Over 1.2 million people participated in the March for Our Lives events across the US on the weekend around March 24, 2018, the month anniversary of the event that inspired this movement, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. This turnout stresses the urgency of addressing violence in America. What has changed recently or not so recently that has created this eruption of emotion and political activism on gun control? In abstraction, the problem of restricting gun ownership is a philosophical debate between hunters or self-defense enthusiasts, and pacifists or those who feel uncomfortable or threatened by the idea of gun possession. Politicians simplify the matter as one that assures Republicans the vote in some rural areas, where apparently the right to own guns outweighs other issues at the polls. The statistical analysis below shows some surprising realities that point to some otherwise unexpected potential solutions.
Polls have shown that the percentage of the population that’s armed has been dropping, from 49% had a gun/revolver in 1973 to 34% in 2012. Only 29% of those surveyed actually owned (versus their spouse or another household member) the gun in 1980 versus just 22% in 2012 (General Social Survey). If these numbers were the whole story, it is very likely America would have outlawed gun-ownership by now, as 22% of a population is below the rate needed to keep any amendment alive.
Older, white men who are married with children, have little education, while living in rural areas of the Midwest and South are most likely to own guns (Pew Research Center). While women own fewer guns, they use guns to defend themselves against sexual abuse around 200,000 times annually. The top-most reasons for gun ownership has shifted from hunting (55%) to protection (42%) for men between 1999 and 2013. If guns are intended primarily for protection, one of their intended buyers are the victims of mass shootings who might respond to the threat of future aggression by arming themselves. In a way, Americans at large have been threatened into gun ownership for protection by news of these highly publicized mass shootings.
Only 51-4% of Americans believe that stricter gun control laws (such as bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips) would reduce accidental or homicidal shootings. This statistic shows that this topic is emotionally rather than logically charged. How can anybody logically argue that a ban on assault-style, high-capacity weapons that are most frequently used in mass shootings would not reduce shootings? Well, to play the Devil’s Advocate, if all teachers had assault, high-capacity automatic weapons in their desks, they might be able to engage in a shootout with an assailant thereby preventing some deaths. But, one can also imagine that all school children would be able to break into these desks and access these killer weapons in this scenario, and suddenly they’d have access to mass-murder whereas before they had none.
Currently, Americans own (in millions) 310 private firearms (not counting illegal, unregistered ownership) for a population of 325.7, while Russians own 12.75 for 119.9 people, Australians 3.15 for 24.13, and Brits 2.37 for 65.64. Americans own 48% of all civilian-owned guns in the world (Congressional Research Service, 2012). Counterintuitively, the U.S. does not have the highest murder rate in the world; this rate has started to rise slightly since 2014, but it is nearly the same as it was back in 1960, at 5 out of 100,000 people, having seen a peak of 10 in 1980. By contrast, Honduras has the highest rate at 91.6 homicides. United Kingdom is also high on this scale, with 2,034 violent crimes out of 100,000 people (Telegraph). On the other hand, all gun-related deaths (homicides, suicides etc.) in America are higher than dozens of other high-income countries (as opposed to the low-income countries that lead with the most murders as well as gun crimes). 64% of homicides in America in 2016 were carried out with a gun, as opposed to only 4.5% in England and Wales (FBI).
One curious number that might explain why America’s homicide numbers are suspiciously low for the number of guns owned is that Americans are 80X more likely to claim self-defense after a shooting than that it was an accident, a homicide or a suicide. If one multiplies the above American murder rate of 5 by 80X = 400; this rate if 4X higher than the country with the reported highest murder rate in the world, Honduras (with only 91.6). Are the police officers and courts in Honduras 80X less likely to accept a self-defense claim?
Murders by firearms (as opposed to other types of weapons) are at an all-time high of nearly 75% in contrast with closer to 50% in 1960. Meanwhile, all categories of violent and property crime (murder, rape, robbery, assault, theft) have dropped by 40-64% between 1991 and 2016. One of the most drastic negative shifts in the U.S. from 1960 to the present is that narcotics arrests have climbed from a few thousand to 1.57 million in 2016 (FBI). How can property and violent crime be dropping while the narcotic arrests are skyrocketing? One possibility is that the most vulnerable, poorest and most drug-impacted Americans who might have continued all sorts of criminal acts have been imprisoned.
The numbers that are most relevant to the March for Our Lives is that the U.S. has been the sight of 31% of all global mass shooters from 1966 to 2012, with Russia a distant third (Lankford, University of Alabama). Mass shootings make up a very small percentage of all gun-related deaths: in 2014, 14 people died in mass shootings, whereas 33,595 people died from various other gun-related causes such as homicide of fewer than three people or suicide (CDC/Mother Jones). The number and intensity of the protesters participating in this recent March is in part due to the fact that shootings are becoming deadlier over time (as access to extreme weapons becomes easier). The 2017 Las Vegas shooting saw 58 killed, and the 2016 Orlando shooting saw 49 deaths; these top the list of the deadliest US shootings since 1991 (FBI). These dramatic violent events alert the public to the problem, but laws that might ban semi-automatic or otherwise high-powered weapons might not make much of a dent in the statistics at large as more than half of US murders are carried out with handguns, with rifles and shotguns making up relatively tiny percentages (FBI). Unless somebody is intent on a mass shooting, murdering with an enormous, cumbersome weapon is impractical. Alternatively, a ban on trading and sales of handguns can save the vast majority of those who die from gun violence in America.
Another proposal that has been tested in the polls is if teachers should carry guns with them to school, a notion that is supported by around 70% of Republicans, and under 30% of Democrats (Pew Research Center). Trump and others haven taken this further, suggesting that teachers should be required to carry guns. Guns were allowed on the campuses of University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where I last taught. I did not see a weapon in the year I was there, but the idea that my students might have concealed weapons on them added to my stress. There is a lot of harassment and threats that teachers face and carrying a weapon for defense is likely to escalate some of these tense situations.
One possible explanation for the discrepancy between American gun violence and gun ownership statistics is that 3% of Americans own half of the guns, at rates of 8-140 guns per owner (“The Stock and Flow of US Firearms”: Harvard/ Northeastern University). While purchasing a few fancy guns for a display might be reasonable, anybody who owns 140 guns is likely to be reporting them as lost or stolen and reselling them. One way to measure this theory is through statistics on AFT investigations into gun trafficking pathways; they’ve found that 1,078 or 41.3% of the cases they investigated involved “firearms diverted by straw purchaser or straw purchasing ring,” 27.1% of firearms came from “unregulated private sellers,” 14% from “prohibited persons lying and buying firearms,” 13% “stolen from residence or vehicle,” and there were many other less likely possibilities. Several of these options involve legal gun owners diverting their purchases: private sellers can sell their legal gun to potential murders; somebody can also sell their gun and then report it as stolen; a permitted owner can also sell guns without paperwork at gun shows; or they can be sold to pawnbrokers, through wanted ads, in gun magazines, or openly on the internet, or on the dark web (“Interpreting the Empirical Evidence on Illegal Gun Market Dynamics”: Journal of Urban Health).
The suspicious numbers on illegal gun trading make it necessary to look into gun manufacturing and sales for clues as to the relative size of the black markets. ATF reports that 134,284,120 guns were manufactured in the US between 1986 and 2014, which is a bit less than half of America’s current gun ownership. Some guns have been imported into the U.S. from abroad, while other guns were manufactured before 1986. The number of guns manufactured in the U.S. annually has been climbing nearly each year since around 2001. 10,847,792 were made in 2013; only 4% of these were legally exported to other countries that year. All these gun sales make the US guns and ammunitions manufacturers around $1.5 billion in profit (IBIS World), but they cost the American public $229 billion in losses due to gun violence in 2012 (Mother Jones). In other words, the benefit to the manufacturers is a fraction of the cost for the general public. If the NRA was entirely funded by the firearm manufacturers, it would not be a significant lobbying force on Capitol Hill because their profits could not afford the current payouts to politicians in behalf of gun ownership. So, who is benefiting from these policies?
A much larger profit is made by the U.S. government, as it makes from half to a third of the world’s weapons sales, with around $46 billion in export sales in 2015; over time, America has made $50 billion from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia alone; the U.S. is supplying, indiscriminately, Eastern and Western Europe, as well as in other regions with some of the deadliest conflicts (Mother Jones). The reasons for weapons ownership internationally is similar to personal motivations: countries are intimidated into warfare by perceived or real threats from their neighbors. The business of selling the tools that allow for massive armed conflicts is left to countries who can convince their citizens that the right to bear arms is more important than potential lives lost due to such ownership.
The federal Second Amendment allows for the right to keep and bear arms, but these rights are limited in a variety of different ways at the state level. Most states allow all law-abiding people to carry and conceal firearms with a permit (Texas). Twelve states have no permit requirement (Alaska). In eight states (California, New York), the rights to carry are very restricted, making it likely a permit application will be rejected. Gun laws restrict fugitives, felons with sentences over a year or those charged even with simple controlled substance (marijuana) possessions, the mentally ill, those with restraining orders, citizenship renouncers, dishonorably discharged military members, and illegal immigrants. The sale of shotguns, rifles, machine guns, and silencers is regulated by the National Firearms Act of 1934. Semi-automatic weapons are legal in most of the states. The participants in March for Our Lives are arguing for universal background checks, a ban on assault-style weapons, a federal database that would track gun sales, prohibitions for the mentally ill, and barring no-fly list members. Some of these measures are already in place, but not on the national level. Even the leaders of this movement, the kids who survived the Florida shooting, are not arguing to abolish the right to bear arms, just for minor adjustments to the code that would make mass shootings less likely.
As you can see from the statistics above, there are some intricate changes that are needed that have not been proposed. Should America stop selling weapons to foreign governments? Should Americans be banned from purchasing more than a single weapon (why would any hunter or woman in need of protection from assault need more than one gun, or two if somebody is being accosted by a gang and can shoot with both hands)? Should the American Parties be banned from using gun control in their campaigns or to raise funds from lobbyists (leaving this issue to the popular vote within states or nationally)? Is Trump concealing a weapon, and if not, why is he encouraging teachers to do so? Is a ban on handguns more urgent than a ban on the less utilized assault weapons? Are more stringent investigations into self-defense claims needed to weed out those who use this as an excuse for murder? Would a much higher percentage of Americans believe in gun control if the issue was presented in logical rather than emotional terms? If 78% of Americans do not own a gun, why would they want their neighbor to own a gun? When these questions are answered, we will start moving closer to a solution to the gun problem.