The United States of Gun Violence

By Penny Smith

Another week, another mass shooting. Ho Hum. The kids should have been “carrying” themselves or at least the teachers should be armed. That’s the solution. Strap a gun on everyone and then, the argument goes, it would be more than the bad guys who have guns. They wouldn’t win any more. (Forget that the empirical research on gun possession and use of guns for self-protection debunks that assertion. Indeed, in home intrusions, it’s the intruder who ends up with the house firearm 50% of the time.)

Back in the day we rode cars without seat belts. There were 70 plus MPH speed limits, often on two lane roads. Children rode in front seats. In Texas, where I got my first driver’s license, you could operate a car on the public highways at age 14. There were no air bags.

Then someone noticed the United States had a lot of accidents and those accidents resulted in a bunch of dead and injured people. The solution: make cars safer. Today there are few objections to compulsory seat belts. We’re all familiar with “Click It or Ticket” campaigns. Speed limits have come down. There’s an array of children’s seats and young people ride almost universally in the back. Cars are constantly being safety-tested and upgraded.

Death diminished. Problem addressed. Cue applause.

We have universal registration for automobiles. We also have universal insurance. To legally operate a vehicle, you must demonstrate that you know the rules of the road and have the ability to drive safely.

We tackled car accidents like the public health hazard it was. The same, however, cannot be said about how we tackle gun deaths.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, here are recent statistics to know and love about guns and the United States:

  • we ranked 9th on a 2016 index of socioeconomic factors for success (income per person and average education level, among other things), but we rank 31st in gun violence;
  • of the two dozen highest income countries, 80% of gun deaths happen in only one nation, the United States, and a whopping 87% of all children, ages 0-14, that are killed by guns lived in that same one nation;
  • most gun violence involves fewer than four victims (FBI speak for a certified mass shooting); in the United States mass shootings tripled between 2011 and 2015. In that latter year there were 330 such events, resulting in death for 367 people and injuries for an additional 1,317. There have been 1,500 mass shootings since Sandy Hook (2012 – 2017). There is, on average, more than one mass shooting death per day here;
  • more Americans have been killed by guns in this country since 1968 than Americans have ever been killed in all the wars in which we fought;
  • in 2015 gun violence cost the United States $229 billion dollars or $700 per gun;
  • we currently have around 4.4% of the world’s population, but 42% of the world’s guns. Sixty-six percent of gun owners have multiple firearms;
  • states that have more guns, have more gun deaths. That tendency is true not simply in states, but in countries. More guns mean more deaths.
  • Not unsurprisingly, states with the most guns also report the most suicides. Although only 7.4% of people who attempted suicide by poison were successful; 96.5% who attempted suicide by gun succeeded. Nearly 50% of all suicides involved a gun;
  • states with tighter gun control laws have fewer gun deaths;
  • there is no empirical evidence that more guns deter crime;
  • A Norwegian mass murderer (Utoya, youth camp, 2011) was able to purchase his semi-automatic gun in Norway, but he was prevented from purchasing the high-capacity clips that facilitate killing a bunch of people in a short amount of time. However, he could and did get them from (surprise, surprise) us.
  • since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson (August, 2014), police have used guns to kill an additional 2,902 people as of May, 2017. The more guns a state has, the more likely police are to be killed in homicides;
  • interestingly, the United States does not have more crime than other developed countries, but the crime we have is way more lethal – “A New Yorker is just as likely to be robbed as a Londoner … but the New Yorker is 54 times more likely to be killed in the process;”

 In 2000 29% of Americans supported protecting gun rights, whereas 66% believed in some form of gun control. In 2017 51% believed in some form of gun control; 47% wanted to protect ownership rights. Although more and more Americans advocate gun rights, most Americans also support specific gun regulations:

PROPOSED REGULATION Democrats Republicans
(percentages in favor of the following)  Or left-leaning  Or right-leaning
Preventing mentally ill from purchasing guns 89% 89%
Barring no-fly list people from buying guns 85% 82%
Background checks for private purchases or gun shows 90% 77%
Banning assault-style weapons 80% 54%
Creating federal database to track gun sales 84% 56%
Banning high-capacity magazines 79% 47%
Allowing concealed carry in more places 26% 72%
Allowing school officials to carry guns in school 26% 69%
Shortening waiting times to buy guns 25% 51%
Allowing concealed carry without a permit 10% 30%
Survey conducted March, April, 2017
Pew Research Center

One of the first things we probably should do to address the obvious danger of gun violence in the United States is to study it. But in 1996 a GOP majority Congress planned to eliminate funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unless it stopped doing research on gun injuries and deaths. They were responding to a National Rifle Association accusation that the CDC had gotten into the gun control business. So, the CDC stopped considering firearms a public health issue. Congress has annually continued to link a loss of funds with gun violence research, effectively stalling even gathering information on the nature of the problem.

Every time we have a mass shooting some members of Congress say its time to consider better gun control and others, usually aided by the NRA, say we don’t need any new gun control laws. As Governor Matt Bevin (R-Kentucky) tweeted after the Las Vegas mass shooting, “You can’t regulate evil.”

Australia had 13 mass shootings between 1979 and 1996. In 1996 the government implemented tough gun control laws. Since that date the rate of gun suicides and homicides decreased and there have been no mass shootings. None. Nada. Looks like you might be able to regulate evil, or maybe we are inherently more evil than the rest of the world.

Following Sandy Hook, Dan Hodges, a British journalist, posted on Twitter that “once America decided killing children was bearable … [the gun control debate] was over” in our country.

True? It just might be.

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