Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
“The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” says the US Constitution’s second amendment (given the need, its authors presumed, for a militia). Yet we probably would be safer if our society had fewer guns. While Americans are justifiably horrified by mass shootings, they’ve killed, on average, fewer than 20 people per year over the past half century.1 The big numbers are in non-mass shootings: around 10,000 Americans are murdered with guns each year, accounting for about two-thirds of all homicides. And 20,000 people kill themselves with a gun.
No sensible person disagrees with the notion that access to guns should be restricted. But to what degree? And in what ways?
GUNS AND GUN DEATHS
Guns contribute to approximately 40,000 deaths each year in the United States. This is a large number, though guns aren’t near the top of the list of causes of death, as we see in figure 1.
The over-time pattern in the US since 1960 suggests little or no effect of guns on the homicide rate. As figure 2 shows, the share of homes that have a gun has been relatively flat throughout the past half century, while the number of guns per person in the country has increased significantly. Neither trend looks to be useful in predicting the homicide rate, which jumped sharply in the 1960s and 1970s and then fell just as sharply beginning in the early-mid 1990s.
Compared to other rich nations, the United States has a very high prevalence of guns and a very high rate of gun killings, as figure 3 shows. This seems to support the notion that more guns results in more homicides. However, countries differ in lots of ways, and America is particularly idiosyncratic. It could be that the high murder rate in the US is a product of our violent culture rather than the prevalence of guns. If we remove the US from the picture, the apparent correlation between guns and gun homicides weakens considerably, which suggests reason to doubt the importance of guns.
If America’s high rate of gun killings owes to something other than the fact that there are so many guns, we would expect other types of violent crime to also be much higher in the United States than in other rich democratic nations. Unfortunately, there aren’t reliable cross-country data on rapes, assaults, and burglaries. A useful proxy might be the share of the population who say they don’t feel safe walking alone at night in the city or area where they live. Figure 4 shows that the US doesn’t particularly stand out here. Perhaps, then, there isn’t an unusually high level of general violence in the United States, in which case the country’s exceptionally high rate of gun killings may in fact be due to the exceptionally high prevalence of guns.
In 1994, the Clinton administration passed a crime law that included a ban on some types of assault weapons. It expired after ten years and hasn’t been reinstated. The ban appears to have had little impact on homicides.2 This is partly because manufacturers made some alterations to assault-type guns that allowed them to get around the law, and also because assault weapons, although scary, are used in only a small share of gun killings.
A more comprehensive change in gun policy in Australia seems to have had a larger impact. After a mass shooting that killed 35 people, Australia in 1996 banned semiautomatic and automatic rifles and shotguns, instituted a mandatory buyback program to take existing guns out of circulation, and instituted background check and mental health requirements for purchases of other types of guns. In the subsequent decade, gun homicides dropped by 59%.3
Comparison across states might be informative. Figure 5 shows a measure of the strength of a state’s gun regulations on the horizontal axis and gun deaths (homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths) on the vertical axis. The association is quite strong. Note, though, that this correlation doesn’t tell us whether stricter gun regulations are associated with lower gun prevalence. A recent, thorough cross-state analysis concluded that universal background checks are associated with lower gun killings, while many other regulations aren’t.4 Another found that gun ownership in a home is associated with killings of spouses and domestic partners, but not with other types of homicide.5
We also can compare across cities. A study published nearly three decades ago compared Seattle with Vancouver. These two cities were similar demographically and economically and just 140 miles apart, but Vancouver had much more restrictive gun laws. The analysts found that burglary and assault rates were similar in the two cities, but gun killings were much more common in Seattle.6
The best evidence is quasi-experimental: comparison of changes in gun prevalence and changes in gun killings across countries, states, or cities. Studies pursuing this type of approach have yielded mixed findings.7
If reducing the prevalence of guns would in fact decrease homicides, how large might the effect be? The average gun homicide rate in other rich democracies is one-tenth of the US rate. Total gun homicides in the US are about 11,000 a year, so reducing our rate to the average among comparator nations would translate into about 10,000 fewer gun homicides per year. That’s a lot of lives, though it pales in comparison to, say, the 600,000 Americans killed by heart disease each year, the 580,000 killed by cancer, the 120,000 by accidents, the 100,000 by alcohol, the 50,000 by opioid overdose (in 2017), and the 25,000 by illegal drugs.8 What we don’t know is whether a significant reduction in guns actually would get us such a large reduction in homicides.
We may be on firmer ground when it comes to suicides. About 20,000 Americans kill themselves with a gun each year, approximately half the total number of suicides. Only 11% of all suicide attempts succeed, but the rate is 90% for those who use a gun.9 Reducing the prevalence of guns thus might yield a sizable drop in the number of suicides.
WHAT SAFETY MEASURES DO OTHER COUNTRIES USE?
To purchase a gun at a store, US federal law requires you to pass an instant background check that considers criminal convictions, domestic violence, and immigration status. If you buy a gun from a private seller — on the street or at a gun show, for instance — the background check isn’t required. Some states have additional restrictions, such as expanded background checks and waiting periods (figure 5 above).
Here are the requirements for gun purchases in some other rich democratic nations, according to information compiled by the New York Times.10 As we saw earlier (figure 3), these countries have a much lower prevalence of guns than the US.
- Australia. “1. Join and regularly attend a hunting or shooting club, or document that you are a collector. 2. Complete a course on firearm safety and operation, and pass a written test and practical assessment. 3. Arrange firearm storage that meets safety regulations. 4. Pass a review that considers criminal history, domestic violence, restraining orders and arrest history. Authorities may also interview your family and community members. 5. Apply for a permit to acquire a specific type of weapon. 6. Wait at least 28 days. 7. Buy the specific type of gun for which you received a permit.”
- Canada. “1. To buy a handgun, prove that you practice at an approved shooting club or range, or show that you are a gun collector. 2. For any gun, complete a safety course and pass both a written and a practical test. 3. Ask for two references. (In addition to two character references, Canadians must list the names of partners they have lived with in the last two years, all of whom must sign the application or be notified by the police before a gun is bought.) 4. Apply for a permit, and wait 28 days before processing begins. 5. Pass a background check that considers your criminal record, mental health, addiction and domestic violence history. 6. Buy a gun. If you bought a handgun, register it with the police before taking it home.”
- Germany. “1. Join a shooting club, obtain a hunting license, demonstrate you are a gun collector or prove that your life is threatened. 2. Demonstrate specialized knowledge of firearms, which may involve a written exam and practical demonstration of safe handling. 3. If you are under 25, submit a certificate of mental fitness from a public health officer or doctor. 4. Arrange proper firearm storage. (Germans who keep firearms in their homes agree to let the police conduct unannounced home inspections to check that they are kept safely.) 5. Pass a background check that considers criminal history, mental health, and drug addiction. 6. Apply for a permit to purchase a specific gun, which may include an additional short background review. 7. Buy a gun.”
- Japan. “1. Take a firearm class and pass a written exam, which is held up to three times a year. 2. Get a doctor’s note saying you are mentally fit and do not have a history of drug abuse. 3. Apply for a permit to take firing training, which may take up to a month. 4. Describe in a police interview why you need a gun. 5. Pass a review of your criminal history, gun possession record, employment, involvement with organized crime groups, personal debt and relationships with friends, family and neighbors. 6. Apply for a gunpowder permit. 7. Take a one-day training class and pass a firing test. 8. Obtain a certificate from a gun dealer describing the gun you want. 9. If you want a gun for hunting, apply for a hunting license. 10. Buy a gun safe and an ammunition locker that meet safety regulations. 11. Allow the police to inspect your gun storage. 12. Pass an additional background review. 13. Buy a gun.”
WHAT SAFETY MEASURES DO AMERICANS WANT?
There is little chance the federal government will adopt a policy of prohibition. As figure 6 indicates, fewer than half of Americans favor a ban on assault weapons and only a quarter support a ban on handguns. Even if there were more public support, the National Rifle Association (NRA) could probably ensure blockage of legislation in the House or Senate or via a presidential veto. And in the unlikely event that a ban became law, the courts might well rule it unconstitutional.11
Another option is to more tightly restrict gun purchases.12 As figure 7 shows, this tends to have the support of a healthy majority of Americans. Nearly 90%, for instance, support requiring a universal background check before a person is allowed to buy a gun, and 75% support requiring a police permit.
The United States is unique among rich democratic nations in the pervasiveness of guns. There are approximately 300 million guns in the country, nearly one for each person, and roughly 40% of homes have one or more. Reducing the number of guns in America very likely would reduce homicides and suicides, but we don’t know by how much.
Public support for banning guns is low, and opponents have other means of blocking a ban in any case. Prospects seem better for tightening restrictions on the purchase of guns.
- Bonnie Berkowitz, Lazaro Gamio, Denise Lu, Kevin Uhrmacher, and Todd Lindeman, “The Math of Mass Shootings,” Washington Post, 2017. ↩
- David Cole, “The Terror of Our Guns,” New York Review of Books, 2016. ↩
- Julian Santaella-Tenorio, Magdalena Cerda, Andres Villaveces, and Sandro Galea, “What Do We Know About the Association Between Firearm Legislation and Firearm-Related Injuries?,” Epidemiologic Reviews, 2016. ↩
- Bindu Kalesan et al, “Firearm Legislation and Firearm Mortality in the USA: A Cross-Sectional, State-Level Study,” The Lancet, 2016. ↩
- Aaron J. Kivisto, Lauren A. Magee, Peter L. Phalen, and Bradley R. Ray, “Firearm Ownership and Domestic VersusNondomestic Homicide in the U.S.,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2019. ↩
- John Henry Sloan, et al, “Handgun Regulations, Crime, Assaults, and Homicide: A Tale of Two Cities,” New England Journal of Medicine, 1988. ↩
- Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig, “The Social Costs of Gun Ownership,” Journal of Public Economics, 2006; Santaella-Tenorio et al, “What Do We Know About the Association Between Firearm Legislation and Firearm-Related Injuries?” ↩
- The numbers for alcohol and for illegal drugs are from Mark A.R. Kleinman, Jonathan P. Caulkins, and Angela Hawken, Drugs and Drug Policy, Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 19. The number for opioid overdose is from Margot Sanger-Katz, “Opioid Epidemic Isn’t Slowing,” New York Times, 2018. ↩
- Kim Soffen, “To Reduce Suicides, Look at Guns,” Washington Post, 2016. ↩
- Audrey Carlsen and Sahil Chinoy, “How to Buy a Gun in 16 Countries,” New York Times, 2019. ↩
- The second amendment of the US Constitution: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” On one interpretation, this guarantees the right of individuals to own guns. On another, it guarantees such a right only if the person is part of a state militia. ↩
- Nicholas Kristof, “A New Way to Tackle Gun Deaths,” New York Times, 2015. ↩