The Gun Debate (2014) conveys a clear picture of how firearms are bought, sold, used, and policed in the US. It lists and fact-checks a number of key arguments used by both pro and anti-gun campaigners in the ongoing debate about the parameters of gun control across the country.
Politics, Society and Culture, Social Sciences, Civil Rights, Constitutional Law
Introduction: Get informed about gun control.
In the wake of every incident of gun violence in the United States, voices from either side of the gun debate move to the center of the national conversation. Advocates for gun control point out that the scale and frequency of these incidents is unparalleled. No other first-world nation suffers attacks like these so regularly. A lack of legislation around firearms, they say, is to blame – and tighter controls are the only solution.
Meanwhile, the pro-gun lobby tells us that “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” They argue that violent or disturbed individuals are the real problem – not the weapons they can access. They remind the nation that stricter controls on the use and possession of firearms would, in their view, infringe on the constitutional rights of US citizens to bear arms.
Emotive appeals and heated opinions have their place in what is an emotive and heated debate. But so, too, do statistics and facts. This summary won’t add another voice to the debate or weigh in on the merits of each side’s viewpoints. It will, however, seek to provide a concise overview of how guns are used and regulated in the US – leaving you to form your own opinion.
Just a note before we get started: The Gun Debate was written in 2014, so it doesn’t account for more recent legislation.
In this summary, you’ll discover
- who in the US is most likely to own a firearm;
- what key arguments are used on both sides of the gun debate; and
- how gun policy has historically been formed in the US.
The facts on firearms: their usage and possession
Let’s begin with some basic statistics on firearms and how they’re used – and misused – in the US.
First, who owns firearms, and what reasons do they give for owning them?
Among wealthy nations, the US has the highest incidence of firearm ownership. Thirty-five percent of households, and 25 percent of adults, own at least one firearm. The rate of firearm ownership has declined in recent years, but firearms sales haven’t. That’s because owners are increasingly likely to purchase more than one firearm in their lifetime. The top 20 percent of firearms owners possess ten or more firearms. In a 2013 survey, 48 percent of firearm owners cited self-protection as their primary reason for owning a firearm.
People of all ages, genders, and backgrounds own firearms in the US. But, according to surveys, the typical firearm owner tends to be male and middle-aged. And there are other patterns, too. Someone who has grown up around firearms is three times more likely to own a firearm than someone who hasn’t. Firearm owners usually fall into middle and upper income brackets – likely because a firearm is an expensive purchase. Typically, there’s a higher rate of firearm ownership in rural areas than urban ones. The wide open spaces of some rural areas are well suited for hunting and other shooting sports, which may account for the prevalence of firearm ownership in these communities. Roughly 6 percent of Americans engage in hunting – a small decline from the mid ’90s when 7.4 percent of Americans were involved in the sport.
At this point, you might be picturing someone heading out into the woods with a rifle over their shoulder. Which leads us to the next important question: What types of firearms do Americans actually own, and why?
Civilian firearms fall into one of two basic categories. Long guns like rifles and shotguns have barrels that can reach up to 30 inches in length, and they’re designed to be fired from the shoulder. Handguns, by contrast, can be held in one hand and fired. These days, most firearms are repeaters – meaning they don’t need to be reloaded after each shot is fired. Instead, a magazine holding several rounds of ammunition is inserted into the firearm. Magazines can typically carry between 3 and 30 rounds of ammunition. Some magazines have much higher capacity – up to 100 rounds, for instance.
Long guns are best suited for hunting, while handguns are best suited for self-protection. In cases of criminal misuse, it’s been found that handguns are more likely to be used than long guns.
Civilian firearms that share key features with military-grade combat weapons, like the capacity to hold a large magazine, are classed as assault weapons. In 1994, the Supreme Court instituted a partial federal ban on assault weapons; the sale of new assault weapons was prohibited, and a number of assault weapon models were recalled. But in 2004, the federal ban was lifted in accordance with the sunset provision – which means a law is automatically terminated after a fixed period of time if it hasn’t received legislative approval. Now it’s up to individual states to regulate the sale and possession of assault weapons. Consequently, the ownership of assault weapons varies from state to state.
Finally, we have to ask a pretty critical question: How many deaths do firearms cause? After all, if this issue weren’t a matter of life and death, it’s unlikely that it would be discussed as passionately as it is in American culture today.
The authors found that among wealthy nations outside of war zones, the US reports the highest incidence of firearm-related fatalities every year. Firearms account for approximately 30,000 deaths annually.
Let’s put this into perspective. In the 30 years between 1984 and 2014, approximately one million Americans died from firearm-related fatalities. That’s a higher number of fatalities than all of the previous combat deaths in US history combined.
The benefits of firearms
The debate around firearms is complex – and emotionally charged. Some US citizens might describe themselves as pro-gun but make exceptions to their stance when it comes to particular issues around the usage and ownership of firearms. Some US citizens who describe themselves as anti-gun might find themselves in that same position.
With the caveat that individual attitudes to gun policy may be far more nuanced, let’s get into some of the broad arguments used by each side of the debate.
To begin with, what’s the case against tightening – or even for relaxing – current restrictions on firearm use?
The right to own and operate a firearm is protected in the US constitution; the Second Amendment states that all citizens have the right to bear arms. There’s no additional information on whether or how that right should be regulated. About half of Americans believe that the strict regulation of firearms impinges on this Second Amendment right.
Connected to a belief in the fundamental right to bear arms is the belief that everyone is entitled to defend themselves with a firearm. In 2008, in the case of the District of Columbia vs Heller, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment explicitly encompasses the right to bear arms in self-defense.
Firearm owners report feeling safer knowing they can effectively defend themselves, their family, and their property in the event of a home invasion. Every year, approximately one in every 3,500 firearm-owning households uses a firearm in this exact scenario.
Research shows that in an assault, firearms are indeed the most effective form of self-defense – but only marginally. A survey of attack victims found that only 2.4 percent of people who retaliated against their assailant with a firearm went on to suffer further injury. This number rose to 3.6 percent for those who retaliated without any weapon.
Some firearm owners believe that neighborhoods where a high proportion of households own a firearm are less attractive to criminals – that the prospect of being shot while carrying out a home invasion or assault is a strong deterrent to criminals. Neighborhoods with high rates of firearm ownership should, therefore, be safer. But there’s no research to back up this idea. Preliminary studies have actually found the opposite: such neighborhoods are more likely to be targeted by burglars, maybe because firearms have a high resale value and a thriving black market.
Some pro-gun advocates go even further. They argue that carrying a firearm in public is an act of civic responsibility: if private citizens can carry a concealed firearm, they’re able to intervene in – and potentially prevent – all kinds of criminal activity, from petty theft to homicide. It’s been possible to test this hypothesis to some degree. Many US states eased restrictions on carrying a concealed firearm in the 1980s and ’90s. Did this lead to a reduction in overall crime? Some studies appear to support it. The economists John Lott and David Mustard reported that these states went on to experience reduced rates of homicide and some other crimes. However, other researchers haven’t been able to replicate these numbers.
Many US citizens who are broadly in favor of firearm ownership do feel that there should be strict regulations around who can carry a firearm in public, and under what circumstances. Organizations like the NRA – the National Rifle Association – adopt a more extreme position through the slippery slope argument. They state that any tightening of restrictions will lead to a slippery slope of escalating federal control over firearm ownership, which will ultimately mean that all private firearms are confiscated. This scenario, they point out, would be unconstitutional according to the Second Amendment.
To fully understand this debate, it’s important to note that US culture connects firearms with freedom. Some US citizens believe an armed citizenry is a crucial element to a functioning democracy. If the government holds a monopoly on firearms, who can hold that government to account? What’s to stop that government from transforming into a totalitarian state? Historically, armed US civilians have stood up to the government – over 200 years ago, a civilian militia helped overthrow British rule and assert US independence.
This event apparently still looms large in the US imagination. In a 2013 survey, 44 percent of Republican respondents stated that America may need an armed revolution to preserve freedom in the short-term future.
The cost of firearms
Now let’s look at some of the central arguments for tightening restrictions on the possession and use of firearms.
The most compelling argument for firearm restrictions is the loss of life. Let’s look at one year as an example. In 2010, there were 31,672 firearms deaths. Roughly one-third were deaths by homicide, and two-thirds were deaths by suicide. There were 606 accidental killings. Emergency rooms treated another 73,404 nonfatal firearm injuries.
Would those death and injury rates be the same if firearms were less accessible and people were forced to use other, less regulated weapons? Taking away firearms certainly doesn’t eliminate harmful, violent, or criminal impulses within a society. But it’s clear that firearms intensify violence. And it’s hard to deny the facts related to this.
First of all, firearms don’t require much skill or effort to operate, but they’re lethal. Domestic disputes often escalate when someone brings out a firearm. Fatalities are three times more likely to occur during a holdup at gunpoint than a holdup at knifepoint. Suicide attempts don’t often end in death – but they’re 80 percent more likely to when a firearm is used. In other words, heated, violent, or desperate situations are a lot more likely to end with a death if a firearm is involved. Furthermore, firearms can facilitate violent crimes – such as robbery or assault – without being fired.
Then there’s the form of violent crime uniquely facilitated in the US by ready access to firearms: the mass shooting. It’s difficult to find firm statistics on the prevalence of mass shootings in the US because the definition of what constitutes a mass shooting differs from state to state. Generally speaking, a mass shooting occurs when an attacker uses a firearm to shoot four or more victims. Between 1980 and 2010, there were anywhere from 18 to 27 mass shootings a year in the US; annual fatalities ranged from 45 to 122 victims.
There’s been an upward trend in mass shootings that occur in a public space, like a school or religious institution. Throughout the mid 2000s, roughly one public mass shooting took place per year. That number later climbed to three or four mass shootings per year. In 2012, the number increased to six. And these numbers have only gone up since.
Advocates for stricter firearms control point out that the lack of a federal ban facilitates relatively easy access to assault weapons favored by mass shooters – even in states where assault weapons are banned. They also note that current licensing regulations and background check procedures do too little to identify and stop potential perpetrators of mass shootings.
Finally, gun-control advocates argue that the widespread possession and use of firearms erode living standards and damage communities. In regions with high rates of firearm-related violence, businesses perform poorly and property values have declined. Tax dollars that could be spent on improving local communities are instead allocated toward efforts to curb firearm use and treat casualties.
The current legislation
Firearm restrictions in the US are shaped by America’s federalist system, where power is constitutionally divided between the federal government and the state governments. In practice, this means that while some national laws restrict the possession, sale, and use of firearms, each US state regulates firearms differently.
At the federal level, minors, convicted felons, and individuals deemed to be a risk are prohibited from purchasing firearms. The sale and purchase of machine guns is banned. And civilians aren’t allowed to carry firearms on planes or in federal buildings.
Over the course of the past century, Congress has passed several key gun laws.
In 1934, the National Firearms Act required fully automatic weapons to be registered – and taxed at a higher rate than other firearms. Four years later, the Federal Firearms Act required firearms dealers to be licensed. The Gun Control Act of 1968 restricted the sales of firearms across state lines and prohibited felons from purchasing firearms. In 1986, the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act rolled back some of these earlier restrictions, making it easier for firearms to be purchased out of state. In 1993, the Brady Handgun Prevention Act required licensed dealers to perform a background check for every firearm purchase. The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which has since expired, banned the sale and manufacture of new assault weapons. And in 1996, the Lautenberg Amendment to the Gun Control Act prohibited the sale of firearms to individuals convicted of domestic abuse.
It falls to the states to augment federal restrictions. Each state must legislate how firearms licenses are issued and renewed; who can obtain a license to carry a concealed firearm; how sales of assault weapons are regulated; what background checks must be carried out before someone can purchase – or, in the case of private dealers, sell – firearms; and what criminal penalties the misuse of firearms attracts.
Nearly every US state protects the right to bear arms within their own state constitution. And every state permits licensed individuals to carry concealed firearms – although the requirements for obtaining such a license vary wildly across the country.
Although the federal ban on assault weapons has expired, seven US states maintain some form of assault weapons ban. In the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, three of those states – New York, Maryland, and Connecticut – expanded the range of their bans. Gun rights advocates have challenged the legality of various state bans.
Some gun rights advocates argue that the current legislation places unconstitutional limitations on the purchase and use of firearms. Others oppose the introduction of new legislation, arguing that the current controls simply need to be more effectively enforced. Here, they may find a common cause with some gun control advocates, who believe that current laws aren’t properly policed. However, many gun control advocates would like to see the current controls extend further, ideally at a federal level.
Outside of committed lobbying groups, public opinion in the US points to broad support for stricter firearms legislation. Ninety percent of Americans either support the current legislation or think it should be stricter, and 83 percent support expanded background checks. On the other hand, support for gun rights is rising – in 1993, 34 percent of surveyed Americans believed protecting the rights of firearm owners was more important than controlling the possession of firearms. By 2012, that percentage had jumped to 49 percent.
This complex and even contradictory snapshot of public opinion reflects the complexity of the way firearms are – and aren’t – controlled across the US.
At the start of this summary, we shared a number: 30,000. As of 2014, that was the approximate number of US citizens who lost their lives to firearms every year. This is roughly the same amount of deaths caused by motor vehicle incidents or by abusing prescription medication. Neither cars nor pain medication are banned in the USA, but a number of successful initiatives have been adopted to improve road safety and clamp down on the overprescription of opiates.
As with car travel or pain medication, firearm ownership comes with risks and benefits. The question is whether current policies pose an unacceptable level of risk to the public or are too strict for firearm owners to enjoy the benefits – and whether any policy will satisfactorily bring these risks and benefits into balance.
You’ve just finished our summary to The Gun Debate, by Philip J. Cook and Kristin A. Goss The most important takeaway from all this is:
The gun control debate is one of the most polarizing discussions in the US. Gun-rights advocates maintain that the right to bear arms is a crucial civil liberty, that everyone should be able to use a firearm in self-defense, and that firearms have recreational value. Gun-control advocates argue that none of these perceived benefits should outweigh the significant and irreversible cost that firearms have to human life.
About the author
Philip J. Cook is ITT/Terry Sanford Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Economics and Sociology at Duke University. He is the co-author (with Jens Ludwig) of Gun Violence: The Real Costs.
Kristin A. Goss is Associate Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University. She is the author of Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America.