This interview was conducted over email with Jasmeet Sidhu, Director in the Research Unit at Amnesty International USA, by Sarah Holehouse, a second-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute.
What personal and/or professional experiences led you to research the U.S.’s obligations to prevent gun violence and its impact on human rights?
Well, I grew up in North Carolina- so I was always exposed to guns. But I have to say as a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s- I don’t remember the gun culture being as prevalent as it became in the late 90s. I had my twin daughters in 2010 and when they were two years old Sandy Hook happened. I remember being so devastated and feeling so empty after learning about the shooting and all of these young kids who died – afraid and alone. I couldn’t shake the sadness. I wondered how I could have brought kids into this world knowing that a tragedy like that would happen and nothing would be done- no policy would change. Shortly thereafter- several people were killed in a hate crime shooting at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. As a Sikh-American myself, I could not believe that people were not even safe worshipping on a Sunday. For months after – I couldn’t bring myself to go to temple. When I did go - I couldn’t close my eyes. I couldn’t shake the fear that some deranged person might show up with a gun and open fire. I realized that this wasn’t just about guns anymore- it was about our rights- our human rights as people living in the U.S. – to go to school, to worship, to go to the movies, to attend a concert, to go to the grocery store, to hang out on our front stoop or in a park- without the fear of gun violence. I knew that Amnesty had begun working on the issue and I wanted to work on the research. I wanted people to see the issue through human rights lens. Everyone- everywhere- has the right to live, to feel safe, and to be free from the threat of gun violence.
In 2018, you led the development of AIUSA’s End Gun Violence report: In the Line of Fire- Human Rights and the US Gun Violence Crisis. What does this report highlight as some of the main human rights implications of gun violence in the United States?
The report looks at the impact of gun violence on women (through domestic violence), children & youth, and communities of color who are disproportionately impacted by gun violence through homicides. We traveled around the country and interviewed impacted individuals, direct service providers, educators, government officials, health care workers, grassroots organizations etc. We wanted to understand the full picture of gun violence across the nation and what folks on the ground wanted in terms of policy change.The U.S. has either signed or ratified several international human rights conventions that guarantee human rights impacted by gun violence and firearm-related injuries and deaths, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The United States therefore, has a legal obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights set out in these treaties and to exercise due diligence by taking measures to combat actual or foreseeable threats to these rights, including the right to life. In the context of firearms, this obligation also includes reducing and preventing violent acts against individuals and communities, addressing discriminatory violence, violence against children, gender-based violence, and the use of firearms in suicides, unintentional and accidental deaths. The U.S. is obliged to exercise due diligence to prevent, punish, investigate and redress harm caused by private individuals and should pay particular attention to those most at risk, be they individuals or marginalized communities.
The recent shooting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on August 28, 2023 brought the issue of gun violence frighteningly close to our community. Given the urgent need for tangible action towards ending gun violence, what solutions has your research indicated are needed to address this crisis?
I wish it were as easy as naming one action or one solution- but the truth is- it took us decades to get to this point and it will take time to correct the lapses in policy, safeguards, purchase and sales and background checks, among other things. The United States doesn’t have more mental health crises than other countries. What we have is easy access to guns. Depending on the state- anyone anywhere can get their hands on a gun- or make one from re-purchased parts. What that does is arm a society where people have bad days, or crises, or conflict. It allows for the individual right of someone to carry a firearm to trump the collective right of the public to feel safe. Until we are able to introduce universal background checks, requirements for licensing and permitting, age requirements, reporting of lost and stolen guns, ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, invest in evidence-based community violence reduction and prevention programs, require proper storage of firearms and change the mindset around firearms and the loss- financial, emotional, physical, societal, that they cause- we cannot fully solve the problem. But, every step towards these solutions is a step in the right direction. Last summer the first bipartisan gun violence law in decades- the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act- was signed into law. I never thought we would see that when I started this research seven years ago. So, the needle is definitely moving and a lot of the credit for that goes to the youth and the movements they have built and their ability to vote and create change.
In the aftermath of the shooting, many Duke and UNC students have found themselves called to action in the struggle for a world free from gun violence. What advice would you give to students looking to get involved in this work?
Never give up. Having gone to undergrad at Duke and law school at UNC- my heart breaks for my community and the students living in fear of the next shooting. The human rights crisis of gun violence in the U.S. is a complex issue. It won’t be solved overnight. It requires a multi-pronged approach and change will happen in stages. Every step, every policy change, every person moved to take action, every life impacted- it will move the needle forward. So be resilient, recognize that there are many paths to advocacy and change. Write op-eds, have listening circles, gather facts, educate yourselves and others, start small but think big, tell stories, lift up impacted individuals- bring them to testify and hold space for their experiences, work across the aisle, recognize that this is a solvable problem- but it takes people willing to fight for change. Remember the power of youth movements and never doubt that every action you take makes a difference. It always has for me. That’s why I’m still doing this work- 25 years after graduating from Duke, 27 years after running Duke’s Amnesty Chapter and 28 years after my first internship with Amnesty International in DC. Believe in the movement.