Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The United States And Gun Violence: What's A Problem, What's Not, And What To Do About It

After the recent horrifying shooting in Las Vegas, the gun discussion has been hot, as it should be. I probably don’t need to note how inundated the United States is with guns. Our culture is saturated in a way that is outstanding – and I don't mean that in a good way – among other nations, particularly nations in the West. In terms of the raw numbers, the human toll is daunting.

A discussion of guns and violence cannot afford to minimize the personal and emotional impact of gun violence. Can we all agree on that? It's far too easy for pro-gun advocates to raise a defense that appears to minimize the fact that real families are mourning real death because a gun killed someone they loved. An argument for gun ownership can easily seem like a cold, legal argument that ignores tragedy.

On the other hand, the ongoing discussion must also include the facts surrounding gun sales and ownership. The anti-gun crowd too quickly lumps gun owners into a melting pot full of of rabid, violence-loving fools who will only give up their guns when they are pried from cold, dead fingers. This is not fair.  It's a gross misrepresentation of the vast majority of gun owners.

I would like to offer some facts about gun violence and ownership in the United States (with plenty of links!), and then make a recommendation on what we can do as a culture that aligns with what has been observed in other Western countries wrestling with what to do about this problem.

Two important caveats before we jump into this.

First, because I think the statistics defend lawful gun ownership more than is often assumed, I am afraid I will be dismissed as a gun lobby homer. I’m not. I do not own a gun and don’t have plans to own one. I am not a hunter or sport shooter. I like going to outdoor music festivals, and movie theaters, and restaurants, and church, and just walk walk down the street  – all places where gun violence has taken a tremendous toll. I hate the idea that violence is that close. If we could live in a world without guns, that would be fantastic.

Second, I believe there are practical things we can and ought to do in order to address gun violence. I’m convinced there is a two-pronged approach. First, we should enforce the laws we have and look at how to improve them. Second, we have to recognize the problem of human hearts. If all our hearts were good (and our brains free of mental illness), gun violence would be a non-issue. For that reason, we must have a national conversation about what is forming people who commit all kinds of violence. But we don’t live in a world full of pure hearts, and so we must engage in behavior modification more effectively than we are currently doing. I believe there are ways to do that, and I will address that at the end.

* * * * *


Somewhere between 31% - 40% of Americans live in a home with a gun. This statistic is almost certainly on the lower end. Some speculate that the 50% to 60% range is more likely.  PEW research claims it’s closer to 44% as of 2016, as does CNN based on a January 2017 poll. Assuming 40% - 45% is roughly accurate, gun ownership is down from 50% of homes in the late 70s. 

 There are approximately 250 million adults in America. A Harvard study claims that a third of Americans legally own guns. That’s over 80 million people who own guns (USA Today cites a study that says its 55 million).  80 million is in line with most of the stats I've seen. If you factor in how many gun owners live in households, a lot more people have ready access to a gun.   

According to, guns are responsible for the following things every year in the United States:
  • 12,000 homicides. claims that there are around 8,000 incidents, with some obviously having multiple fatalities. 
  • 21,000 suicides
  • 550 death from accidents
  • 500 deaths from legal interventions
  • An average of 79,000 injuries
  • A total of 415, 000 acts of “non-fatal firearm violence,” which includes  things like robbery, assault and rape where a gun was present and therefore ‘used’ though not necessarily fired. 
 If there are 80 million gun owners, here's the percentage of lawful gun owners involved in crimes:
  • 415,000 acts of “non-fatal firearm violence” -  .005% of gun owners
  • 79,000 injuries - .00098% of gun owners
  • 12,000 homicides - .00015% of gun owners
  • says there are 8,000 fatal incidents, so some include multiple shooters. That drops the numbers to .0001 percent of gun owners who are involved in crimes.
This also assumes all gun crimes were committed by people who bought those guns, but that would be a bad assumption. "During the ATF's Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative (YCGII), which involved expanded tracing of firearms recovered by law enforcement agencies, only 18% of guns used criminally that were recovered in 1998 were in possession of the original owner." Many of those were stolen or purchased illegally. Other studies have shown that only 3% - 11% of guns used in crimes were acquired legally. The University of Pittsburgh says that 20% of all gun crimes are committed by lawful gun owners. 

There are some other important factors worth considering since they are unavoidable realities.
  •  “Straw buyers” are used by many criminals to obtain guns. They get a “clean” person – a friend, a family member -  who can pass a NICS check and get them to buy a gun. When this happens, the ‘owner’ would not show up as having committed a crime if the gun is used in an act of violence.  Reason Magazine notes, “Three sources accounted for almost nine out of 10 crime guns: "friends or family" (40 percent), "the street"(38 percent), and theft (10 percent)." Does that mean they stole their from friends and family, or that there were straw buyers? I’m not sure. But if the 40% is made up of straw buyers, that would mean legal buyers are indirectly responsible for gun crimes, and it seems only fair to think of that as guilt by association. In that case, the percentage of criminal legal gun owners rises. 
  • “Gun violence is most common in poor urban areas and frequently associated with gang violence." According to Thoughtco, "It is unclear what percentage of gun deaths are gang-related. In New Orleans, between 35 percent and 55 percent of homicides are classified as gang-related. In Chicago, an estimated 80 percent of homicides are gang-related. Detroit logged 302 homicides in 2016, but there is no hard statistic to determine the exact percentage that is gang-related." The Huffington Post reported on stats in several major cities and concluded that gang homicides accounted for 29% of all homicides in those cities between 2003-2008, though they anticipated a smaller number for the nation as a whole.  As best I can tell, gang homicides account for about 1 out of 6 of homicides (2,000 a year) in the United States. 
  • According to Wikipedia, "People with a criminal record were also more likely to die as homicide victims. Between 1990 and 1994, 75% of all homicide victims age 21 and younger in the city of Boston had a prior criminal record. In Philadelphia, the percentage of those killed in gun homicides that had prior criminal records increased from 73% in 1985 to 93% in 1996.  In Richmond, Virginia, the risk of gunshot injury is 22 times higher for those males involved with crime.” 
I note the first factor to make clear that legal gun owners may not be as clean as the raw statistics suggest, but it's a part of the discussion that is hard to quantify with certainty. I note last two factors only to show that if you are not in a gang or running with known criminals, your odds of being shot drop significantly.


In a fivethirtyeight article entitled, “The Mass Shooting Fix,” the authors’ conclusion as they look at how Western nations have responded to mass shootings is that there seems to be no verifiable impact after changing gun availability and increasing restrictions (though it’s possible there has been an impact in ways that are tough to measure). Even those who think Australia's laws should influence ours aren't entirely sure how much impact they had. You will see in the concluding section of this post that there are ways in which regulation can make a country safer generally speaking (having no access to automatic or semi-automatic would make a difference in cases like the Las Vegas shooting), but mass shootings (four or more are killed) committed by unstable and perhaps mentally ill people seem to be an anomaly that is hard to stop. This is not good news, but there it is. 


Mark Antonio Wright at National Review challenges the connection between guns and suicides . He looked at popular studies in several nations and concluding there is an overhyped correlation between gun availability and suicide. The New York Times has pointed out that while suicide in the U.S. is climbing, the percentage of times guns are used is dropping. Psychology Today notes:
 “There is no relation between suicide rate and gun ownership rates around the world.  According to the 2016 World Health Statistics report, (2) suicide rates in the four countries cited as having restrictive gun control laws have suicide rates that are comparable to that in the U. S.:  Australia, 11.6, Canada, 11.4, France, 15.8, UK, 7.0, and USA 13.7 suicides/100,000.  By comparison, Japan has among the highest suicide rates in the world, 23.1/100,000, but gun ownership is extremely rare, 0.6 guns/100 people.”
So if I take Israel's success combined with the other information, it seems that more restrictions could have a positive impact on youth who can access an adult's firearms, but otherwise there seems to be no real statical correlation, or at least not one that is indisputable.


The Washington Post claims there is “zero correlation between state homicide rate and state gun laws.” In addition, even when solutions are proposed, they often have a cost/benefit analysis that raise questions about the true nature of the benefit. 

That's an unfairly grim conclusion. Science Alert points to an Oxford project that looked at 130 studies in 10 countries over 60 years. Here are the highlights of their conclusion:
“The simultaneous implementation of laws targeting multiple elements of firearms regulations reduced firearm-related deaths in certain countries; 2) some specific restrictions on purchase, access, and use of firearms are associated with reductions in firearm deaths; 3) challenges in ecological design and the execution of studies limit the confidence in study findings and the conclusions that can be derived from them...   
Studies from Canada, New Zealand, and Australia (at least for the first post-NFA years) show that observed reductions in firearm suicides, after the implementation of these laws, were compensated by substitution methods that resulted in no significant changes in overall suicide rates… There is also compelling evidence of specific laws being associated with reductions in the rate of firearm deaths. Studies on background checks suggest that the quality of systems used to review applicants, in terms of the access to local and federal information on mental health conditions and criminal and domestic violence history, is a critical component of these laws…   
In addition, most studies show that relaxing firearm restrictions, as in the case of “stand your ground” laws or the repealing of existing permit laws, may increase the rate of firearm homicides…

Obviously, if there were no guns, there would be no gun crime. Since there is no plausible way to conceive of that happening, the question is how we can best curb the abuse of weapons. Maybe not every attempt at curbing gun violence works, but "simultaneous implementation" of "specific laws" does appear to make a difference. An article in the New Yorker offers a summary that aligns pretty closely with what I’ve been reading as realistic and provably impactful ways to lessen gun violence:
“First, fix the background-check system by doing small things such as giving the F.B.I. ten days, instead of three, to complete them; prohibiting “high-risk” individuals from getting their hands on guns (anyone with a restraining order filed against him for a threat of violence, for example); and accelerating federal legislation to keep the violent and mentally ill from having guns. 
Second, make the A.T.F. more effective through such simple measures as getting the agency a director. 
Third, encourage research on “personalized” guns and gun triggers. 
Fourth, ban assault weapons, carefully defined, and with them magazines that fire more than ten rounds. 
And finally—radical idea—fund research on what actually works to end gun violence.” 

There are a lot of good ideas out there that strike a middle ground. Reverb Press has some interesting ideas about licensing and purchasing guns, as well of how to track ammunition.  Craig R. Whitney, author of “Living With Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment,” offers “A Way Out of the Gun Stalemate” in The New York Times. The Conversation has a great article on addressing “the supply chain of guns to crime.” Bottom line: It’s a lack of keeping a tight reign on their weapons on behalf of the owners, and a lack of due diligence or outright attempts to circumvent the law by certain gun sellers. Fortunately, there aren't that many:
“Past research has demonstrated that a small fraction of gun dealers are responsible for the majority of guns used in crimes in the United States.2000 report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms found that in 1998, more than 85 percent of gun dealers had no guns used in crimes trace back to them. By contrast, 1 percent of dealers accounted for nearly 6 in 10 crime gun traces that year.”

The Daily Kos offers “Tough, Fair, and Sensible Gun Laws that Everyone Will Hate.” That’s probably a fair title. If nothing else, it's a great discussion starter with some ideas that are worth taking seriously.

Last but not least, I think it's time we start having a more frank discussion about how guns are portrayed in entertainment. Dan Romer, a psychologist at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, has noted (and I think correctly), "There is evidence that tobacco in movies gets kids to smoke, and that drinking gets kids to drink. So what does gun violence get kids to do?” I don't think there is evidence that entertainment makes people do things, but there is ample evidence that it inclines people in directions they were already considering. This needs to be part of the discussion. 

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