Guns

Facts About Gun Violence

Questions we will answer:

(Note: interactive graphics work best on wider screen).

It seems like you can prove anything with statistics. This couldn’t be more true than in the ongoing debate about gun violence and the most appropriate solution to the problem. At one extreme is the idea that there should be virtually no restrictions on gun ownership whatsoever, except in the case of previously convicted felons. At the other extreme is the belief that nothing less than a complete confiscation of firearms will solve the problem. Advocates of both positions, and of every conceivable position in between, will cite gruesome sounding statistics to support their beliefs and will compare the United States to numerous other countries around the world as evidence that their position is correct.

The truth is, both sides have a firmly positioned narrative, meaning facts are merely cherry-picked when convenient to support that narrative. On both sides, the gun violence debate is emotionally-driven, impassioned, and largely void of objective data.

Let’s try to answer a few essential questions with data as unbiased as we can before we form a narrative about the gun violence problem.

Is gun violence in America getting worse?

A lot of things that seem like a crisis today are merely made into a bigger problem than they might otherwise be due to social media, activism, and the 24-hour news cycle. You can’t go online or watch TV without hearing about the crisis of gun violence in America. So is there a crisis? Or, better stated, are things getting worse or better? A note of caution: most of the data used is from the FBI or the CDC. They don’t always agree because both have an incomplete data set. So the exact numbers may be off a bit, but trends and ratios hold true.

The US murder rate in 2017 was 5.0/100,000. This compares to 10.2/100,000 in 1980. The murder rate has overall been dropping since the 1970s and so have all other categories of violent and nonviolent crime. The slight uptick in the murder rate in 2015-2016 was almost solely due to murders in large metropolitan areas like Baltimore and Chicago, but appears to be dropping again.

Overall, it is much safer to live in America today than at almost any point in the last fifty years and crime rates are near historic lows despite more large metropolitan areas. If we isolated less dense portions of America, all categories of crime would be at historic lows.

What about murders committed by a gun in particular?

Here is the data for type of weapon used since 1976:

As you can see, there are no dramatic trends. The total amount of murders committed with a gun today is similar to 1995 levels. Over the last 40 years, about 70% of murders have been committed with guns and about half with handguns. With a decrease in violence rates overall, a decrease in gun violence in particular would be expected. Pew Research, for example, determined that gun murders have dropped from a rate of 7/100,000 in 1993 to 3.6/100,000 in 2010. Thus, gun violence has been cut it half in just 20 years.

Where is the gun violence and violence in general occurring in the US?

Violence of all forms and gun violence in particular are definitely not equally distributed in America. This unequal distribution in large part contributes to such divergent beliefs on the issue of gun control. Violence is markedly lower in most of America than it is in just a few large metropolitan areas. Compare the US average murder rate in 2016 to the murder rate in its most dangerous cities:

The 50 most dangerous cities in the United States accounted for 33% of all murders in 2016 (5,810), but only 16% of the US population. If you lived in East St. Louis, Illinois in 2016, you were at 100 times the chance of being murdered as if you lived in New Hampshire. Just a handful of cities account for thousands of murders per year.

Just these 26 US cities accounted for 4,903 murders in 2016, nearly 1 in 4 of all murders in the US, while accounting for only 8% of the US population. What’s more, the cities and counties that surround these large urban areas are often just as dangerous. Meanwhile, in more rural America and cities with less than 75,000 people, we find a completely different story. Take Tennessee for example and let’s see what happens when we compare the four largest cities in Tennessee to the rest of the state.

  • Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, and Chattanooga have a combined population of 1,689,458 people and accounted for 321 murders in 2016 (a rate of 19/100,000).
  • The rest of Tennessee has a population of 4,905,598 and accounted for 85 murders in 2016 (a rate of 1.7/100,000).
  • The only other cities with a population > 75,000 are Murfreesboro and Clarksville. If we excluded those as well (accounting for 18 murders with a population of 282,256) then we would find a Tennessee with a total population of 4,623,342 with only 67 murders for a rural murder rate of 1.4/100,000.

This pattern holds true, more or less, in every state in the US. The rural population of Tennessee represents 70% of the population. The other 30% of the state accounts for 84% of the murders. Recognition that we truly have two different Americas living side-by-side can help understand why there is such disagreement about gun laws.

How does the distribution of murder compare with the distribution and availability of guns?

This question is harder to answer with any precision, but we do know that rural households are significantly more likely to own guns (and more of them) than urban households. According to a Pew Research survey, 46% of adults living in rural areas own guns, with 75% of those owning more than one gun. Meanwhile, only 19% of those who live in urban areas own a gun and only 48% of those own more than one gun. This means that the bulk of the 300 million guns in America are in those rural areas. Cities with a population over 75,000 represent about 1/3 of the population, or roughly 107 million people. About 20 million of those own a gun, with 10 million owning more than one gun. We don’t know exactly, but perhaps 50 million guns are in cities with populations over 75,000 while over 250 million guns are owned by people living in the rest of the country.

In 2016, there were 460 cities in the US with populations of more than 75,000, representing 107 million people. Those cities accounted for 9,423 murders in 2016, or 55% of all murders (a murder rate of 8.8/100,000). The other 216 million citizens living in cities smaller than 75,000 or rural areas accounted for 7,827 murders (a murder rate of 3.6/100,000). In other words,

  • Where guns are present at a rate of 0.46 per person, the murder rate is 8.8/100,000.
  • Where guns are present at a rate of 1.15 per person, the murder rate if 3.6/100,000.

Other violent crimes like rape and assault are distributed in roughly the same way. Thus, one would be correct to conclude that the higher the density of guns, the less murder and violent crimes.

In Kennesaw, Georgia, citizens are required to own a gun. It may be true that many citizens do not (the law isn’t enforced), but the rate of gun ownership is high. More importantly, criminals in the city don’t know who does and does not own a gun. The result? No murders in 25 years and a total crime rate that is half the national average for the city of 25,000 just north of Atlanta. This type of experiment has been validated in other cities in the US as well.

Here are the murder rates for each state (mouse over for details):

Are school shootings getting worse?

A lot of the current focus on gun regulations and gun crime is related to public outcry over a recent spate of school shootings. However, are school shooting actually increasing in frequency or just being more widely reported?

The simple answer is that school shootings are not on the rise and that schools in America are safer than ever. This excellent piece from Northeastern University shows precisely that. The authors found that school shootings have been declining since the 1990s and that mass shootings (four or more) at schools are no more common now than 30 years ago. The authors also state emphatically that current efforts to ban certain rifles or bump stocks will have no impact on the number of school shooting, per their research.

How does this jive with reporting from major news organizations to the contrary? Well, agenda-driven reporting has taken some liberties. For example, all gun shootings at a school (someone who commits suicide in a car for example or an unintentional discharge by a safety officer) are counted and, worse, many news agencies are reporting shootings that happen within a certain distance of a school, which really exaggerates the numbers, especially when counting shootings in dense urban areas.

All told, there has never been a safer time to be a child in the US than today, according to this Washington Post expose. Children are less likely to be abducted, struck by cars, or suffer violence than at any time in US history. Child and adolescent mortality rates are at historic lows. Children are also less likely to suffer sexual abuse and physical abuse than at any time before. They are also less likely to get pregnant. In fact, our schools, and the travel to and from those schools, are safer than at any time in history.

How effective are current gun laws?

This is a difficult question to answer. We might ask, How do states with more restrictive gun laws compare to states with less restrictive gun laws? But comparing individual laws in various states with other states is full of problems. You simply can’t compare California to New Hampshire, for example. What we can state very clearly is that municipalities and states with the strictest gun laws tend to be the most dangerous whereas states and municipalities with the most liberal gun laws tend to be the safest.

One thing is certain: criminals don’t obey laws. There is simply no evidence that any particular gun laws have curved the trajectory of violent crime. Remember also that there are at least twice as many guns in the US as there were 40 years ago but violent crime and murder have dropped in half. Still, if we are honest, the biggest impact on reducing crime seems to be a good economy and employment. This pattern has been noted not just in the US but around the world. We have to be careful to give any particular law too much credit for reducing crime.

How does the US compare to the rest of the world in terms of gun violence? How about all forms of violence?

If you’ve talked to anyone at all about gun violence, you have probably heard the claim that the US has more violence than any other “developed” country and it must be because we have the most guns in the world. But be careful with this line of reasoning.

Two tricks are commonly used to make the statistical data relating to this question imply something that it should not. The first involves using cherry-picked comparators and then hoping that the audience assumes causation from correlation. The second involves using categories of data which do not tell the whole story.

The first trick involves comparing US statistics to a few cherry-picked countries which have the desired rates of gun-related violence and the desired gun laws. For example, an antigun advocate might compare the United States’ gun-related murder rate to that of Japan’s and then argue that the difference is related to Japan’s strict gun laws versus the United States’ liberal gun laws. At the other extreme, the pro-gun advocate might compare the United States’ outcomes to that of Mexico’s and argue that Mexico’s strict gun laws have made no difference in their violent crime and gun death rates. These two arguments are constructed in a similar manner to prove the exact opposite belief and they are appealing only to those who are happy with scant, selective evidence that comports with their preexisting beliefs – that is, something to satisfy their confirmation bias.

The fallacy in both arguments is simply that correlation does not equal causation. There are many other societal and cultural factors which tend to explain the high rate of violence in Mexico and the relatively low rate of violence in Japan. Economic stability, employment, drug use, and cultural views of violence spring to mind immediately.

An example of the second trick is focusing only on gun-related murders or suicides rather than a more broad category like total numbers of murders or suicides by any method. It is an obvious truism that if there are less guns available to the public then there will be fewer violent crimes, homicides, or suicides that are undertaken with a gun; but this does not necessarily mean that there will be fewer violent crimes, homicides, or suicides. A death by a gun is no worse than a death by a knife or by some other mechanism. What matters is only the total amount of violent crimes, deaths, or suicides.

Another example of manipulating categories to make a better statistical argument is unfair lumping and splitting. For example, as we have seen, in the United States a large portion of murders occur in a relatively small handful of large cities where gun ownership is already heavily curtailed or illegal. At the same time, the vast majority of communities in the United States that also possess the most lax gun laws and consequently the most number of guns have violent crime rates that are often dramatically lower. In other words, it’s just as unfair to compare Chicago to Montana as it is to compare the United States to Japan. To measure the impact of different public policies on violent crime, we need to use fair comparators. Comparing Chicago to similar-sized cities in Europe, Asia, Mexico or even the United States is a better and more fair methodology.

Let’s look at some data (the chart is interactive).

This graph shows the murder rates of the every UNESCO country in the world charted against the rates of gun ownership. I have divided the US into just the Top 50 cities and The Rest of the US. Notice two things. First, the trend line for gun ownership and murder rates are going in the opposite directions. That is, there tends to be a higher murder rate in countries with fewer guns. Notice also that “The Rest” of the US (the big blue spike in the middle) is roughly in the middle of the graph while the Top 50 Cities of US is near the right side along with countries like Russia and Panama. Notice all the high blue spikes to the left of the graph, where the murder rate is around 1/100,000 or lower. Countries like Norway, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Iceland, and even Australia (yes, Australia) have relatively high rates of gun ownership and very lows rates of murder.

Here is the same data in an interactive map. Mouse over the country of interest:

Also notice the countries on the far right of the first chart. The dramatic spike in murder rates represent the most violent countries in the world, Jamaica, Honduras, and El Salvador. Normally we never see comparisons of US crime to these countries, but it is an important part of the conversation because those countries contribute large numbers of immigrants to the US. Indeed, 20% of all people born in El Salvador now live in the United States and many of them contribute significantly to our crime rates in gangs like MS-13. Gang and drug-related violence is a significant contributor to gun violence in the US. Mexico, too, is near the far right of the graph and an active guns-for-drugs business between Mexico and the US accounts for a significant portion of our violence. Mexico recently reported its highest murder rate ever, pushing the country further to the right of the graph than is indicated with this dataset. Mexico, by the way, has far stricter gun laws, and far fewer guns, than the United States.

The point of these observations is not to spur a debate about illegal immigration, border security, or any other related topic, but simply to point out the obvious: Large US cities have more in common with Central and South America than major cities in Europe. Comparisons to Central and South American countries are far fairer comparison for the US than are comparisons to Scandinavian countries. In this light, the US looks fantastic, especially the less populous portions of America where murder rates quickly fall between 1-2/100,000. In fact, 70% of Tennessee citizens experience a murder rate comparable to countries like Canada, France, Finland, and Belgium.

That being said, we need to understand how countries which the US is commonly compared to fair in violent crime overall. The violent crime rate in the US in 2016 was 386/100,000. This number includes murders, attempted murders, rapes, assaults, etc. Let’s compare:

  • The US had 1.24 million violent crimes among a population of 323 million in 2016.
  • The UK had 1.3 million violent crimes among a population of 65 million in 2016 and, worse, violent crime in the UK is rising. That’s a rate of 2,000/100,000, or more than five times higher than US. As an example, there were 106,000 rapes (a rate of 163/100,000) compared to 130,000 rapes in the US (a rate of 40/100,000). So, a woman in the UK is more than 4 times as likely to be raped as a woman in the US (usually at knife point but increasingly at gun point as the rate of gun violence, falling in the US, is on the rise in the UK).
  • Canada had a violent crime rate of 1,052/100,000 in 2016, which was 3 times the rate of the US. The rate of sexual assault was 60/100,000, making a woman 50% more likely to be raped in Canada than in the US.
  • In Australia, the sexual assault rate was 95.5/100,000 in 2016, making a woman 2.5x as likely to be raped in Australia as in the US. Property crime and violent crime rates in general are all rising. Solid numbers are difficult because the Australian government doesn’t provide a comparable violent crime rate in the manner that the US, Canada, and the UK do. But the sexual assault rate alone is telling.

These types of data are revealing and force us to ask a more difficult question: Is a violent rape equivalent to homicide? In other words, if an argument could be made that the presence of guns decreases the numbers of rapes and other violent crimes, is that a good thing? Does a woman have the right as a human being to protect herself, even with deadly force, against sexual assault or other personal assaults? The issue is particularly important for women, for whom a gun is often a great equalizer against a male assailant.

In any case, it is canard to talk about homicide only. Canada, the UK, and most European countries are more violent nations than the US. Is this a result of more liberal gun ownership? (More data about these subjects is available here).

How about suicides? Are suicides getting worse? How do we compare to other countries?

Very often, gun violence is made to appear even worse by inflating the numbers of those killed in the US each year by including suicides. For example, Time Magazine claimed in this piece that there were more than 38,000 gun related deaths in the US. Many sources compare US guns deaths of all causes to other countries, not just homicides. But let’s break down the gun death numbers.

In 2016, guns were associated with:

  • 22,018 suicides with a gun (CDC)
  • 11,004 murders with a gun (FBI)
    • 7,105 were handguns
    • 374 were rifles
    • 262 were shotguns
    • 3,263 were unknown gun type (in theory the bulk of these are handguns)
  • 1,091 justifiable homicides (FBI) with guns
  • About 600 accidental deaths occurred with a gun (FBI)

Notice that the number of 38,000 is likely an overestimation, created by double-counting of justifiable homicides with negligent homicides. However, in any event, about 2/3 of those deaths were suicides. When suicide deaths are combined with other gun violence deaths, the implication is that suicide deaths by gun would decline if guns were less available. There is also an implication that gun availability has increased the number of suicides – making suicide part of the “gun epidemic.” The thought is that if a person is considering suicide, the availability of a gun makes them irrationally attempt the act and makes them much more successful than another methods might be, like overdose.

To analyze these issues, we must first understand suicide rates and methods in America.

 

As this graph reveals, suicide rates are increasing in the United States, though they compare reasonably well with rates 60 years ago. In 2015, there were 44,193 suicides in the US. Half of these employed firearms – but half did not. Suffocation was used in 11,000 cases and poisoning in almost 7,000 cases. There is no evidence that the increase in the amount of guns in the US in the last 50 years – more than double the amount today compared to 50 years ago – has impacted suicide rates, nor is there evidence than making guns more scarce would decrease suicide rates or suicide success rates.

Evidence of this comes from comparing suicide rates internationally, particularly in countries were guns are outlawed or are scarce.

Suicide rates are tough to estimate in many nations. For cultural reasons, in some countries, suicides are labeled as accidents (accidental overdose, fall from a roof, etc.) or death by natural causes (especially in countries where routine autopsies don’t occur). So don’t get too bogged down in trying to understand why countries like Brunei and Pakistan have such low suicide rates.

Instead, notice once again that rates of suicide (red line) are inversely related to the amount of guns per person (blue line). Also notice the list of countries that have a higher suicide rate than the US: South Korea, Sri Lanka, Japan, Lithuania, Finland, Estonia, Belgium, Sweden, India, etc. And some of the countries, like Sri Lanka, Japan, South Korea, and Lithuania, have next to no guns.

Here is the same data in an interactive map. Mouse over the country of interest:

These types of international comparisons are tricky and misleading, but one thing is clear: there is no data to indicate that the presence of guns increases the rate of successful suicide and it is also clear that if a person wants to kill herself, she will find a way. Even in the US where there are as many guns as people, half of successful suicides are done without guns. There also doesn’t appear to be a relationship between proclivity to violence and suicide. In the US, suicides are more likely to occur in rural areas than urban, for example. And Japan, which is perhaps the least violent nation in the world, has a very high suicide rate. The higher distribution of suicide in rural America is also what explains claims by the antigun lobby that the rate of gun ownership is correlated with the rate of gun deaths in the US. It is not correlated with gun violence, but rather gun deaths since most gun deaths are suicides and suicides disproportionately occur in rural America where most of the guns are.

Did gun law changes in Australia and other countries make a positive impact on violence rates?

In 1996, at the site of a former prison colony at Port Arthur, Australia, a shooter named Martin Bryant shot 58 people and killed 35. It happened just a few weeks after a mass shooting in Scotland that resulted in 18 fatalities. As a result, both Australia and the UK passed significant gun law reforms in 1996 and 1997. The shooter in Australia used a semiautomatic rifle with a 30-round magazine, so Australian reforms focused on restriction of all semiautomatic rifles and shotguns, as well as pump-action shotguns, and created a strict registry and control (through gun clubs) of all other firearms. In Dunblane, Scotland, pistols were used to kill the 18 victims, so English gun laws were enacted that led to an essential ban on all pistols.

Australia bought back and destroyed over 1 million guns in 1997 and continued to receive significant numbers of guns during so-called “gun amnesties” for years. After another shooting with a pistol in 2002 in Australia, the government made it even harder to own a pistol, requiring, among other things, that owners regularly participate in sports shooting at gun clubs. This led to a significant portion of the remaining honest populating giving up their pistols.

Many who advocate for gun control and gun bans cite Australia as a success story, but serious scientific inquiry has failed to demonstrate a beneficial effect. Research is made difficult because violence and gun-related violence in particular was already falling prior to the gun ban and confiscation (not just in Australia, but worldwide). When these factors are controlled for, there appears to be no impact on the gun ban on violent crime reduction. In fact, the homicide rate stayed the same or increased for six years after the ban, while other violent crimes increased.

Even mass shootings do not appear to have been impacted. While it is true that the number of mass shootings has declined over time (in fact, there have been none), there also have been none in the same time period in New Zealand which did not enact gun reform laws but has similar cultural elements. The only positive effect has been a reduction in suicide by gun, and while suicide rates have been in decline in Australia recently, they are still higher than rates were in the 1970s. Other social and economic issues appear to account for the decline in both suicide and murder rates, which were both already declining prior to the gun ban.

Multiple peer-reviewed studies by Dr. Jeanine Baker and Dr. Samara McPhedran in Australia have confirmed these conclusions. Other studies, of course, disagree, and conclude that the gun ban did have a positive impact, but these types of studies do not employ a methodology that isolates the impact of the gun ban alone versus other factors to account for the already decreasing rates of murder and suicide (and look rather silly when it is realized that the rate of murder actually increased after the gun ban).

Do gun bans limit mass attacks?

Evidence again for this idea is mostly taken from Australia, where no mass shootings have happened since the gun ban. But this is the case also for New Zealand which did not have a ban. Both countries had similar rates of gun mass shootings before and after 1996, but only Australia confiscated guns.

Another thing to consider is that a mass shooting and mass attack must be counted in the same way. Just because the method may not be a gun and is instead a bomb or a truck doesn’t mean that the violence doesn’t count.

In the 20 years prior to the gun ban in England in 1997, there were two mass attacks: a shooting spree in Hungerford in 1987 that killed 16 and injured 15, and the Lockerbie bombing in 1998 that killed 270. In the twenty years since the gun ban, there have been at least five mass attacks: the 2005 London bombings that killed 52 and injured over 700, the 2010 Cumbria shooting that killed 12 and injured 11, the 2017 Westminster attack that killed 6 and injured 49, the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing that killed 23 and injured over 400, and the 2017 London Bridge attack that killed 8 and injured 48. So, a gun ban didn’t change either the rate of gun attacks or mass attacks in general.

In the 20 years since the gun confiscation in Australia, there have been 13 mass killings that have killed 79 and injured another 40 people. In the 20 years before the Port Arthur massacre, there were 14 mass killings, 13 of which involved guns. After Port Arthur, the 13 mass killings involved guns only 5 times. So it would be correct to state that mass attacks with guns declined, but mass attacks did not.

In Canada, gun legislation has all but outlawed handguns after 1998 and required extensive restrictions on long guns. Since then, there have been 19 mass attacks, 13 of which still involved guns. The other 6 involved knives or a crossbow (one man killed three and injured two with a crossbow). In the 20 years before 1998, there had been just 9 mass attacks. Again, this doesn’t indicate that a gun ban had any influence on mass attacks.

France also has very strict gun laws, where there is no individual right to own a firearm. Despite this, the French have had 6 mass attacks in the last 8 years, killing 390 and injuring another 826. These attacks, of course, use trucks, bombs, and guns in some cases to cause significant damage.

Indeed, in country after country we find that mass attacks happen regardless of gun laws. In countries with strict gun laws, attackers often resort to more damaging methods like bombs or trucks. Even in the US, the worse attacks in our history have involved bombs (Oklahoma City) and box cutters (9-11).

There is no evidence that gun bans limit mass attacks or the casualty rates.

Did the assault weapons ban in the United States have a positive impact on violence in the US?

No. Though some argue that it did, there is widespread agreement that it did not. Those who argue that it did make the same incorrect assumption that those who argue for the efficacy of Australia’s ban make: that the already declining rates of violence were attributed to the ban and not other factors.

In 1994, the federal government enacted a 10 year ban that largely affected semiautomatic weapons with detachable magazines. Magazines that held more than ten rounds were made illegal and other features of rifles, like a collapsible stock, were made illegal. Since the ban expired in 2004, we are able to look at overall trends in gun violence and the murder rate before and after the ban. There is little question among legitimate researchers that the ban had little to no impact.

The murder rate in the US, along with all other categories of violent crime, had been falling sharply before the ban was enacted and continued to do so until 2014 despite the ban going away. Detailed research has shown this decline should be attributed to a variety of other factors, including, economic, social, policing, etc. At face value, it is easy to understand why the ban would have no effect. All of the weapons and features that were banned were also grandfathered in. So 30 round magazines, for example, continued to be widely available. They could still be bought and sold. Anyone who desired to own any of the banned weapons easily could. For this reason alone it is nonsensical to argue that the ban had a significant impact. Additionally, the types of weapons banned are rarely used in shootings.

Ironically, the assault weapons ban was instigated by the head of Ruger firearms who was losing business to Glock and other manufacturers. His pistols had smaller magazine capacities as did his rifles. He lobbied every member of Congress to enact the ban to boost his business and hurt Glock and other manufacturers. Keep this fact in mind. Legislators on both sides of the aisle rarely have pure motives.

What types of guns bare the biggest responsibility for gun violence?

This question is directly related to the inefficacy of the “assault weapons” ban in the US and current attempts to restrict ownership of these weapons. We first must understand what types of weapons are most commonly used in gunviolence. One of the limitations in the data is the large number of murders each year where the method is listed as a gun but the type of gun is not explicitly stated. Below is a list of methods of murder in 2016 with the unknown gun numbers corrected according to the normal distribution of other guns in the known data sets and the “assault rifle” category created with the assumption (from reporting) that roughly 1/3 of rifle murders are committed with a gun that fits the AR-15/AR-10/AK category:

The answer to the question is clear: handguns. In 2016, there were 9,863 homicides committed with a handgun, with 364 committed with a shotgun, 348 with a rifle, 186 with other types of guns, and the smallest firearm category was the “assault rifle” group with an estimated 171 murders. This fact is why so many gun-rights advocates are frustrated by what appears to be disingenuous attempts to ban “assault rifles,” which are involved in only about 1% of murders. Handguns, on the other hand, are involved in 65% of murders.

Recall also that guns are only used in about half of suicides, and there is no data that would indicate that so-called assault rifles are used for suicide except in the rarest of cases.

What is an assault rifle?

This question, too, is a source of great confusion. There is no actual, standardized definition of an assault rifle. Many people believe that a gun like an AR-15 is a military grade weapon. It is not, and AR-15s are not and have never been a military service weapon. Civilians cannot buy military rifles. Military rifles share a visual appearance with these consumer guns, but the mechanics are different. Military rifles have a selector switch that allows them to be fired in one of three configurations: fully automatic (pull the trigger once and it keeps firing until it runs out of ammunition or the trigger is released); semi-automatic (pull the trigger each time to fire one bullet); and burst (pull the trigger once and three rounds are fired). Of these, the last is likely the most lethal form. Civilian rifles can fire only in semi-automatic mode, which means the trigger must be pulled each time a round is fired. They’re not machine guns.

The bulk of firearms in America are semiautomatic. Almost all pistols and revolvers are semiautomatic. The majority of rifles are semiautomatic, and there are shotguns also available that are semiautomatic. Each fires a projectile each time the trigger is pulled.

A small minority of guns require a reloading procedure before repeat firing, like a pump shotgun or a lever action rifle or some cowboy type, single action revolvers.

Another feature to be considered might be removable magazines, and how many rounds each magazine holds. The 1994 ban limited magazine capacity to just 10 rounds. Many rifles will accept magazines that hold anywhere from 5 to 30 rounds. Greater capacity magazines exist, but are seldom used because they are very unreliable.

It’s hard to tell the difference between an AR-15 and a Ruger Mini 14:

 

 

These guns are basically the same weapon, but to those who are not experienced with guns, the one of the bottom looks more menacing or deadly. The truth is, both fire the same bullet and both take detachable magazines that come in various capacities. Most rifles sold today are semiautomatic. Bolt action rifles require a movement between firing each shot, but on the whole are deadlier, with more precision and larger, more powerful ammunition. In 1966, Charles Whitman shot and killed 14 people and injured 31 others at the University of Texas, Austin, using a bolt action hunting rifle and a semiautomatic rifle with ten round magazines.

Would limiting magazine size make a difference?

The obvious answer to this is also no, primarily because there are already ten of millions of the high-capacity magazines in existence. We don’t know the exact numbers, but for every rifle that accepts them it is not unreasonable to think that 10 high capacity magazines exist. The previous 1994 ban encouraged this. Since there was no confiscation or ban on existing magazines, companies made as many as they possibly could before the ban went into effect and flooded the market. It’s very likely that if not a single additional magazine were ever made that anyone who wanted one could find plenty.

That being said, there are currently eight states that ban high capacity magazines: Connecticut, New York, Maryland, Colorado, California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. There is no evidence in any of those states that the bans have impacted crime or murder rates. California has had a ban for many years and today, for all its many strict gun laws, has 5 of the 30 cities with the highest murder and violent crime rates in the US.

Apart from the availability of hundreds of millions of high capacity magazines already in existence, the truth is having smaller capacity magazines means next to nothing to an experienced shooter. An experienced shooter can change a magazine in under 1 second, so to fire ninety rounds with nine 10-round magazines versus three 30-round magazines is practically a difference of only about 7 seconds.

Do guns have any positive impact on our society? Or, why do we need guns?

Apart from Second Amendment issues, this is perhaps the most important question. Everything we do in life has both risks and benefits. There were 37,461 people killed in car accidents in 2016, but virtually no one is in favor of limiting car ownership. That’s because, while they understand there is a risk to driving a car, they also see the reward or the upside for having cars. Many of those same people may see no upside in owning a gun. It’s also worth noting that many people, perhaps most people, buy more dangerous cars than they need in order to get from Point A to Point B. If you need a car to go to work, it doesn’t (legally) need to go more than 70 mph, or accelerate from 0-60 mph quicker than, say, 20 seconds; yet, virtually every car in existence is capable of much, much more than what is required or than is even legal. Again, few complain about the fact that cars have more than about 50 hp, except perhaps environmentalists. Even those folks are excited to drive a Tesla, which has very impressive performance and acceleration (and a huge carbon footprint), even though all that performance isn’t necessary and increases the risk of accidents and death substantially as it encourages risky driving.

Why does no one complain about cars the way they complain about guns? Because they understand the utility of cars and accept the risk. So is there utility in guns that make the risk worthwhile?

I will not spend much time discussing leisure, sport, and hunting activities associated with guns. Discussion of these issues is always a nonstarter and meaningless to the gun debate.

Rather, we need to know if guns serve a protective purpose, either through their use as a means of self defense or as a crime deterrent. This type of data is hard to gather and hard to analyze. It’s easy to say that a criminal used a gun to commit a crime or to murder someone; it’s difficult to know how many times a criminal didn’t attack or commit violence against a person for fear that that person might be armed. Because of this difficulty, many antigun researchers and groups quickly dismiss the idea that a gun is ever used in such a way or serves such a purpose. Nevertheless, there are some data, mostly based on surveys, that might help answer this question.

In 2013, at the request of the Obama administration in response to the Sandy Hook massacre, scientists and researchers from the National Academy of Science produced a document entitled Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence. The study was commissioned to determine what was already known about gun violence by analyzing and summarizing existing literature and to suggest priorities for future research to answer open questions.

In this analysis, the authors state:

Defensive use of guns by crime victims is a common occurrence, although the exact number remains disputed (Cook and Ludwig, 1996; Kleck, 2001a). Almost all national survey estimates indicate that defensive gun uses by victims are at least as common as offensive uses by criminals, with estimates of annual uses ranging from about 500,000 to more than 3 million (Kleck, 2001a), in the context of about 300,000 violent crimes involving firearms in 2008 (BJS, 2010).

In other words, guns are used in association with a violent crime about 300,000 times per year, but they may be used to prevent up to ten times as many crimes. The low reliable estimate for defensive use of guns is still almost double that of criminal use. These types of estimates are derived from surveys, and deterrent use of a gun is not often reported to the police and certainly not to federal agencies. In other words, brandishing a gun to a potential carjacker, mugger, or rapist (who then runs away) is not often reported to police, so we don’t know how many times an action like that prevents a crime other than asking people in surveys. We certainly do not know how many times a criminal picks a different target than one whom he assumes is armed. These actions may not have a direct effect in reducing crime (because the criminal may choose a different target and commit the crime anyway) but it does have a net effect of reducing crime for a citizen who elects to protect herself.

One of the most cited studies of this subject prior to the National Academy of Science report was this study from 1995. They reported that at least 92% of people who used a gun for self-defense did not use it to injure the assailant. Crime rates were higher in 1995 than today, but their large study estimated that guns were used defensively over 2.1 millions times each year. 

But isn’t the gun just as likely to be used against the innocent citizen by the criminal? We hear this a lot from the antigun lobby, that a gun owned by a citizen is more likely to harm himself than a potential criminal. In a sense this may be true, because most of the time the citizen doesn’t actually use the gun against the criminal; the criminal just runs away. But when a gun is used by a victim, the authors of the National Academy of Science study tell us this:

Studies that directly assessed the effect of actual defensive uses of guns (i.e., incidents in which a gun was “used” by the crime victim in the sense of attacking or threatening an offender) have found consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies.

In other words, if you are a potential victim, you are much better off having a gun than pepper spray, tasers, karate, or retreat. A 120 pound woman up against a 200 pound male rapist is much more likely to be unharmed if she has a gun than if she does not.

The answer to this question is uncertain only because we don’t know the magnitude of effect with clarity, but we do know based on available data that guns are a net benefit to those who own them for personal protection and guns prevent anywhere from 2-10x as many crimes from occurring as the number of crimes that are committed with them.

What does the Second Amendment mean? Why was it written? Doesn’t it just apply to militia? Isn’t it outmoded?

Opinions on the Second Amendment are as numerous as there are laws colleges. Let’s recall what it says:

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.

The first draft of the Amendment, written by James Madison, read:

The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.

Today, there are two main schools of thought regarding the Second Amendment:

  1. The Second Amendment grants an individual right to bear arms to citizens (individualist argument)
  2. The Second Amendment grants a right to states to arm their militias (collectivist argument)

Most modern scholars and the modern Supreme Court interpretation favor the individualist argument, that is, that the Constitution grants an individual right to each citizen to bear arms, and that that right should not be infringed. Controversy arises, however, because the collectivist argument was dominant and almost unchallenged from about 1870 to 1970. This fact is used by the antigun lobby and antigun scholars to argue that the individual right to bear arms is a relatively modern idea, not endorsed by the framers of the Constitution.

In fact, the first three important Supreme Court cases relative to the Second Amendment all seemed to favor the collectivist argument. Those cases were decided in 1876, 1886, and 1939. But the antigun lobby don’t often discuss why those cases argued against an individual right to bear arms, and they also usually ignore the first 100 years of American history (where no Supreme Court case was needed to understand the Second Amendment).

Let’s try to understand how the founders thought by looking at their own words.

A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined…

– George Washington, First Annual Address, to both House of Congress, January 8, 1790

No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.

– Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Constitution, Draft 1, 1776

I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.

– Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Madison, January 30, 1787

What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance. Let them take arms.

– Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Madison, December 20, 1787

The laws that forbid the carrying of arms are laws of such a nature. They disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes…. Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man.

– Thomas Jefferson, Commonplace Book (quoting 18th century criminologist Cesare Beccaria), 1774-1776

A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercises, I advise the gun. While this gives moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be your constant companion of your walks.

– Thomas Jefferson, letter to Peter Carr, August 19, 1785

The Constitution of most of our states (and of the United States) assert that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves; that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed.

– Thomas Jefferson, letter to to John Cartwright, 5 June 1824

On every occasion [of Constitutional interpretation] let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying [to force] what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, [instead let us] conform to the probable one in which it was passed.

– Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Johnson, 12 June 1823

They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

– Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759

To disarm the people…is the most effectual way to enslave them.

– George Mason, referencing advice given to the British Parliament by Pennsylvania governor Sir William Keith, The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adooption of the Federal Constitution, June 14, 1788

I ask who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officers.

– George Mason, Address to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 4, 1788

Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed, as they are in almost every country in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops.

– Noah Webster, An Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution, October 10, 1787

Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of.

– James Madison, Federalist No. 46, January 29, 1788

The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the best and most natural defense of a free country.

– James Madison, I Annals of Congress 434, June 8, 1789

…the ultimate authority, wherever the derivative may be found, resides in the people alone…

– James Madison, Federalist No. 46, January 29, 1788

Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.

– William Pitt (the Younger), Speech in the House of Commons, November 18, 1783

A militia when properly formed are in fact the people themselves…and include, according to the past and general usage of the states, all men capable of bearing arms…  To preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms, and be taught alike, especially when young, how to use them.

– Richard Henry Lee, Federal Farmer No. 18, January 25, 1788

Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are ruined…. The great object is that every man be armed. Everyone who is able might have a gun.

– Patrick Henry, Speech to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 5, 1778

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. Amendments to C. U. S. Art. 4. This may be considered as the true palladium of liberty … The right of self defence is the first law of nature: in most governments it has been the study of rulers to confine this right within the narrowest limits possible. Wherever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any colour or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction. In England, the people have been disarmed, generally, under the specious pretext of preserving the game: a never failing lure to bring over the landed aristocracy to support any measure, under that mask, though calculated for very different purposes. True it is, their bill of rights seems at first view to counteract this policy: but the right of bearing arms is confined to protestants, and the words suitable to their condition and degree, have been interpreted to authorise the prohibition of keeping a gun or other engine for the destruction of game, to any farmer, or inferior tradesman, or other person not qualified to kill game. So that not one man in five hundred can keep a gun in his house without being subject to a penalty.

– St. George Tucker, Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1803

The supposed quietude of a good man allures the ruffian; while on the other hand, arms, like law, discourage and keep the invader and the plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property. The balance of power is the scale of peace. The same balance would be preserved were all the world destitute of arms, for all would be alike; but since some will not, others dare not lay them aside. And while a single nation refuses to lay them down, it is proper that all should keep them up. Horrid mischief would ensue were one-half the world deprived of the use of them; for while avarice and ambition have a place in the heart of man, the weak will become a prey to the strong. The history of every age and nation establishes these truths, and facts need but little arguments when they prove themselves.

– Thomas Paine, Thoughts on Defensive War in Pennsylvania Magazine, July 1775

The Constitution shall never be construed to prevent the people of the United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms.

– Samuel Adams, Massachusetts Ratifying Convention, 1788

The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.

– Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, 1833

What, Sir, is the use of a militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty …. Whenever Governments mean to invade the rights and liberties of the people, they always attempt to destroy the militia, in order to raise an army upon their ruins.

– Rep. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, I Annals of Congress 750, August 17, 1789

For it is a truth, which the experience of ages has attested, that the people are always most in danger when the means of injuring their rights are in the possession of those of whom they entertain the least suspicion.

– Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 25, December 21, 1787

If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no resource left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government, and which against the usurpations of the national rulers, may be exerted with infinitely better prospect of success than against those of the rulers of an individual state. In a single state, if the persons entrusted with supreme power become usurpers, the different parcels, subdivisions, or districts of which it consists, having no distinct government in each, can take no regular measures for defense. The citizens must rush tumultuously to arms, without concert, without system, without resource; except in their courage and despair.

– Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 28

If circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens. This appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it, if it should exist.

– Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 28, January 10, 1788

As civil rulers, not having their duty to the people before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as the military forces which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the article in their right to keep and bear their private arms.

– Tench Coxe, Philadelphia Federal Gazette, June 18, 1789

This collection of quotes makes a few things unambiguously clear about what the founders and framers intended:

  1. The right to bear arms was an individual, unalienable right, not a privilege granted by government.
  2. The right was absolute and existed both because all men had a natural right to protect themselves from all who might threaten them, including other citizens, foreign powers, or tyrants in their own government (this was, after all, a generation who rebelled against their own government).
  3. The militia is the people, e.g., any citizen who could physically bear an arm.
  4. This right, enshrined in the Second Amendment, was fundamental and was different from all other nations and preexisting laws in the world (e.g., traditional English law).

So, what happened? How do antigun scholars today argue that the Supreme Court, from its earliest times, did not interpret the Second Amendment as conferring an individual right until the 1980s? Well, quite simply, they lie. The Supreme Court first gave an opinion on the Second Amendment in the Dred Scott case in 1857. That case famously held that African Americans had no legal standing under the Constitution and were not citizens. While discussing that decision, the Court stated that if African Americans were to be citizens,

It would give to persons of the negro race, who were recognised as citizens in any one State of the Union, the right…to keep and carry arms wherever they went.

Then, the Civil War happened and the Constitution was amended to grant African Americans citizenship. Soon, in response to this, a case came before the Supreme Court that challenged the Second Amendment. This case, United States v. Cruikshank in 1876, is the first case usually discussed by antigun advocates who argue for the collectivist argument. However, they usually gloss over the context of this decision. In the case, the Court decided that individual states could make laws as they chose that would lead to the disenfranchisement of blacks, and that’s what happened. The same Court that didn’t want blacks to own guns in 1857 because they were not considered citizens found a new way to prevent blacks from owning guns after they became citizens by deciding that the Second Amendment did not give all citizens a right to own guns. Other basic civil liberties (like the right to vote) were also done away with. It is more than ironic that this case, designed to disallow the constitutional rights of African Americans, is today used by the antigun lobby to argue that that’s what the founders intended.

After the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s, these methods of disenfranchisement of blacks went away and so too did the collective interpretation of the Second Amendment (and many other amendments). Rights are rights, and they are extended to all citizens, just as the founders intended and just as the Court stated in Dred Scott when blacks were not considered citizens.

Yes, it was all a lie meant to deny rights to blacks.

Judge Thomas Cooley, the most prominent constitutional scholar of the 19th century, stated in 1880,

It might be supposed from the phraseology of this provision that the right to keep and bear arms was only guaranteed to the militia; but this would be an interpretation not warranted by the intent. The militia, as has been elsewhere explained, consists of those persons who, under the law, are liable to the performance of military duty, and are officered and enrolled for service when called upon. But the law may make provision for the enrollment of all who are fit to perform military duty, or of a small number only, or it may wholly omit to make any provision at all; and if the right were limited to those enrolled, the purpose of this guaranty might be defeated altogether by the action or neglect to act of the government it was meant to hold in check. The meaning of the provision undoubtedly is, that the people, from whom the militia must be taken, shall have the right to keep and bear arms; and they need no permission or regulation of law for the purpose.

So what limitations are reasonable? 

Currently, the law of the land is defined by the Heller decision from 2010:

Before addressing the verbs “keep” and “bear,” we interpret their object: “Arms.” The term was applied, then as now, to weapons that were not specifically designed for military use and were not employed in a military capacity. Thus, the most natural reading of “keep Arms” in the Second Amendment is to “have weapons.” At the time of the founding, as now, to “bear” meant to “carry.” In numerous instances, “bear arms” was unambiguously used to refer to the carrying of weapons outside of an organized militia. Nine state constitutional provisions written in the 18th century or the first two decades of the 19th, which enshrined a right of citizens “bear arms in defense of themselves and the state” again, in the most analogous linguistic context – that “bear arms” was not limited to the carrying of arms in a militia. The phrase “bear Arms” also had at the time of the founding an idiomatic meaning that was significantly different from its natural meaning: “to serve as a soldier, do military service, fight” or “to wage war.” But it unequivocally bore that idiomatic meaning only when followed by the preposition “against,”. Every example given by petitioners’ amici for the idiomatic meaning of “bear arms” from the founding period either includes the preposition “against” or is not clearly idiomatic. In any event, the meaning of “bear arms” that petitioners and Justice Stevens propose is not even the (sometimes) idiomatic meaning. Rather, they manufacture a hybrid definition, whereby “bear arms” connotes the actual carrying of arms (and therefore is not really an idiom) but only in the service of an organized militia. No dictionary has ever adopted that definition, and we have been apprised of no source that indicates that it carried that meaning at the time of the founding. Worse still, the phrase “keep and bear Arms” would be incoherent. The word “Arms” would have two different meanings at once: “weapons” (as the object of “keep”) and (as the object of “bear”) one-half of an idiom. It would be rather like saying “He filled and kicked the bucket” to mean “He filled the bucket and died.”

Today, there are no guns sold to civilians that were specifically designed for military use, including the AR-15. Recall, the military weapon fires fully automatically. Instead, the AR-15 was specifically limited and designed for civilian use. The Heller interpretation makes clear that rocket lauchers, tanks, fighter jets, flame throwers, etc. should not been in the civilian realm. And they are not.

What about background checks or limitations on who can own a gun? I think Samuel Adams gave us the intent of the founders when he said “The Constitution shall never be construed to prevent the people of the United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms.” A peaceable citizen is undoubtedly one who has is not a felon, not living here illegally, and mentally sound. Background checks that ensure that the purchaser or possessor of a gun meet those basic standards make sense and seem to be supported by the principles envisioned by our founding fathers.

 

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