First off, this writer is a supporter of your right to own and carry firearms. But can such supporters reject certain myths about guns? Are there elements of truth in both liberal and conservative viewpoints? Could there be distractions that mask the heart, or important parts, of the issue? This article explores these questions.
Moving past liberal distractions
These are less egregious, so they are a good place to begin.
First, my fellows on the left should abandon the use of absolutes: “Guns don’t stop crimes. Guns don’t stop mass killings.” In fact, they sometimes do, as we will see, and in a nation with so many guns and so many responsible gun owners it would be strange if this were otherwise.
Next, liberals sometimes use the wrong statistics to build a case. For instance, I once saw someone using a study showing that Texas felons with conceal carry permits were nearly 5 times more likely to have threatened someone with a firearm than felons without permits as evidence that carrying a gun increases aggressiveness. It somehow seems predictable that people with a propensity to carry might be in a position to more often have a gun to stick in someone’s face. This is not the research you want. There is actual evidence elsewhere that carrying a gun increases aggressiveness (read on).
Moving past conservative distractions
The right’s distractions typically delight in both irrelevancy and complacency — weak excuses designed to favor inaction.
For example, conservatives love to point out that more people die in automobile accidents (and so forth) than by guns. Surely cars don’t kill people, but rather their operators, people, kill people. Are we to outlaw cars?
(Note: this comparison will soon be obsolete, as this year it is expected that deaths by guns will meet and surpass the 30,000-plus Americans killed in or by automobiles each year.)
This nonsense of course ignores the fact that almost no one supports outlawing cars but almost everyone supports common sense regulations like training, licensing, titling and registration, health requirements, seat belts, traffic laws, and so on. Most liberals don’t want to ban all guns, they want common sense regulations. More importantly, however, all this amounts to a morally bankrupt irrelevancy, essentially saying, “No need to make this safer, there’s a lot of other unsafe things that kill more people.” Why not try to make many unsafe things a bit safer? It’s almost inconceivable that people who consider themselves rational would say something like this (here I will include myself, as I used to parrot this inane argument in my conservative days, like most distractions here).
Another irrelevancy is pointing out that the percentage of Americans killed by guns is extremely low, or that most gun owners are never involved in gun violence. Well, we are trying to save lives anyway. One might wonder just how many people need to die before it becomes unacceptable, before action is taken. Tens of thousands of people dead each year, many children in schools — issues nearly unheard of in other advanced democracies. A distraction along similar lines is the fact that 60% of gun deaths are suicides. As if that justifies doing nothing in the name of the other 40%! (Suicides can in fact be reduced with reductions in gun ownership rates; see below.)
Finally, conservatives also offer false absolutes to justify inaction. For example, many killers and mass shooters passed criminal background checks when buying their weapons. Thus conservatives crow, “Background checks don’t work!” There is some truth in this. A new killer may not have a criminal history. But a more accurate statement would be: “Background checks don’t always work.” Sometimes they do.
Believe it or not, when Americans with criminal histories try to buy guns at licensed firearms dealers, they are turned away because of failed background checks (1.5 million people over the last decade and a half). A 2012 study from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at John Hopkins University (“Reducing Gun Violence in America“) found that forcing licensed gun dealers to enforce background checks translated to a 64% reduction in guns given to criminals. Fortunately for criminals, they can simply go to the gun sellers that do not legally have to check criminal histories: private sellers in most states. Almost a quarter of total gun sales don’t involve a background check, and 50% of private sales do not (rising to 77% if it’s between acquaintances). “Doesn’t work” indeed!
If this private sales loophole did not exist, people would have to resort to theft, increasing the likelihood of being apprehended before committing murder. Or they would have to (illegally) borrow or buy one from a friend, increasing the number of people with knowledge of an impending crime and a personal fear of punishment. Or perhaps they would resort to far less deadly weapons like knives (“If you regulate guns, criminals will just use knives!” Good, knives cannot kill as many people as quickly. We can save some lives). Or perhaps some would give up their plans altogether. That’s the point of gun control: make it harder to get a firearm and you can save many lives — not everyone, but many.
Even with the private sales loophole, this works. According to a John Hopkins University study, when Missouri repealed its background check requirements in 2007, dealers gave more guns to more criminals, and the state saw a 25% increase in firearm homicide rates (and a 14% increase in overall homicides) from 2008-2012. Gun suicides went up 16%. Yet after 1995, “after tightening gun laws, firearm homicide rates dropped 40 percent in Connecticut,” with gun suicides falling 15%. You will see more evidence later on. In sum, is it not utterly ignorant to say background checks don’t work, when in fact they sometimes do, and when there is an obvious way to make ours more effective (universality)?
Guns don’t kill people, societal problems kill people?
Guns are not the problem, people are the problem, to paraphrase the platitude. There is a bit of truth to this. Despite the fact that guns make it much easier to kill (higher risk of death in and out of the home) and kill more people (as in mass shootings), guns are not the only factor, even if they may be the most significant. Societal conditions can breed gun violence, and we must treat all the diseases that cause the symptoms.
Mental illness is one of the diseases, hugely common when it comes to suicides, but overall rare when it comes to crime. Only 3-5% of crimes in the U.S. involve people with mental illnesses, and the mentally ill who commit crimes are less likely to use guns than citizens without psychological issues. As the Washington Post noted, the U.S. has about the same number of mental health professionals and psychiatric beds per 10,000 people, and spends about the same GDP percentage on mental health care, as other advanced nations, but has 20 times the gun violence. World Health Organization research indicates the U.S. has comparable mental health issues to other nations that see far less gun violence.
This is not to downplay the need to improve the quality and accessibility of mental health care in the U.S., nor to ignore the fact that mass killers are often mentally unstable. A liberal magazine recently examined 62 mass shooters, and while 80% of them got their guns legally, about half had mental health problems — a combination of two problems. A 2001 study looked at 34 adolescent mass murderers from 1958-1999 and found 23% had a history of mental illness; 6% were judged to be psychotic at the time of the killing. These 34 killers were also affected by bullying, social isolation, substance abuse…and a preoccupation with guns.
Poverty is another disease. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 2008-2012,
Persons in poor households at or below the Federal Poverty Level…had more than double the rate of violent victimization as persons in high-income households… Persons in poor households had a higher rate of violence involving a firearm (3.5 per 1,000) compared to persons above the FPL (0.8–2.5 per 1,000).
States with the most gun violence also tend to have high poverty rates (also, very lax gun control…such states tend to be Republican-ruled). States with higher economic development, more college graduates, less inequality, and less overall poverty correlate with fewer gun deaths. Poverty breeds crime and violence. As Attorney General Ramsey Clark once put it:
Mark the part of your city where crime flourishes. Now look at the map of your city. You have marked areas where there are slums, poor schools, high unemployment, widespread poverty; where sickness and mental illness are common, housing is decrepit and nearly every site is ugly—and you have marked the areas where crime flourishes… Poverty, illness, injustice, idleness, ignorance, human misery, and crime go together. That is the truth. We have known it all along. We cultivate crime, breed it, nourish it. Little wonder we have so much.
However, it should be noted that researchers know how to control for factors like crime when determining whether more guns in a community mean more gun deaths. That’s what the scientific method is all about, controlling for other factors to see if your hypothesized factor is causing problems. Overall violent and non-violent crime in the U.S. is comparable to other advanced democratic societies, ours just disproportionately involve guns.
Other diseases include right-wing religious hatred, xenophobia, racism, political extremism, terrorism: the slaughter in San Bernardino, California in 2015 by ISIS sympathizers, yet another reason for a drastic change in U.S. foreign policy; a 2015 killing at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado by a self-described “warrior for the babies“; the massacre of blacks by a white supremacist in Charleston in 2015; the attack on a Jewish community center in Kansas City in 2014; the slaying of Sikhs in Wisconsin in 2012; the murder of a doctor who provided abortions in Wichita in 2009, and so on.
Violent video games appear to have no effect on gun homicide rates. Religious persons who think everyone finding God will reduce gun deaths should note that many countries with hardly any gun deaths are also more atheistic than the U.S. (nations throughout Europe, Japan, China, Australia, etc.). Here human nature comes up, too, but how is it other countries have a better “human nature” than we do?
While it is important to address all legitimate causes of gun violence, it’s even more important not to ignore the biggest one.
The Paradox: Guns can stop gun crimes and prevent death, but also cause more of both overall
In a nation with so many guns and people who carry them, it is expected that bystanders with guns would stop crimes: an Uber driver shoots a man who started firing into a crowd, a bystander with a gun forces a gunman’s surrender in a church, another bystander kills a man who open fired in a barber shop, and so forth. As one conservative writer noted in 2012:
In December 2007, a man murdered two teenagers at the Youth with a Mission training center in the Denver suburbs. He then drove south to Colorado Springs and attacked the New Life megachurch in Colorado Springs. He killed two people in the parking lot and then entered the building, carrying hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Fortunately, a volunteer security guard for the church, Jeanne Assam, was carrying a licensed handgun, and she quickly shot the attacker. According to Pastor Brady Boyd, “she probably saved over 100 lives.”
Elsewhere in the United States, three school shootings have been stopped because teachers or other responsible adults had firearms: Edinboro, Penn.; Pearl, Miss.; and the Appalachian Law School in Grundy, Va.
Truly, these events happen and are not difficult to find. Owning and carrying a gun can reduce your and others’ risk of victimization. The question becomes: What other risks are increased at the same time? Do the risks on one side of the equation outweigh those on the other?
It is in fact a matter of scale, or ratio. In 2012, for every gun killing in self-defense there were 34 criminal gun homicides. In 1998, a study in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery found that for every instance a gun was used in a justified way there were four accidental shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or successful suicides.
men exposed to firearms before an experiment had much higher testosterone levels and were three times more likely to engage in aggressive behaviour relative to the subjects not primed with a weapon.
Perhaps this explains why one study showed drivers carrying guns are 44% more likely to make obscene gestures at other motorists, and 77% more likely to aggressively tail others.
A gun may falsely empower its possessor to overreact, instigating and losing otherwise tractable conflicts with similarly armed persons. Along the same lines, individuals who are in possession of a gun may increase their risk of gun assault by entering dangerous environments that they would have normally avoided. Alternatively, an individual may bring a gun to an otherwise gun-free conflict only to have that gun wrested away and turned on them.
There are studies that show in households with guns your chance of being murdered by a family member skyrockets; women are most at risk. Households with guns are also hugely more likely to see suicide. When you look at these studies, note what they conclude: It is not (merely) that people in these homes are more likely to be murdered with a gun, but more likely to be murdered, period. It is not (merely) that people in these homes are more likely to commit suicide with a gun, but more likely to commit suicide, period.
This is unspeakably tragic, yet expected. The old conservative response “people will just find another way to kill family or themselves” is true in some cases, but the data undeniably shows “another way” often is not found. Guns make killing easy (physically and psychologically), their absence making it more difficult. Murder and suicide are often impulsive decisions; without guns, fewer people act. This highlights how “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” misses the point. If “another way” was found in each case, we would not see homes with guns more likely to experience murder and suicide — homes with guns and without would be about even across the board. Plus, non-gun suicides rates are about the same in states with many guns and those with few. Fewer guns does not mean more suicide via slitting wrists, jumping off buildings, etc. In places like Australia gun control measures did not affect non-gun homicides and suicides.
States with the highest rates of gun ownership have a gun murder rate 114% higher than those with the lowest ownership rates, and, looking at 30 years of data in all 50 states, “for every one percent increase in a state’s gun ownership rate, there is a nearly one percent increase in its firearm homicide rate.” U.S. states with more guns see higher rates of police deaths. And higher suicide rates.
After Australia implemented a gun buyback program, researchers “found that the places where the most guns were removed from public circulation also experienced the largest drops in intentional gun deaths.” Further,
the firearm homicide rate fell by 59 percent, and the firearm suicide rate fell by 65 percent, in the decade after the law was introduced, without a parallel increase in non-firearm homicides and suicides.
A 2016 study from Columbia University published in Epidemiological Reviews examined about 130 studies from 10 nations that enacted gun reforms. When national reforms were packaged together — bans on assault weapons, license to own, universal background checks — gun homicide rates fell. Even other homicides declined a bit! “Firearm homicides in five major South African cities decreased by 13.6 percent per year for the next five years” after that country’s 2000 reforms. “Firearm deaths went down countrywide by an average of 14 percent” in Australian states after its 1996 reforms. Suicides and accidents also fell due to stricter ownership requirements. Conceal carry and Stand Your Ground laws proved to have no affect or made things worse. After a mass shooting in the U.K. in 1996, strict gun control measures were enacted; there has only been one mass shooting there since, and the nation boasts one of the lowest gun homicide rates in the world, with gun crimes overall steeply declining since the reforms.
A recent analysis of mass shootings from 1966 to 2012 in 171 nations revealed that the correlation between nations with the highest rate of gun ownership and nations with the most mass shootings is undeniable. It held true for rich and poor nations, advanced and undeveloped, democratic and authoritarian, peaceful and unstable, large and small, etc. The researcher said:
The United States, Yemen, Switzerland, Finland, and Serbia are ranked as the top 5 countries in firearms owned per capita, according to the 2007 Small Arms Survey, and my study found that all five are ranked in the top 15 countries in public mass shooters per capita… That is not a coincidence.
Visualized, the data looks like this:
This all makes sense. More guns around, more deaths via gun. The U.S. has the highest gun ownership rate and the highest per-capita rate of gun-related deaths among developed countries. The evidence shows this is no coincidence. Some conservatives I’ve spoken to, who preach we need more guns, when confronted with statistics like these will admit this, because it is painfully predictable.
Others quickly counter: “For every study you give that shows more guns means more gun violence, I can give you one that shows the opposite!”
Take it from someone who used to use such studies, there is reason to be skeptical. For example, the libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute presented data in 2015 that showed “There’s No Correlation Between Gun Ownership, Mass Shootings, and Murder Rates.” But the data only looked at a single year! That is far less reliable than studies that look at long-term trends, and of course the information was not peer-reviewed in the scientific method that the most trustworthy studies go through.
As another example, consider the 2007 study published by criminologists in the self-described “conservative,” “student-edited” (!) Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy that found more guns reduced crime. Unfortunately, this content was not peer-reviewed either, a critical component of locating and eliminating bias in research; that should, quite frankly, make any rational thinker start asking questions.
Economist John Lott examined 30 years of crime data for a book, and made his conclusion the title: More Guns, Less Crime. That is, more concealed carry permits, fewer rapes, robberies, and murders. Yet his research was not peer-reviewed before publication. His work has been checked by other scholars many times and found to have serious flaws. A peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Criminology looked at counties in the only four states with over a decade of data following concealed-carry legislation and found no consistent effect on crime rates. (Note this is distinct from studies that show higher gun ownership rates lead to more gun violence, which can still be true even if the Journal of Criminology study did not indicate more concealed-carry permits led to more crimes like murder. This makes sense, as permit-carriers tend to be responsible gun owners.)
It’s not that there isn’t bias in all research, but the most trustworthy sources are those that have gone through specific processes that uncover and reduce subjective findings. The best evidence shows a stronger gun culture, easy access to guns, and more guns around means more gun violence.
Despite how obvious such a statement is, the belief that more guns in more hands means fewer deaths persists. For instance, conservatives often bring up Switzerland, but ignore the realities of tight Swiss gun control:
Switzerland has the second-highest gun ownership rate of any developed country, about half that of the United States. Its gun homicide rate in 2004 was 7.7 per million people — unusually high, in keeping with the relationship between gun ownership and murders, but still a fraction of the rate in the United States. Swiss gun laws are more stringent, setting a higher bar for securing and keeping a license, for selling guns and for the types of guns that can be owned.
They bring up cities like Chicago, which, while not having the strictest gun laws in the country, does have tighter gun regulations and a gun crime problem. D.C. is also brought up, for its gun crime and gun bans. Yet cities are not the best test subjects, especially when right next to states with very weak gun laws (Chicago is right next to Wisconsin and Indiana, D.C. being next to Virginia). Predictably, guns are brought into a city from surrounding areas. No, city-only gun control doesn’t work very well when you can go a couple blocks and you’re suddenly in another city or state. That’s why if we want to understand what works we look at communities within bigger entities, like states and nations.
Finally, the notion that a massive increase in gun ownership has led to a drop in homicides in the U.S. is false. While the U.S. homicide rate spiked in the 1960s, and went up and down in the 70s and 80s (staying high), since the 1990s it’s fallen dramatically. Homicides by firearm in 1993 were 7 per 100,000 people, in 2013 3.6 per 100,000.
But during this time, gun ownership rates actually fell. In 1977, 54% of American households had a gun, by 2010 it was 32%. There may be more guns in the U.S. than there used to be (192 million privately owned firearms in 1994, 310 million in 2009), but they are held by fewer families. Today, only 22% of Americans personally own guns. 20% of gun owners have 65% of the guns! 3% have 50% of the guns. The number of non-owners has rapidly outpaced the number of owners. One could just as easily say that lower ownership rates translates to fewer gun homicides! And you’d be supported by evidence.
True, one can still suppose that increased numerical totals of guns and gun owners (ownership rates can shrink while the number of owners increases as long as the number of non-owners rises faster) is responsible for the drop in crime, but here we simply need a reminder that correlation does not always mean causation. The drop in violent crime also correlates with decreased exposure to lead, after all. It takes serious scientific study to determine cause and effect, to affirm causation, not mere assumption.
There is simply little reason to believe an America without guns would fall into madness and violence, especially if we ease societal conditions like poverty, racism, and mental illness. The U.K., Japan, and other stable democracies have extremely low rates of gun ownership, strict gun regulations and long, serious processes to get one, and extremely low rates of homicide (by any method, not just by gun). That fact is incontrovertible. Less poverty, good healthcare, and other factors contribute, but the absence of guns is undeniably a factor.
The U.S. must make background checks universal. Though not a cure-all, it is lunacy to only require criminal background checks for some gun sales (those through licensed firearms dealers). As noted, many guns are sold by private persons, requiring no processing of the buyer through the National Instant Criminal Background Check system. There is no paperwork, making it harder for authorities to match bullets to guns, as well as track where and how a violent criminal got his weapon. I could hop on Armslist.com right now and buy a gun with cash from someone up the street, no questions asked, then proceed to murder someone. I should not be legally allowed to do this; I should be legally required to pass a background check and document the sale for my state or county (in the same way vehicle titles are transferred).
There must be harsh penalties for anyone who sells or gives a gun to another without following proper procedures. People would be less likely to sell a gun illegally, as mentioned, because if the person buying the gun commits a crime and is caught he may tell the police who he bought it from (or the police may find out anyway). The seller would then be arrested and imprisoned for the illegal activity. If it were harder to find a seller, a buyer might have to seek means of obtaining a gun, such as theft, that could lead to his capture before a worse crime. This obstacle may even serve as a deterrent in his quest to illegally obtain a gun, which could lead him to abandon the effort, particularly if racing toward a crime of passion that a little extra time could prevent.
The U.S. must enact universal gun ownership licensing. In the same way one must have a license to drive a car, one must have a license to own or carry a gun. Not all states have this (some even ban such a law). It would be a simple, common-sense step, and it must be a serious crime to own, carry, or use a gun without an ownership license. A basic safety course, age minimum, and competency test would be prerequisites to licensure.
The U.S. must enact universal firearm titling and registration. It is not such a burden to require Americans to register their gun upon purchase in a county or state gun registry. Each gun must have a title, which can be signed over to another person during a sale, requiring the new owner to re-register the gun. An update to the background check system could then revoke a recent violent felon’s license and registration, in the same way negligent drivers lose their licenses and driving privileges. This can help law enforcement track down the owners of guns found at crime scenes. It may also explain why such methods reduce gun violence in other nations: if potential criminals know guns can be more easily traced back to them, it may serve as a deterrent.
Vehicles are regulated in all these ways, because it is well understood that owning and operating a vehicle puts oneself and others at risk to a certain degree, and that people who use a car during criminal activity can more easily be hunted down. Yet there are no Americans foaming at the mouth over “car control” and how the government is “coming for our cars.” No one is paranoid about the State knowing you have a license and a car, about being “tracked in a database.” Truthfully, it is ethical to give up a little privacy to save the lives of others. These are simple regulations in the name of societal well-being, with potential to do enormous good and little harm, except of course to murderers and other dangerous felons.
The notion that it’s important the State not know you have a gun so the military and police of a tyrannical government won’t come knocking down your door, so you can keep your weapons secret and effectively fight back in the revolution, is ludicrous. Should the State actually wish to disarm its citizens, would not all homes be searched for hidden weapons? How stupid do we imagine an authoritarian government being? (I also find it a bit interesting that those who have such adulation for the troops and the boys in blue firmly avow they will kill anyone coming for their guns…but it won’t be Barack Obama showing up to collect, it will be America’s heroes. Most of us have a point where violence against the authorities becomes justified, but many conservatives don’t seem to realize they are promising to kill police officers and servicemen and women.)
We should only be allowed to own handguns and hunting rifles. The U.S. must enact a ban on the production, purchase, sale, and ownership of heavier weaponry, like assault weapons. The U.S. took such an action regarding fully automatic weapons in the 1930s and 80s, with significant success — today, machine guns are very difficult to get and extremely expensive, so mass shooters almost exclusively rely on readily-available semi-automatic rifles (possibly modified to shoot like automatics). Machine guns are involved in very few crimes. We should not pretend that machine guns, bazookas, stinger missiles, and grenade launchers are nearly impossible to get through no act of the State. True, the 1994-2004 assault weapons ban in the U.S. wasn’t as effective as some hoped, but this was partly due to enormous loopholes that rendered it inert, and due to a lack of registration, licensing, and other machine-gun level regulations. The truth is that, done the right way, weapons bans can work. Countries like Britain and Japan, which ban almost all firearm ownership, have nearly eliminated gun deaths. Japan has 127 million people but rarely more than 10 gun deaths a year. This does not mean the U.S. wouldn’t have a black market. It certainly would. But a black market is harder to access (knowing, finding the right people), far riskier (police stings, arrest, prison time), and much more expensive (a gun on Australia’s black market costs tens of thousands). This is all too challenging for some people, forcing them to use less deadly weapons or abandoning plans altogether, saving some lives. It won’t stop everyone. But it will stop some. That’s the point.
As for gun-free zones, while we don’t have actual evidence that mass killers choose them purposefully (mass killers tend to attack places they are personally connected to, such as their schools, churches, and workplaces), it is sensible to increase security at government buildings, public schools, and other places that are both gun-free zones and frequent targets. We could require gun-free zones to have armed security. The NRA suggestion of a police officer in every American school is an important reform.
In addition to banning violent ex-felons, domestic abusers, and mentally unstable persons from owning firearms, it might also be wise to make it illegal for people on the terror watch/no-fly list, after some crucial reforms to protect due process, something many on the right and left agree on.
Finally, it is important to make use of available technology. States with safe storage requirements and trigger lock laws correlate with fewer gun deaths per 100,000 people. And microstamping imprints the gun’s serial number on a bullet as it’s fired, helping police trace crimes to perpetrators. This could make people think twice about using a gun for crime. To prevent accidents and theft, there’s “smart guns” that only fire when held by their owner or other authorized user; despite the potential problems with current smart guns, this may be the weapon of the future.
The Right Direction
We don’t need to repeal the Second Amendment. We don’t need to outlaw all gun ownership or even conceal carry. But we do need to recognize why the gun debate seems to contain a paradox. That small scale facts can appear to contradict large scale facts, but in fact do no such thing. We need to gravitate toward scientific findings concerning gun ownership and gun violence that are most thoroughly vetted. We need to enact reforms that have proven effective, here and abroad, even if they aren’t a cure-all.
The U.S. is moving in the right direction on guns. The percentage of families with guns is falling. 85% of gun owners favor universal background checks. For all Americans, it’s around 90% (and 85% believe those on terror watch lists should be barred from buying). Other reforms mentioned, like a database, an assault weapons ban, and blocking the mentally unwell from owning, have high support. Progress is slow, as Republicans would rather follow the will of N.R.A. money than the people, but with every massacre the call for smarter gun laws grows louder.
Much of America is giving up its gun fetish. With time, gun control and the alleviation of other societal problems will result in a country for our descendants with fewer gun owners, fewer guns, and, if the evidence is to be trusted, fewer deaths of many kinds.
The Australian prime minister wrote to America in 2013:
In the 18 years before the 1996 reforms, Australia suffered 13 gun massacres — each with more than four victims — causing a total of 102 deaths. There has not been a single massacre in that category since 1996.
Few Australians would deny that their country is safer today as a consequence of gun control.