There are more guns legally held per person in the US than in any other developed nation. And despite a string of high-profile shootings in recent years guns are embedded in the American culture.
The right of individuals to carry arms is enshrined in the Second Amendment of the US constitution, written in 1791. And today, it is one of the most cherished of American rights.
"The idea that law-abiding citizens should have a right to protect themselves sounds good but…people lose control, they don't remain [as] law-abiding citizens. In fact, every criminal was once a law-abiding citizen."
Elliot Fineman from the National Gun Victims Council
As a result, the US has some of the most lax gun laws in the world. Most law-abiding adults can own a gun though some states make it more difficult than others.
The laws and restrictions on owning guns are confusing at the best of times, and there are a lot of them, depending on which state you live in.
But thousands of people are shot and killed every year. In fact, the US has one of the highest murder rates caused by firearms in the developed world, and some of them make international headlines.
There have been a number of high school shootings. The most well-known are the cases at the Columbine High School which left 15 people dead in 1999, and the Virginia Tech incident which left 32 people dead.
In January 2011, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head and seriously wounded while meeting her constituents in a supermarket carpark. Six other people died in the incident, including a federal judge.
And just last month, Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot dead by a volunteer captain of an informal neighbourhood watch group in Sanford, Florida. Trayvon was unarmed.
"It's a question of what works. Putting a sign on a Starbucks door, on the college campus door saying 'guns are not allowed here' is not going to stop a psychopath…"
David Burnett from the Students for Concealed Carry
Despite these deadly shootings, the number of Americans who oppose stricter gun control laws has steadily increased.
In 1990, about 19 per cent of US citizens opposed tougher gun controls. Now there are 55 per cent of Americans who either support lifting gun control laws or keeping them as they are. And some states are still pushing to legalise carrying concealed weapons even in schools.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) is leading the charge on the rights to carry weapons, and this is what Wayne LaPierre, its leader, had to say in September 2011.
"The fight is on for 2012. Anybody who says gun owners won't be a factor has not paid attention to the history of elections in our great country. Every time freedom is at risk it is fought for and preserved by the work, the wallets and the will of millions of NRA members and gun owners and patriots. In the face of peril, we always stand up."
LaPierre continues: "Our liberty in this country lives in the Second Amendment, the fundamental right that separates us from all other nations on earth. That freedom makes us better than other countries. That freedom makes us stronger than other countries."
So why do a majority of Americans fiercely defend their right to carry guns? And how do you balance public safety concerns with these rights?
Joining presenter Anand Naidoo on Inside Story Americas to discuss these issues are guests: David Burnett from the Students for Concealed Carry, a group which advocates for firearms; Elliot Fineman from the National Gun Victims Council, and whose son was shot and killed in 2006; and Hubert Williams, the president of the Police Foundation and a former law enforcer.
"Guns are purchased at gun shows and other places without background checks. You got more gun dealers in America than you do gas stations…40 per cent of the weapons that exchange hands are private sales."
Hubert Williams, the president of the Police Foundation
HOW THEY COMPARE:
- US – there are 90 guns for every 100 US residents, according to a 2007 survey
- England – only six guns per 100 residents
- Japan – zero because firearms are illegal
- Switzerland – every able-bodied adult male is required to own a government-issued gun and 50 rounds of ammunition because every male is considered a soldier