October 5, 2013
Recently, Americans witnessed another mass shooting, this time at the Washington Navy Yard in the nation’s capital. Thirteen people were killed and another 14 were injured. The shooter was well-armed, with among other guns, an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle. He also had a history of violent behavior and mental illness. Such incidents bring the debate over gun control back into the spotlight, and raises the questions of why does this happen, and what can we do about it.
One of the reasons there is so much gun violence might simply be the large number of weapons owned by Americans. The Harvard Injury Control Research Center assessed the literature on guns and homicide and found that there is substantial evidence that more guns means more murders. A more recent study of gun violence in the United States corroborated this finding. The study was conducted by Professor Michael Siegel at Boston University and two coauthors, and published in the American Journal of Public Health.
Siegel and his colleagues compiled data on firearm homicides from all 50 states from 1981-2010 to see whether they could find any relationship between changes in gun ownership and murders using guns over time. The authors employed the largest-ever number of statistical controls for variables in this kind of gun study: age, gender, race/ethnicity, urbanization, poverty, unemployment, income, education, income inequality, divorce rate, alcohol use, violent crime rate, nonviolent crime rate, hate crime rate, number of hunting licenses, age-adjusted non-firearm homicide rate, incarceration rate, and suicide rate were all taken into account. The conclusion: widespread American gun ownership is helping fuel America’s gun violence epidemic.
The U.S. stands out in the sheer number of guns owned by its citizens. According to the Small Arms Survey, the estimated total number of guns held by U.S. civilians is 270 million, or 88.9 firearms per 100 people. The country with the second-most guns is India, with an estimated 46 million guns in private hands, or about four firearms for every 100 people. The U.S., with 4.5 percent of the world population, accounts for about 40 percent of the planet’s civilian firearms.
Political gridlock and a deepening political divide in the U.S. almost assures that there will be no legislative solution anytime soon. While mass shootings usually evoke a large public outcry at the time of their occurrence, public pressure for comprehensive gun control legislation wanes over time and political will seems to melt under the relentless lobbying of the National Rifle Association. Although there is often sustained support for specific types of legislation, e.g., preventing those with a history of mental illness from owning guns, to date such efforts have generally not resulted in new gun laws.
The good news in this otherwise gloomy prospect is that statistics show that gun ownership and violence overall are declining in the United States, though both are significantly higher on a per capita basis than in other developed countries. Perhaps the ultimate resolution lies in the story those numbers tell. The problem of gun violence will dminish as the culture of guns continues to wane and guns become meaningless relics of the American imagination.