Initiative Director: Professor Leila Nadya Sadat


“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” 

                                                                                                    ― Eleanor Roosevelt

Gun violence in the United States has reached crisis proportions. More than 39,000 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, theatres, as well as at concerts and other public places, creating a climate of fear. Yet domestic 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, James Carr Professor of International Criminal Law Leila Sadat launched a new initiative on gun violence examining U.S. government responses to gun violence in light of U.S. obligations under international human rights law.

As part of this new initiative, WashULaw students and the Harris Institute Fellow are conducting in-depth research articulating mechanisms to rectify the crisis and international fora that can examine the issue. Our research demonstrates that the failure of the U.S. government to exercise due diligence with respect to preventing and reducing gun violence and the proliferation of firearms violates the government’s obligations under several international human rights instruments. The Institute is pleased to see other organizations like Amnesty International USA take up the human rights concerns raised by U.S. gun violence.

Global Outreach of the Project

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has encouraged the United States to redress gun violence through effective gun control policies and held a hearing in February 2018 on “Regulation of Gun Sales and Social Violence in the United States” in Bogotá, Colombia. The Harris Institute presented its initial research findings at this hearing and urged the Commission to hold a thematic hearing on this issue and invoke all the remedies at its disposal. We encourage you to view the video of the hearing.

Similarly, the UN Human Rights Committee has criticized the level of gun violence in the United States and in 2014 recommended that the government take “all necessary measures to abide by its obligation to effectively protect the right to life.” In January 2019, the Harris Institute submitted “The U.S. Gun Violence Crisis as a Violation of U.S. Obligations Under The ICCPR” ahead of the UN Human Rights Committee’s periodic review of the United States at its 125th session in March 2019.

In September 2019, the Harris Institute and Washington University’s Institute for Public Health submitted a joint stakeholder report on gun violence and human rights to the UN Human Rights Council as part of the Third Universal Periodic Review of the U.S. government’s human rights record. James Carr Professor of International Criminal Law Leila Sadat and Fellow Madaline George also co-authored a section on gun violence for a joint submission by members of the International Law Association (American Branch)’s International Human Rights Committee’s Subcommittee on U.S. Compliance with International Human Rights Law.  On April 27, 2020, the UN Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released its Summary of Stakeholders’ Submissions on the United States of America. The Institute’s reports were two of only eleven submissions cited in the Summary Report in relation to issues of gun violence and were the most cited reports on the topic. The Council’s May 2020 review of the United States has been postponed until November 2020 in Geneva, Switzerland.

In November 2019, the Harris Institute was again invited to present testimony to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) at a hearing on “The Impact of Gun Violence in the United States” as part of the 174th Period of Sessions in Quito, Ecuador. Harris Institute fellow Madaline George’s testimony highlighted the ongoing failure of the executive and legislative branches to protect the U.S. population from ongoing gun violence. The Institute presented alongside Amnesty International, the Center for American Progress, and several victims and survivors of gun violence. You can view a video of the impactful hearing online.

James Carr Professor of International Criminal Law Leila Sadat and Fellow Madaline George published an op-ed, Protect our human rights, not gun rights, in the St. Louis Post Dispatch in the wake of the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings, highlighting the impact of the U.S. gun violence crisis and the trend of states, like Missouri, to repeatedly loosen firearm regulations despite research showing that doing so leads to more injury and death.

The Institute’s White Paper on The U.S. Gun Violence Crisis: Human Rights Perspectives and Remedies was published in January 2019. It’s most recent law review article on Gun Violence and Human Rights can be found on SSRN.


On November 2-3 2018, the Harris Institute hosted a conference and experts’ meeting on A New Approach to the Gun Violence Crisis in America that brought together a number of leading scholars and academics in the field, as well as key NGO representatives, to discuss the crisis. (View Event Poster). The meeting was held at Washington University School of Law and was co-sponsored by the Washington University’s Institute for Public Health, the Public Interest Law & Policy Speakers Series,  the American Branch of the International Law Association (International Human Rights Committee), and Washington University’s Journal of Law and Policy. This event led to a symposium edition of the Journal of Law and Policy on Gun Violence as a Human Rights Violation (Vol. 60, 2019).

On Tuesday, August 7, 2018, the Division of Emergency Medicine, Center for Community Health Partnership and Research, and the Gun Violence Initiative at the Institute for Public Health held the 2nd Annual Larry Lewis Healthcare Symposium: Firearm Injury Prevention, a multi-disciplinary Symposium at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. James Carr Professor of International Criminal Law Leila Sadat delivered a presentation on the human rights implications of U.S. gun violence to an interdisciplinary audience of medical health professionals, social workers, and community activists.

On Tuesday, April 21, 2020, the Institute co-sponsored a webinar on Gun Violence in Mexico & Central America: Facing the Challenges and the Paths to Solutions. This webinar is part of a series of virtual events planned in response to the cancelation of the 2020 Annual CUGH Global Health Conference and a day-long conference on Gun Violence in the Americas, at which the Harris Institute was scheduled to present. The global burden of gun violence accounts for more than 250,000 deaths worldwide, and half of these deaths occur in just six countries – all in the Americas. This public health, human rights, and humanitarian crisis has significant challenges, requiring multiple policy and program approaches for making our respective nations healthy and safe. This multisectoral series of webinars is intended to convene public health, humanitarian, arms control, policy, legal, human rights, and other leaders to focus on challenges ahead and finding solutions. In May, additional webinars were held on Arms Trafficking in the Americas, and Regional strategies to stop the flow and use of firearms in Mesoamerica. The final webinar took place on June 25, 2020, on The flow of U.S. guns and violence against women in Mexico and Central America.

In 2021, Professor Sadat received a grant from the Joyce Foundation to contribute to the development of a U.S. litigation strategy to bring human rights norms into U.S. Courts. After holding several successful expert roundtables, the Initiative published and distributed its report. In September 2021, she contributed to an Amicus brief filed in the Supreme Court in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen and her forthcoming article Torture in our Schools? is forthcoming in the Harvard Law Review Forum.


The Knotted Gun