Following the tragic shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina this summer, many have called for increased gun control in America. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that guns should be banned altogether. Such reactions are natural in response to a devastating occurrence like this, but gun control policies formed around reducing the number of mass shootings will do little—if anything—to alleviate America’s gun violence problems.
The gun control measures proposed by the Obama administration focus almost exclusively on trying to reduce the frequency of mass shootings like the one in Charleston. Policies such as banning “military-style assault weapons;” limiting magazine capacities to 10 rounds; providing “active shooter” training to law enforcement, first responders, and school officials; and plans to improve mental health awareness and make it more difficult for those with mental illnesses to obtain guns are all strategies designed to lower the number of mass shootings in the U.S.
Though shooters like Dylann Roof (the killer behind the Charleston massacre) receive a tremendous amount of attention from the media, such shootings are exceptionally rare. Between 1983 and 2013, there were a total of 78 mass shootings in America (an average of 2.6 mass shootings per year). These shootings claimed a total of 547 lives. Thus, for every American that dies in a mass shooting each year, two Americans die from a dog bite. Is it time to ban dogs? Or at least ban the big, scary-looking ones?
Additionally, only 23% of mass shooters had a documented psychiatric history and just 6% were determined to have been psychotic during their attack. Thus, individuals with a mental illness perpetrate approximately 4 deaths by mass shooting per year, and mentally ill mass shooters who are psychotic during the attack cause about 1 death per year.
While it is important to try and reduce the number of deaths in America (or anywhere else) whenever possible, the costs of banning certain types of firearms or making it more difficult for the mentally ill to obtain a gun will vastly outweigh the benefits. Guns are used for self-defense 80 times as often as they are used to take lives and, notably, handguns (i.e. semiautomatic, concealed weapons) are used in more than 75% of these situations. Typically, gun owners using firearms for self-defense will only use the weapon to fire a warning shot, as guns are used to kill the attacker in just 8% of instances of gun-related self-defense. Additionally, about 200,000 American women use firearms to protect themselves from sexual violence every year, and a Justice Department study found that 60% of felons agreed that a criminal is not going to harm an individual whom he or she knows is armed.
Even though guns are used to prevent murders with far greater frequency than they are used to commit murders, and despite the fact that mass shootings are unlikely, there are still a lot of gun deaths in America every year. As such, many believe that stricter gun control would be beneficial to the U.S. Most gun control advocates view countries like Australia and England as model nations, as civilian gun ownership is prohibited in almost all circumstances there: the Australian government requires that a “genuine reason” be provided for citizens to even own a paintball gun, and in England not even the police can carry firearms. As a result, there are few gun deaths in these countries. Further, the overall murder rates in Australia and England are noticeably lower than that of the U.S. For proponents of gun control, these comparisons paint a clear picture: “See? If we banned guns in America, we would save so many lives.” The flaw in this argument lies in its failure to recognize that correlation does not imply causation.
There are approximately 32,000 gun deaths in the U.S. every year. Of these, approximately 64% are suicides, less than 1.6% are accidental, and the remainder are homicides. To determine whether a ban on guns would save lives in the U.S., it is necessary to compare each of these statistics with those of Australia and England.
In Australia, the suicide rate in 2013 was 10.9 per 100,000 and in the UK, it was 11.9 per 100,000. In the U.S., the suicide rate was 12.6 per 100,000. Although the U.S. rate is slightly higher than that of Australia and the UK, the disparity disappears when considering the prevalence of depression among Americans relative to citizens of Australia and the UK. While a gun is often the weapon of choice for Americans committing suicide, the availability of firearms does not cause more people to commit suicide.
Similarly, the rate of accidental gun deaths in America is comparable to the rate of other types of accidental deaths in Australia and the UK. In 2012, there were about as many accidental deaths by firearm per capita in America as there were deaths per capita in Australia from falling out of bed and deaths per capita in the UK from crossing the street. In the U.S., the likelihood of an accidental gun death is approximately half the likelihood of death by autoerotic asphyxiation. In other words, gun accidents are no more likely to be fatal than any other type of accident.
The only disparity between the U.S. and the duo of Australia and the UK is the homicide rate. In Australia, there were 430 murders in 2013, which yields a murder rate of approximately 1.86 per 100,000. In the UK, there were 537 murders in 2014 (the fewest there since 1978), a murder rate of approximately 0.84 per 100,000. In the U.S., there were 14,196 murders in 2013—a murder rate of 4.45 per 100,000—which is more than double Australia’s murder rate and over four times that of the UK.
This disparity can be attributed to the pervasiveness of gangs in America. According to the European Journal of Criminology, “reports of gang-related homicides are almost entirely absent from the Eurogang studies.” In Australia, gangs account for less than 1% of homicides. In the U.S., by contrast, organized crime accounts for approximately 80% of violent crimes. Thus, the non-gang murder rate in the U.S. is 0.89 per 100,000—approximately half that of Australia and equal to that of the UK.
Gang-related homicides are related to factors such as drugs, intergang violence, and intragang violence. Mental health issues did not contribute to a large enough percentage of gang homicides to even be included in the National Gang Center’s list of causes for gang violence from 2006-2012. No amount of restrictions or screening based on potential gun buyers’ mental health will reduce gang violence. Chicago, my hometown, has some of the nation’s strictest gun control laws yet still has a higher murder rate than Congo, Bolivia, and South Sudan. To lower the murder rate in the U.S., gangs—not guns—must be stopped.
Policies formed in response to a tragic event fail to take into account the true reasons for the many guns deaths in the United States. The only way to reduce gun violence in America is to focus on the underlying causes that lead people to commit suicide or homicide. Unfortunately, it’s going to take much more than a ban on guns to solve these problems.
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