Much has been said in response to the recent tragedy in Las Vegas. Stephen Paddock, the gunman who killed at least fifty-nine people on Sunday night, allegedly had an astonishingly large arsenal of twenty-three firearms in the hotel room from which he committed the largest mass shooting in American history.
Naturally, the debate immediately descended into a hyper-partisan shouting match between gun control advocates on the left and Second Amendment advocates on the right. In light of the immense emotion that has engulfed this discussion, it is worth dispassionately examining a few facts about guns in the United States.
Fact #1: The United States has the highest per capita gun ownership rate in the world.
There are about 89 guns for every 100 people in the United States. That is to say that there are roughly 312 million firearms owned by American civilians. This constitutes nearly half of all the privately-owned firearms in the world, despite Americans being only 4% of the global population.
Moreover, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, of the entire United States population, roughly 40% either personally own a firearm or live in a home in which there is a firearm.
Why this is important:
This is an important fact due to Americans’ widely-perceived need for firearms. About two-thirds of Americans cite “protection” as being the number one reason for owning a gun, according to Pew. And this is an argument typically put forward by the political right. But, as we shall see from Fact #2 below, this perception fuels a vicious “chicken or the egg” type situation in which more guns may be contributing to more gun crime, which is in turn increasing the perceived need for guns for protection in the first place.
Fact #2: Among OECD countries, the United States has the highest per capita rate of firearm-related homicides apart from Mexico.
The United States registers 3.6 homicides per 100,000 people per year. That is right below Nicaragua (3.72) and right above Barbados (3.12).
Western European countries register figures that are substantially lower than this. And out of the Western European countries, Italy has the highest number at 0.35 homicides per 100,000 people. This is roughly 1/10th of the American figure.
To repeat: the highest figure in Western Europe is a tenth of the American figure.
In France, it is 0.21. In Germany, it is 0.07. In the United Kingdom, it is 0.06, which is 1/60th of the rate in the United States.
To repeat: the United Kingdom registers sixty times fewer homicides from guns as does the United States.
Why this is important:
It is often argued, mostly by those on the political right, that if one were to outlaw guns, “only the bad guys would be left with guns.” The reasoning goes as follows: law-abiding citizens would be always unarmed, whilst criminals will always find a way to acquire firearms via illicit means.
The implication of such a statement is that higher gun ownership among the general population would deter would-be murderers and would allow oneself to protect oneself in the event of a life-threatening situation.
But this doesn’t seem to be the case. Being cognizant of the fact that correlation doesn’t equal causation, what other factors might be in play that explain the far lower gun homicide rates in other OECD countries (again, with the exception of Mexico, which the IMF does not regard to be an “advanced economy”)? Is it all cultural? Are Americans simply more violent? Do Americans have a higher incidence of mental illness than citizens of other OECD countries?
These are all questions that the political right must answer.
Lastly, regarding the point about “protection” under Fact #1: how would higher gun ownership have helped in this most recent Las Vegas mass shooting? How can an armed populace neutralize a man with twenty-three semi automatic weapons firing from a high-rise hotel room window?
Again, this is a question that must be addressed by gun advocates.
Fact #3: Guns obtained by criminals are often originally procured via legal gun sellers.
What is often lacking in the discussion about gun homicides is a question that should be asked from the outset, namely: how are criminals obtaining guns in the first place?
On the PBS show, Frontline, an agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) was asked this exact question. According to agent Jay Wachtel, one of the most common ways that criminals are able to obtain guns is through so-called “straw purchases.”
Under such an arrangement, someone who wishes to own a firearm anonymously can ask someone else to purchase one on his or her behalf from a licensed gun seller. In fact, this is exactly how Rizwan Farook, one of the San Bernardino killers, obtained his firearms.
Furthermore, 90% of young prison inmates who were arrested with a firearm in their possession admitted to having procured said firearm through anonymous and indirect means. This can include straw purchases, gifts, and sharing arrangements.
The important point to note is that the initial purchase of a firearm that eventually makes its way to criminals is almost always done through legal channels.
Why this is important:
Herein lies the exact problem with gun advocate logic: criminals are merely exploiting legal channels of gun procuration in order to obtain guns. Hence, it would appear that legalizing the sale of firearms is actually making it far easier for criminals to obtain firearms.
Fact #4: States with higher gun ownership tend to have higher incidences of gun homicides.
According to a study by the American Journal of Public Health (paywall), the rate of gun ownership was a “significant predictor of firearm homicide rates.” In fact, the study found that, “for each percentage point increase in gun ownership, the firearm homicide rate increased by 0.9%.”
Why this is important:
Gun advocates use statistics such as the chart below from the American Enterprise Institute to “prove” that higher gun ownership leads to less gun crime. However, what this chart does not tell us is how the gun homicide rate varies per state depending on each state’s gun ownership rates.
Hence, the general downward trend in gun homicide in the US is more likely part of a larger pattern in the west whereby violent crime has been steadily decreasing in recent decades, regardless of each country’s individual gun laws.
Fact #5: States with tough gun laws can witness high levels of gun crime due to out-of-state gun purchases.
Following from Fact #4, it is true that stricter gun laws in one state do not always lead to a lessening of the gun homicide rate (although they often do) as long as guns are more easily available in other states.
For example, an oft-cited fact by gun advocates is the fact that Chicago has some of the highest gun homicide rates in the country despite having some of the toughest gun laws as well. This is used as an argument to demonstrate the ostensible futility of gun control.
Yet according to a study by Northwestern University, 60% of guns used by criminals in Chicago are imported from another state. Most of these guns come from Indiana, Mississippi, and Wisconsin: states with less restrictive gun laws.
Why this is important:
This is important to note because as long as guns are easily available in certain states with lax gun laws, we cannot conclude that gun control is futile in states with tougher gun laws. In fact, Fact #4 indicates the exact opposite, namely that tougher state gun laws do generally correlate with lower rates of gun crime.
Further points and responses to anticipated rebuttals:
It is often stated that some western countries with high gun ownership also witness low levels of gun crime. Switzerland and Canada are often cited as examples.
There are several reasons why this phenomenon might be. Perhaps, as in Switzerland, where military conscription is mandatory for males (the demographic that by far commits the most gun crimes), men are far better trained and disciplined with regard to firearms. Or perhaps, as in Canada, where semi automatic weapons are mostly banned, this could be a factor in the far fewer incidences of mass killing.
Lastly, I would be remiss to engage in such a discussion without a mention of differences in culture. Culture, which I briefly mentioned under Fact #2, might have a lot to do with high rates of gun crime in the US.
Perhaps the US is inherently a more violent society than other developed countries. There might be something to this. But in any case, if it were true, or even partially true, it too would be an argument for more gun control, not less.
All in all, it seems that the facts surrounding the gun debate indicate that America’s experiment with high levels of gun ownership has been a failure. The political right should take note. This should be rectified before more incidents such as those that occurred in Las Vegas are able to repeat themselves.