AN EVIDENCE-BASED EXAMINATION
More than 1.5 million Americans have been killed by guns in the United States over the past 50 years. That is more than died in all the wars combined going back to the Revolutionary War. This is an astonishing claim. Here’s the fact-check.
The gun debate in this country has been raging for a long time and it has intensified in recent years, partly due to the increasing frequency of mass shootings and school shootings. Many Americans on both sides of the debate are in a state of outrage. Others may be in a state of fatigue—tired of hearing about something that seemingly won’t change.
For some, challenging any aspect of the right to bear arms is viewed as a frontal attack on the Second Amendment itself. But is it? Can one be for sensible gun regulation without taking on the Second Amendment?
Gun deaths are a serious issue, but they are only one of many issues facing our country. As such, it would have been easy for me to pass on addressing the gun debate. But, I’m writing about it because it is emblematic of the intense tribalism and political dysfunction infecting our country. It’s an issue that needn’t be politicized. But it is. It is an issue where there are clear facts that can inform some decisions. Yet they don’t. And, it’s an issue that a sizable majority of our citizens find some agreement on. Yet overall public opinion doesn’t seem to have much impact on policy.
The passion of the minority who really care about gun rights is intense and drives the politics. And that passion has been inflamed and supported by enormous NRA lobbying and politically related spending. In these ways, it’s an issue that is manipulated by powerful forces. Forces that have shut down common-sense policies that, based on polling, appeal to a large majority of Americans. The gun debate is a clear reflection of the current state of politics in America, representing a dynamic that plays out on other issues. This is the primary reason I’m writing about it now.
FRAMING THE GUN DEBATE WITH FACTS AND CONTEXT
Ideally, as a society, our opinions on important issues should be built on an evidenced-based foundation. In other words, it’s essential that we get the facts right and correctly understand the relevant context. Doing so doesn’t mean we will agree on solutions to problems, but at least we will be basing our opinions on a shared reality. As the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts.”
With this spirit in mind, I’ve pulled together relevant observations that provide fact-based context as we consider the issue of gun policy in our country. I find it helpful to have this summarized in one place and hope you do too.
Each observation includes a summary and links to supporting evidence and background. You may or may not want to read through some of the links. I provide them to make it easy to fact-check my points and for you to explore aspects of this issue in more detail. Some are very interesting reads; others are more academic. And if all you want is the bottom line you can scan the list of 10 observations, then read the conclusion at the end.
Observation #1: The U.S. is the most heavily armed country in the world. Per capita gun ownership in the U.S. is by far the highest in the world and is multiples higher than most other countries.
The data on this isn’t as buttoned down as I hoped it would be, nevertheless, it is clear, based on different measures, that we are the most heavily armed country in the world.
Evidence: Probably the best comparative data comes from the Swiss-based Small Arms Study, which is considered the most comprehensive research on private gun ownership. According to this 2007 study, U.S. per capita gun ownership is the highest in the world with gun ownership estimated in a range of 83 to 97 guns per 100 people. The U.S. rate is 50% higher than Yemen, which is the next most heavily armed country, and twice as high as Switzerland, which has the next highest gun ownership among developed countries. Compared to most countries U.S. per capita gun ownership is many times higher.
The graph below shows a representative sample of countries. For comparison sake, I used an average of the ownership ranges for each country.
Overall, based on the midpoint of the high and low estimates, the U.S. owns 42% of the privately-owned guns on the planet and does so with only 5% of the world’s population. This data is not exact given some wide ranges in per capita ownership, but the ranges do not change the conclusions. Reading through the report, it’s clear that this is a serious study based on well-researched information.
Some of you may wonder if a 2007 study is still relevant. I believe it is given what appears to be a strengthening gun culture in the U.S. since that time. In fact, according to a 2012 Congressional Research Service report, the rate of gun ownership was rapidly accelerating so that by 2009 (their most recent data), the number of guns available to private citizens in the U.S. had exceeded the total population. It seems likely that U.S. ownership of private guns has increased further compared to the rest of the world, since that time.
Here’s a link to the data (Chapter 2, page 46), including discussion of the Small Arms Study methodology: http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/publications/by-type/yearbook/small-arms-survey-2007.html
Here’s an analysis of gun ownership data and claims by Politifact: http://www.politifact.com/north-carolina/statements/2018/mar/05/pricey-harrison/does-america-have-42-percent-worlds-guns/
Here is the 2012 Congressional Research Service report (gun data on page 8): https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL32842.pdf
Observation #2: The U.S. firearm homicide rate (per capita) is many times higher than that of other high-income countries.
Having established that the U.S. has the highest rate of private gun ownership in the world, does that translate into more deaths by firearm? Again, the answer is yes, our firearm homicide rate is much higher, if the comparison is to other high-income countries. Our rates of suicide by firearm and accidental death by firearm are also higher.
As is the case between countries, there are studies that show a robust positive relationship between the rate of gun ownership in specific U.S. states and the rate of gun homicides in those states. This includes a higher rate of homicides of police in states with high levels of gun ownership.
Evidence: A study published in the American Journal of Medicine in 2016 (by Ginshteyn and Hemmingway) based on 2010 data, calculated the U.S. firearm homicide rate was an attention-grabbing 25 times higher than the average of all other high-income countries (23 countries based on World Bank data). The firearm suicide rate was 8 times higher. Unintentional firearm deaths were 6 times higher. Overall firearm deaths (combining these three categories) were 10 times higher in the U.S. than in these other countries and almost 3 times higher than the next highest country.
Outside of the “high income” countries, there are about 30 countries with higher per capita firearm related deaths than the U.S. All are in very violent developing countries. For example, El Salvador and Honduras, both of which are plagued by horrific gang problems, are among the countries with the highest murder-rate (this is a prime reason so many people are fleeing these countries).
Here is the American Journal of Medicine study: http://www.amjmed.com/article/S0002-9343(15)01030-X/pdf
Here is a NPR report that compares gun violence in the U.S. to other countries and regions: https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2017/11/06/562323131/gun-violence-comparing-the-u-s-with-other-countries
These next two links provide data and evidence of correlations between gun ownership rates and gun deaths within the U.S.:
The Harvard Injury Control Research Center lists several studies (some are dated): https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/hicrc/firearms-research/guns-and-death/
American Public Health Association 2013 study showing a strong positive correlation between gun ownership and firearm homicides: https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2013.301409?journalCode=ajph
Observation #3: The U.S. has a notably higher overall homicide rate than other high-income countries (this measures all homicides, not just gun-related homicides).
We are a violent country, when measured by homicides per capita. The U.S. overall homicide rate is seven times higher than the average of other high-income countries and more than double the rate of the next highest country (Czech Republic). This is largely due to gun-related deaths, which made up 73% of all homicides in 2015.
The non-firearm homicide rate is also high in the U.S., but the gap with other countries, while significant, is much smaller than the firearm homicide rate (it’s about double). While violent crime in the U.S., including homicides, has declined significantly over the last 25 years, compared to the rest of the developed world, the U.S. homicide rate still stands out when compared to other countries. It is important to note that when it comes to non-lethal crimes it is a different story: the U.S. rate is about average.
This all raises the question of whether our high homicide rate is a function of the many guns in our country. The NRA argues the opposite, pointing out that gun ownership has increased while the homicide rate has declined. Many others believe the data strongly suggests the opposite, but we really don’t know for sure. Here is an excerpt from the aforementioned American Journal of Medicine study:
“These data cannot tell us why the U.S. homicide rate is so exceptional compared with these other high-income countries…The United States has more firearms and weaker gun laws than these countries, and it is the firearm homicide rate that is so much higher than in any of these high-income nations. Studies have suggested that the nongun homicide rate in the United States may be high because the gun homicide rate is high. For example, offenders take into account the threat posed by their adversaries. Individuals are more likely to have lethal intent if they anticipate that their adversaries will be armed…Evidence indicates that gun availability increases the incidence of homicide. International studies of high income countries typically find that firearm availability is positively correlated with firearm homicide and usually overall homicide.”
Here’s a link to a 2017 report by the Brennan Center for Justice on long-term crime trends in the U.S. The report is based on FBI data: https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/publications/Crime%20Trends%201990-2016.pdf
And here is a link to a short NRA piece that suggests that guns are not the problem because gun ownership has risen while the homicide rate has declined: https://www.nraila.org/get-the-facts/gun-violence-research/
Observation #4: Contrary to popular claims, more gun ownership does not result in less crime or enable better self-defense. The evidence suggests that owning more guns does not make us safer. The data suggests the opposite. Moreover, guns in the home correlate to significantly higher suicide and homicide rates.
The U.S. has by far the highest rate of gun ownership in the world. And, if one argues that we are safer with more guns, it follows that our homicide rate should be lower. However, that is not the case. It is the opposite. So, while this is a very simplistic analysis and other variables could be in play, the basic data infers that this claim is untrue. At least one study, comparing property crimes in New York and London, found that such crimes were many times more likely to result in a death in New York (possibly because of its higher rate of firearm ownership).
What about overall crime levels? If we have more crime in the U.S., more homicides might be a natural function of an elevated crime rate. As it turns out, data does not support this. Our overall crime rate is not far off the global average. So, we don’t have more crime, just more homicides.
There is also some data on how often guns are used in self-defense. The best data suggests not often. And when guns are used for self-defense, the evidence does not show an improved outcome when compared to other methods of resistance. However, the data is thin and not adequate for a clear conclusion and certainly there are specific examples that support both sides.
Available data does strongly suggest that the availability of guns in the home leads to elevated levels of suicide and homicide compared to gun-free homes. And other studies suggest that gun ownership and the presence of guns ties to heightened levels of aggressive behavior.
Evidence: The data here is not great or in some cases somewhat dated. More research needs to be done. Overall, I did not find much evidence supporting the notion that we are safer with guns than without. The one study cited that did suggest guns have played a big role in self-defense was based on a tiny sample size and the results did not pass the common-sense test when extrapolated to a larger population.
This Scientific American article provides a good overview of evidence relating to the question of whether we are safer with guns: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/more-guns-do-not-stop-more-crimes-evidence-shows/
This Vox article discusses evidence suggesting that gun deaths are not tied to an elevated crime rate: https://www.vox.com/2015/8/27/9217163/america-guns-europe
This interesting 2011 Atlantic article discusses the geography of gun deaths including factors that seem to correlate with areas of higher gun violence: https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/01/the-geography-of-gun-deaths/69354/
This 2015 Harvard study published in Preventive Medicine measured incidents of gun use in “contact” crimes at just under 1%. Outcomes were not improved compared to other forms of resistance: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0091743515001188
This NPR article also discusses the data on guns and self-defense. It reports on conflicting studies, points out the lack of consensus and problems with the data: https://www.npr.org/2018/04/13/602143823/how-often-do-people-use-guns-in-self-defense
This Annals of Internal Medicine meta-analysis of the risk of firearms in the home concluded that suicide and homicide risks are several times higher when guns are in the home: http://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/1814426/accessibility-firearms-risk-suicide-homicide-victimization-among-household-members-systematic
This Psychology Today article discusses the “weapons effect” that suggests a relationship between the presence of guns and aggression: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/get-psyched/201301/the-weapons-effect
Observation #5: Gun violence is not a mental illness issue. Mass shootings by people suffering from mental illness make up only 1% of gun homicides.
There is a tendency by some to redirect the focus of gun homicides in the U.S. to mental illness. However, according to the American Psychiatric Association, gun-related homicides by those suffering from mental illness make up a tiny percentage of all homicides. To be sure, efforts and measures to keep firearms out of the hands of people who mental illness experts believe are dangerous are worthwhile and should continue. It’s just that the data does not support the notion that this is a major driver of gun violence in the U.S.
Here is a New York Times general overview of the relationship between mental illness and gun violence: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/16/us/politics/fact-check-parkland-gun-violence-mental-illness.html
And here is a chapter from the 2016 book Gun Violence and Mental Illness from the American Psychiatric Association: https://psychiatryonline.org/doi/pdf/10.5555/appi.books.9781615371099
Observation #6: The Second Amendment does not prohibit the regulation of guns.
The Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) that the Second Amendment protects the right of the individual to possess a firearm for self-defense. However, the court, in its majority opinion, made it clear that this is not an unlimited right and put forth a list of “presumably lawful” regulations that are not prohibited under the Second Amendment. This includes regulations such as background checks, bans of certain types of guns, limits on where guns are and are not allowed and who can own guns. This legality of various gun regulations is inconsistent with the narrative put forth by some gun-right advocates who often argue that any proposed regulation is an attack on the Second Amendment.
Evidence: There are numerous articles summarizing the case law. Here’s one from the Economist from earlier this year: https://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2018/02/economist-explains-14
And here is a summary of the Second Amendment on The National Constitution Center’s website: https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/amendments/amendment-ii
Observation #7: The public strongly supports more gun regulation.
Despite the intensity of those who champion gun rights, support for stricter gun controls has increased recently after declining for many years. There is very strong public support for background checks for all gun purchases, raising the minimum age to buy guns, and blocking sales to people with a history of mental illness (most recently ranging from 76% to 87%). There is also strong support, but at a lower level, for banning assault weapons (62%) and high capacity magazines (67%).
Politically, gun control support is stronger among Democrats, however even Republicans strongly support certain measures such as universal background checks. (A sizable minority of gun purchases are not subject to background checks with gun shows offering one easy way to buy a gun.)
Support for regulations to arm teachers is weaker at 42% and support for banning all guns (which would violate the Second Amendment) is very low (10%). This last point is important because gun-rights advocates often claim that those who want some regulation want to take away their guns. This point is used to stir up and mislead a portion of the gun-owner population. It’s a false point though, since the overwhelming majority of Americans are not in favor of outlawing gun ownership, which would not be possible without the repeal of the Second Amendment.
Evidence: This is a link to a FiveThirtyEight summary of various surveys on gun attitudes (FiveThirtyEight was founded by statistician Nate Silver and recently purchased by ABC News. I find Silver’s data analysis to be very good.) https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/guns-parkland-polling-quiz/
Here are two more consumer surveys on guns covering a range of information:
This one is a 2017 survey from Pew Research: http://www.people-press.org/2017/06/22/public-views-about-guns/#total
This one is a 2018 survey from Gallup: http://news.gallup.com/poll/1645/guns.aspx
Observation #8: We probably don’t understand how best to regulate guns
We are the most heavily armed country in the world and there is widespread public support for increased gun controls.
Unfortunately, there has been a dearth of public research about the causes of gun deaths and how to reduce them. So, while there are a number of proposed gun regulations on the table, the effectiveness of any measure cannot be substantiated with evidence from public research. In other industries, public health research focused on injury prevention has benefited the public. Automobile accidents is a good example. Per capita auto accidents and deaths have declined dramatically over the years despite more cars on the road. Some of this was driven by findings that impacted auto safety (e.g. seat belts).
The lack of research on gun violence is largely because of the Dickey amendment, which since 1996 had prohibited taxpayer money from funding research that might advocate gun control. This effectively shut down research on gun violence at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and other federal agencies. (Jay Dickey, the Arkansas congressman and NRA supporter, ultimately regretted the impact of the amendment, stating before his death “we need to turn this over to science and take it away from politics.”)
Earlier this year Congress passed a spending bill that in effect ended the Dickey amendment. We’ll see if this results in money being made available for gun violence research. In a recent interview Mark Rosenberg, who oversaw gun violence research at the CDC prior to the Dickey Amendment, argued that research can help inform the debate about what could be in the public’s interest.
In the interview Rosenberg commented that:
“Science had brought the death rate in car crashes way, way down. And they didn’t have to ban cars. And we said, let’s find ways to save lives from gun deaths. And we can do that without banning guns.”
And in making the case that the public deserves improved understanding he said:
“I think there’s a lot of pressure on people. And I don’t think that NRA members or Republicans want to see their children killed in school. I think they want safety for their homes and their communities. And they’re under a tremendous amount of pressure right now to vote for or against some of these gun legislative proposals. We owe it to them to give them information about what works. We don’t know for even the simple basic measures of gun registration and licensing of gun owners – we don’t know that that would work – or preventing the sale of semi-automatic rifles. Will that prevent mass shootings or school shootings? We owe it to them to get the research done so we can give them the data.”
Here’s the interview with Mark Rosenberg who oversaw gun violence research at the CDC prior to the Dickey Amendment: https://www.npr.org/2018/03/25/596805354/cdc-now-has-authority-to-research-gun-violence-whats-next
Here’s a good overview on the topic from the NYTimes: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/12/health/gun-violence-research-cdc.html
This is a worthwhile article on the topic from Science News (it also comments on the evidence that a gun in the home significantly increases the chance that someone will commit suicide): https://www.sciencenews.org/article/gun-research-faces-roadblocks-and-dearth-data
Observation #9: The NRA has played an outsized role in the gun debates.
Over many years the NRA has evolved from an organization that mostly consisted of hunters and actually supported some firearm regulation, to one of the most powerful conservative special interest groups. It has been effective in creating a narrative of gun ownership that didn’t exist a few decades ago, one that links gun ownership as a patriotic duty that is protected and encouraged by the constitution. The narrative relates gun ownership to liberty from the government, strength, and the fear-driven need to be armed to be safe (“we need more good guys with guns”). The NRA views any gun-control legislation as a slippery slope that will lead to the violation of the Second Amendment.
The narrative has been skillfully delivered and hammered repeatedly and is further enhanced by enormous political spending by the NRA including $54 million in the 2016 election cycle alone, mostly on political advertisements.
The NRA has become one of the most powerful political forces in the U.S. It ruthlessly targets politicians who don’t toe their policy line and by doing so has successfully limited, and in some areas weakened, the regulation of firearms. Through their relationship with Congressman Dickey, the NRA used its influence to shut down research into the public health risks of firearm ownership for over 20 years. They have intimidated potential makers and distributors of smart guns (guns that can only be fired by their owner). They have successfully blocked the establishment of electronic databases to track gun ownership and limited the resources flowing to the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
A lot to share on the NRA, some of these articles are very interesting reads:
Interesting and very informative article from the New Yorker on the business and politics of guns: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/06/27/after-orlando-examining-the-gun-business
This is another excellent New Yorker article about a long-time NRA lobbyist. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/03/05/the-nra-lobbyist-behind-floridas-pro-gun-policies
This is another background piece about the NRA and the Second Amendment: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/10/12/16418524/nra-second-amendment-guns-violence
Open Secrets is part of the Center for Responsive Politics, an organization that tracks and reports on money in politics. This link quantifies NRA spending in the 2016 election cycle: https://www.opensecrets.org/outsidespending/detail.php?cycle=2016&cmte=National+Rifle+Assn
And here is a good overview of all NRA spending by PolitiFact: http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2017/oct/11/counting-up-how-much-nra-spends/
NYTimes article on the sources of NRA influence: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/24/us/politics/nra-gun-control-florida.html
Here’s a Union of Concerned Scientist article on how the NRA suppressed gun violence research: https://www.ucsusa.org/suppressing-research-effects-gun-violence#.Wxcoj0gvxeU
Check out a few of the videos on NRA TV to get a sense for the tone of the organization’s communications: https://www.nratv.com/
Observation # 10: Given the number of guns in circulation, there is probably no quick fix to our gun violence problem.
Are there already so many guns in the U.S. that regulation wouldn’t have much impact? It seems clear that there is no quick fix. Longer-term, there is some data that gives reason to be hopeful that over time we can at least make a dent in the level of gun violence. This is supported by common-sense reasoning. Ultimately, this question requires more study.
There are two good examples of countries that acted on their concern about gun deaths with increased regulation. Mass shootings in the UK and Australia led to significant changes in gun regulations, including the banning of certain types of guns coupled with a buyback program. Unfortunately, it is not possible to draw strong conclusions about the efficacy of this increased regulation. Without going into all the complicated details, the data does not clearly make a case that gun violence declined because of increased regulation, except in one area. In Australia, there have not been any mass shootings since the regulation. The country previously averaged a mass shooting about every 18 months. It is also unlikely that the level of gun regulation enacted in these countries is possible in the U.S. because of the Second Amendment.
Looking at differences within the U.S., there is some evidence of a correlation between states with high gun ownership and gun homicides. This might indicate that regulation could impact gun deaths. Again, this needs further study.
This FiveThirtyEight article is the best analysis I’ve seen of the UK and Australian attempts at regulation: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/gun-deaths-mass-shootings/
This study (also cited earlier) examines the relationship between gun ownership and firearm homicide rates: https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2013.301409?journalCode=ajph
What Does It All Mean? Some Thoughts
We are by far the most heavily armed nation on the planet and our gun homicide rate is many times higher than the rate found in other developed countries. We have an increasingly pervasive and in-your-face gun culture. We are seeing an increasing number of politicians running campaign commercials that show them carrying or firing guns. Many Americans find this culture threatening and puzzling. Many Americans, perhaps a strong majority, don’t feel the need to be armed to feel safe, and don’t understand why there is a strong association with guns, liberty and patriotism. And while gun-rights advocates often say, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” common sense and the data presented in this article suggests that concern about guns in America is justified.
We need more study of gun violence and possible solutions. Yet, even with a strong gun culture, there is very strong bi-partisan support for certain types of regulation and at least some of the common-sense solutions don’t need to wait for more study. Universal background checks are supported by most Republicans and even more strongly by Democrats. But the power of the NRA has succeeded in blocking any serious political discussion of this policy.
Background checks would be a good starting point and one that shouldn’t be thought of as a challenge to the Second Amendment (because it is not). Considering requiring some rudimentary training for gun owners and encouraging the development of smart guns and other ways to increase safety seem sensible. And, it is reasonable to at least engaging in serious discussion of the pros and cons of banning of semi-automatic weapons.
The unwillingness of too many of our political leaders to honestly engage on the issue of guns is a depressing example of the influence of the gun industry and the NRA in our politics. Democracy isn’t working when common-sense regulation that receives broad public support doesn’t see the light of day because of the financial muscle and propaganda driven by a small minority. This is just one of many examples of how moneyed interests work behind the scenes to drive the political debate and our policies, and to influence and misinform portions of the voting public. These interests are skilled and effective.
To change this dynamic more Americans must stay informed (by responsible journalistic sources of which there are many) and vote so that our politicians are accountable to the public! We really do need to drain the swamp, unfortunately it is only getting swampier.