing as gun rights because guns don’t have rights, people do. And that’s not just me being professorial, it’s a fundamental point. You have to look at the entire framework in which the Second Amendment is embedded. It is part of a Constitution premised upon the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and none of us experiences those rights if we’re shot or terrorized by gun violence.
Moreover, given the scope of the problem, we can’t just look at this through the lens of the rights of the shooters. We have to look at the effect on the victims. And under human rights law, countries have concrete obligations to prevent human rights violations even when they’re perpetrated by private citizens. The United States has clear legal obligations to protect the health and safety of its citizens. So the people who fixate on the Second Amendment are not looking at the United States Constitution in a holistic way, or at international human rights law which is binding on the United States under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. It is not consistent with the rule of law for individuals to claim that their right to have a weapon, whatever the weapon is, is more important than anything else, including the right to life and safety of thousands of gun violence victims and the millions of school children who are traumatized by gun violence.”
SL: What advice do you have for advocates of gun control to make their dialogue more persuasive to people who have so far been resistant to their calls for change?
Sadat: First, a majority of Americans support reasonable gun safety laws including universal background checks, red flag laws, safe storage requirements, and an assault weapons ban. So the problem is not popular support but political power. And even there, I think a couple of things have happened to shift the conversation in a more positive direction. Unfortunately, there have been so many more mass shootings that people who were on the fence have become quite militant about it. The Parkland shooting I think really was a tipping point, although obviously not enough because the Second Amendment Preservation Act, adopted by Republicans in the Missouri legislature to prevent enforcement of federal gun laws in our State, was enacted just last year. So conversations are shifting, and many States are adopting new gun safety laws, but others, like Missouri, are moving in the opposite direction.
The other big challenge to adopting gun safety laws is a reactionary Supreme Court. I don’t know how else to describe it. The Court’s decision this summer in the Bruen case, which invalidated one of New York’s firearm licensing laws, was a step backwards. Ironically, it was issued just as Congress was adopting the first bipartisan gun control legislation we have seen in the past 20 years. Yet instead of considering contemporary realities, including the deaths of more than 40,000 individuals every year from guns, Justice Thomas, who authored the judgment, wrote dozens of pages of 18th and 19th century history to determine the question of whether today individuals ought to be required to demonstrate proper cause to carry a weapon in public. This is a very peculiar theory of constitutional interpretation; and not one we really see elsewhere in the world; it is limited to so-called originalist scholars and some judges on the federal bench, including the 3 appointed by President Trump, and was used in Bruen to invalidate a law that was more than a Century old, and had not been shown to have been misapplied.
SL: You wrote in your Harvard Law Review article that constant mass media coverage of shootings harms the mental health of viewers. How do you think the media can mitigate the potential harm their content poses for viewers?
Sadat: It is preferable for news following mass shootings to focus on the victims and the harm that the entire school faces, not on the mental health struggles of the shooter, and journalists should take care not to glorify the shooter in any way or allow the shooting to become a platform for his or her views. The shooter at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School wanted his acts to be the biggest and the most impactful; we cannot allow that narrative to be advanced. Many experts have even suggested that the name of the shooter not be used by the media. Yet we have that especially when the shooter is Caucasian, the media will often focus on their struggles and their mental health in a way that distracts from the terrible harm inflicted on the victims and deflects attention away from the use of a weapon, the AR 15, that has no place in civilian life. Their legitimate need for medical or mental health treatment should not be part of the public conversation in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting.
SL: Can you speak to the lasting trauma that school children who have been impacted by shootings might experience?
Sadat: Whether students witness a shooting personally or learn about one from social media or the news, they are traumatized by these events and experience PTSD, stress, anxiety, and depression. Longitudinal studies have shown that this trauma can last a lifetime. Instead of school being a place of safety and learning, even of joy where kids can look forward to hanging out with their friends, it becomes a place of fear. The lockdown drills make students’ mental health worse because they subject students to the idea that they might be shot at school. And some schools carry out the drills with extraordinarily terrifying realism– they have people in black running through the school and jiggling door handles. They have children huddling under desks. Young children as well as middle school and high school students are being subjected to that – and for those who have personally witnessed a shooting, they simply never recover.
Sadat: We know what needs to be done, many politicians have unfortunately just been impervious to it. There is a wealth of excellent research and studies comparing the effect of gun safety laws between communities, between different states, and between different countries, and they have demonstrated that guns are the root cause of the problem, not mental health or criminal attitudes. Even though most Americans support reasonable gun safety laws and the NRA is no longer politically powerful, it has become a symbolic and cultural issue. I’ve been having difficult conversations with some family members where I’ve had to say ‘I’ve been studying this for five years now, I’m reading the clinical studies, I’m looking at the research, it is not safer to have a gun in your house. You’re much more likely to be shot with your own gun than you are to shoot an intruder.’ Or to have a family member take their own life if they have easy access to a gun. We all need to be having these difficult conversations.
The other really concerning aspect of the gun debate in the United States is the increasing use of firearms as weapons of political intimidation, at polling places, at government buildings, and at protests. Armed political violence is a characteristic of societies in which the rule of law is weak. That is not an America we want to live in. Finally, the other connection people don’t make is between immigration and gun violence. A lot of people in the United States are complaining about immigration problems, particularly as regards migrants from Central or Latin America. Yet many of them are fleeing gangs in their own countries, gangs that are predominantly armed with U.S. guns, because U.S. gun manufacturers have targeted those markets and the U.S. has refused to ratify important treaties that could curb transnational small arms flows. I really hope that one day we’ll look back at this period and say, ‘what could we have been thinking?’ And we can’t give up, because things can really change in the United States, as it has done in other countries with strong gun cultures like Australia. It takes research, education and political will: and a recognition that this is about public safety and protecting our democracy.