Rhetoric vs. Research: 7 Facts About Guns Every American Should Know
As tragedies pile up, the nation keeps delving into the supercharged debate over guns. The dysfunctional dialogue – rich in rhetoric but poor in facts – keeps polarizing the society, making it increasingly difficult to tell evidence-based facts from fiction. To separate speculation from facts, here are seven frequently asked questions about gun violence, mass shootings, and stats that you should know.
1. How do the U.S. gun ownership and homicide rate compare to that of other developed countries?
According to Sen. Christopher Murphy, the US has a gun violence rate that’s 20 times that of every other industrialized country.
So, is America in a unique situation with gun violence and mass shootings?
Sen. Murphy cited a 2016 study that found the US gun homicide rate in 2010 was 25 times higher than that of more than 20 other high-income countries combined, not individually. Not all industrialized countries were included.
Still, the gap is large. The US gun homicide rate of 3.6 deaths per 100,000 people is:
Seven times higher than in Canada
82 times higher than in the UK
513.8 times higher than in Japan
The US firearm suicide rate is eight times higher, and the unintentional gun death rate is six times higher than in other industrialized countries. Combined, 80% of all gun deaths in the studied countries occur in the US.
According to an American Sociological Association study, the United States has experienced a 31% of global public mass shootings between 1966 and 2012. Between 1983 and 2013, the US accounted for a staggering 66% of mass shootings across 25 OECD nations.
The US has the highest rates of gun ownership in the world – followed by Yemen – and the highest rate of gun homicides among advanced countries, according to a 2017 study Gun Violence in America.
There are an estimated 270 million civilian-owned firearms in the US, which translates to 89 guns per 100 people. Yemen has the rate of 55 guns per 100 people, Switzerland – 46, but requires military service to own a gun.
More guns don’t translate into more gun owners, however. According to the General Social Survey, three-quarters of gun owners own two or more guns, and about 3% of households own 50% of all guns in America. Today, only about 30% of the Americans own a gun., while gun sales typically go up after a mass shooting.
2. Does owning a gun make you safer?
“Owning a gun makes you safer” is the traditional NRA mantra. NRA’s Wayne LaPierre produced many quotes about how owning a gun is the only way to protect oneself and one’s family in the US, such as the one about a good woman with a gun to teach a violent rapist a good lesson.
Academics, such as John Lott and Gary Kleck, also claim that more guns reduce crime. But is this really the case?
A growing body of statistics and research suggests that owning a gun puts you at a heightened risk of a gun-related tragedy in the home:
Owning a gun increases the risk of gun-related homicides and suicides, according to numerous studies.
Victims of domestic violence are at particularly high risk of becoming the victims of gun violence. A firearm in a household with a history of domestic violence increases a woman’s risk of being killed by 500%.
Guns acquired for self-defense are often involved in fatal accidents. Nationwide, higher levels of gun ownership are linked to higher occurrences of unintentional firearm deaths.
Criminal gun homicides outnumber self-defense related use of guns. For every self-defense gun homicide, there are 34 criminal gun homicides in the US.
Using a gun for self-defense during a robbery doesn’t yield significant benefits. According to the 2015 Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health of the National Crime Victimization Survey, the likelihood of being injured in a robbery was almost identical between people who tried to defend themselves with a gun and those who didn’t.
3. Are increasing gun ownership rates linked to gun violence and mass shootings?
The pro-gun rhetoric suggests video games, bad parenting, and mental illnesses cause mass shootings – “people kill people, not guns.”
The scientific studies blame it on the civilian gun ownership, however. More guns translate into more mass shootings, not less, whereas the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent. Only 3%-5% of violent acts are attributed to mental illness, and most don’t involve guns.
The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime states that countries with higher rates of gun ownership have higher rates of firearm mass murder and homicide. The US rate is higher than that of Europe, Canada, and Australia.
According to the Gun Violence in America:
More than 90 Americans die by gunfire every day
More than 21 thousand suicides, 11 thousand homicides, and 1,200 accidental deaths occur yearly
People in the US are ten times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other high-income countries
Countries with the highest rate of gun violence – El Salvador, The Philippines, and Iraq – don’t compare to the US in terms of GDP, life expectancy, or education. So among developed countries, the US is a massive outlier.
Guns, mass shootings, and homicides are statistically associated. The problem is the CDC is essentially prohibited from studying the connection between gun ownership rates and violence.
Nonetheless, a country’s gun ownership rate correlation to the risk of firearm death is 0.9, a nearly perfect coefficient. A recent study of four decades of mass shootings across the globe found that a country’s civilian firearm ownership rate is the most reliable predictor of mass shootings and gun violence overall.
4. Do most mass shootings take place in public gun-free zones?
According to President Trump, “a gun-free zone is 'let's go in and let's attack because bullets aren't coming back at us.”
The kind of rhetoric is often used to attempt and halt legislative efforts to limit gun carrying in places where guns don’t belong – schools, churches, and government buildings.
For example, in the aftermath of the October 1, 2015, mass shooting in Oregon, pro-gun advocates blamed the school’s policies for the massacre, suggesting schools were specifically targeted because shooters were less likely to be confronted with armed resistance.
According to the FBI, most of the mass shooting incidents in the US occur either in private homes or public places where civilians are free to carry guns.
There were 156 mass shootings in the US from 2009 to 2016, and only 10% occurred in gun-free zones, but 63% - in private homes.
In fact, the Umpqua Community College, where the Oregon massacre took place, wasn’t a gun-free zone, nor are any of the public colleges or universities in Oregon. There were armed students near the scene, including at least two trained military veterans.
More important is there’s no evidence whatsoever that shooters target locations because they are known to be gun-free.
True motives are always personal
A Mother Jones analysis found that the primary motive for a shooter to target a specific location is a personal or emotional grievance, such as workplace disputes, school bullying, or domestic violence.
According to the FBI study, in 63% of the mass shootings, the shooter had some type of relationship with the victims. It’s the personal motivation – not the number of guns likely to be present in a place – that defines the choice of a location in most mass shootings.
According to a 2015 analysis of gun violence data, 57% of mass shooting victims in 2010-2015 were family members and intimate partners, with women and children accounting for two-thirds of victims.
Most mass shooters are on a suicide mission
Dr. Peter Langman, a clinical psychologist, and author of School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators, explains that many mass shooters go on a suicide mission – either by their own hand or by cop. In which case, armed security is never a deterrent “because they’re not trying to get away with it.”
Gun-free zones are relatively safe
The “gun-free zone” rhetoric also conveniently ignores the fact that these zones are among the safest in the country. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report, less than 2% of youth homicides and less than 1% of non-fatal gun injuries occur at gun-free schools and college campuses.
On the contrary, extensive evidence suggests that more guns lead to more firearm-related deaths and injuries in public places:
Crime victims who use weapons other than guns for self-defense are less likely to sustain injuries than those who use a firearm.
25% of US hospital-based shootings that occurred from 2000-2011 were carried out by a gun taken from a security officer.
5. Is “the good guy with a gun” an effective strategy to stop or prevent active shooter situations?
The only thing to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, according to NRA’s Wayne LaPierre, who produced yet another gem of a phrase in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre.
President Donald Trump suggests arming teachers can make schools safer, “If you had a teacher who was adept with the firearm, they could end the attack very quickly.”
There’s little evidence suggesting civilians can stop the so-called bad guys during active shooter situations. Armed citizens often lack training in high-risk situations and can actually make it harder for law enforcement to minimize damage.
An FBI review of active shooter incidents that occurred between 2000 and 2013 found that of 160 incidents:
21 were stopped by unarmed citizens
Armed individuals stopped five incidents (four of them were trained security guards)
Two incidents were stopped by armed civilians – one was a former US Marine, and the other an off-duty police officer
Armed civilians can aggravate a mass shooting incident, as was the case during the 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona, when an armed bystander almost shot the wrong person. A 2012 analysis of 62 mass shootings found that armed bystanders increased the number of innocent people injured and killed.
Unsurprisingly, law enforcement officials overwhelmingly oppose the idea of involving armed civilians in active shooter situations. It makes it far more difficult to control a situation where the first objective is to identify which of the shooters is the bad guy. Similarly, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association decidedly oppose allowing guns in schools.
6. Do stricter gun laws work?
Had gun controls worked, Chicago would have been the safest city – is one of the frequently used arguments made against stricter gun laws.
Republican Rep. Steve Scalise notes that some of the strictest gun laws in the country are in the city of Chicago, and still Chicago has the highest gun violence rate. “A lot of people want to dismiss concealed-carry permits. They do actually increase safety,” he affirmed.
While the NRA reiterates that gun availability deters potential criminals, critics argue that stricter gun control does a much better job of preventing violence.
“In states that have universal background checks, there are 35 percent fewer gun murders than in states that don’t have them. [...] States that have tougher gun laws that keep criminals from getting guns, that keep dangerous weapons like AR-15s out of the hands of civilians, have dramatically lower rates of gun violence,” said Sen. Christopher Murphy.
Who is right then?
Evidence suggests most guns used in high profile shootings were obtained legally. According to the Annual Gun Law Scorecard by Giffords Law Center, gun laws are effective at curbing gun violence only in states that enact them. In a state-by-state comparison, the correlation between gun laws strength and gun deaths becomes evident – fewer people die from firearm violence in states with strong gun laws, such as:
Prohibiting firearms sales at gun shows, online and in private sales helps prevent legally prohibited individuals, such as felons and domestic abusers, from obtaining guns.
The Connecticut gun homicides dropped by 40% after the state enacted its background check law. When Missouri repealed a similar law, the state’s gun homicide rate rose 25%.
Nationwide, however, 40% of gun sales still occur in the “secondary market” where federal law doesn’t require background checks.
Everytown for Gun Safety research found that states with universal background checks have significantly lower rates of femicides, gun-related suicides, and law enforcement officers killed with handguns.
Child access prevention laws
Such laws are effective at preventing unintentional death and injury and teen suicides, as well as school shootings. One-third of handguns are stored unlocked and loaded, with most children knowing where their parents keep their guns.
Concealed carry permitting
Concealed carry permitting that grants law enforcement discretion to deny carrying concealed weapons (CCW) based on factors such as the lack of good cause or dangerous behavior is only enacted in nine states.
Expansive concealed carry permitting is linked to an increase in violent crime by a 2017 study at Stanford University. Ten years after the laws were enacted, states experienced a 13-15% rise in violent crimes. With the recent gun lobby push to force states with strong CCW laws for reciprocity with the states with weak or no CCW permitting may undermine the CCW effectiveness altogether.
Surrender of firearms by prohibited possessors
29 states require domestic abusers to transfer their guns to law enforcement (or a licensed dealer) and report to the court when they've done so. Policies that prevent domestic abusers from owning firearms are among the most popular in states with strong gun cultures because they work.
An Extreme Risk Protection Order
A relatively new law, ERPO is currently enacted in three states (California, Oregon, and Washington). The law allows law enforcement and family members to petition for removal of guns from people who demonstrate signs of dangerous behavior. In Connecticut and Indiana, only law enforcement can request these orders, so it comes as no surprise that the RAND study found the evidence of ERPO’s effectiveness inconclusive. Still, ERPO laws have the potential to prevent suicide, domestic violence incidents, and mass shootings.
A ban on the sale of military-style weapons to civilians
The ban on the sale of assault weapons, silencers, and high-capacity magazines may reduce mass shootings. It’s unlikely to have any effect on the gun deaths rate overall, however. The RAND study found “inconclusive” evidence that assault-weapons ban affected mass shootings or homicides, which comes as no surprise since only six states enacted these laws fully, and four – partially.
Strong laws = fewer gun deaths
Eight of the ten states with the strongest gun laws (California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, and Hawaii) are also among the top 10 states with the fewest gun deaths per capita. By contrast, ten states with the weakest guns laws with an aggregate gun violence level that’s three times higher than that of the ten states with strong gun laws.
So, what’s wrong with Chicago?
As far as Chicago is concerned, the city’s murder rate in 2013 was the lowest since 1972, less than half that of Detroit and New Orleans.
Interstate gun trafficking from neighboring Indiana and guns purchased within Illinois but outside of Chicago (where strict gun laws aren’t enacted) pump up the city’s violent crime rate. Between 2009-2013, 60% of guns recovered in crimes in Chicago were acquired in other states.
If anything, Chicago rates call for more stringent regulation of gun dealers, which proved effective in curbing gun trafficking.
7. How can stricter gun laws help control gun violence if they only make it harder for law-abiding citizens to buy guns, whereas criminals always buy guns illegally?
“When guns are outlawed, only the outlaws have guns” is a tired cliché that, nonetheless, continues to surface in the gun debate.
First off, gun laws aren’t an attack on law-abiding citizens because if they were, the same argument could be made against any law. Following the same logic, we could argue that a driver’s license is unacceptable because it might lead to bicycling or walking licensing.
Second, most guns used in high profile mass shootings were obtained legally. Moreover, a survey of prison inmates found that the so-called outlaws chose not to use a gun to carry out their crime due to fear of a stiffer sentence (79%), and because it was “against the law” (59%).
Third, the United States isn’t the only nation in the world that’s suffered shooting massacres and increased gun violence rates, but it’s consistently failed to address the problem.
Although country-by-country comparisons are inherently hard to make, many countries have effectively curbed gun violence by enacting strict gun controls:
Australia – after the 1996 Port Arthur tragedy, the Australian government passed tough gun controls nationwide, banning a broad range of weapons, tightening licensing, and financing mandatory buyback programs, and gun amnesty, which reduced gun possession substantially. Between 1995 and 2006, gun homicides and suicides fell by 59% (notably, homicides by other means didn’t increase). There have been no mass gun massacres ever since, whereas in the 18 years before the 1996 laws there were 13 massacres.
The UK – after the mass shooting at the Dunblane school in Scotland in 1996, the British government banned private ownership of automatic and semiautomatic weapons and handguns. The strict UK laws cut the annual firearm homicide and suicide rates by half, gun offenses – by two-thirds. Roughly 50-60 gun deaths per year occur in the UK.
Japan – with a population of 127 million, the country seldom has more than ten shooting deaths per year (compare to 12,000 in the US). If you want to own a gun in Japan, you must attend an all-day class, pass a written test, a mental health evaluation at a hospital, a background check (during which law enforcement interviews your friends and family), and score at least 95% accuracy in a shooting-range test (and then retake the exams every three years). Japanese people can only buy shotguns and air rifles - no handguns.
If anything, stricter gun laws prevent outlaws from buying guns and keep guns confined to those who are mentally and physically fit to use them.