While the US has the highest rate of gun ownership of any country in the world, gun ownership and gun control legislation are deeply divisive issues among Americans. Some take pride in their country’s permissive gun culture; others see it as a national disgrace. At the heart of the debate between gun enthusiasts and their opponents lie a few questions of fact, chief among which is the question of whether more guns make people more or rather less safe. Fortunately, there is now enough evidence now to provide a convincing answer to this question.
Two recent, independent studies, both published in prestigious, peer-reviewed scientific journals, show that there is a clear correlation between higher levels of gun ownership and higher levels of gun-related violence, both at the state and the national level.
The first of these studies, published this month (September 2013) in the American Journal of Public Health is entitled “The Relationship Between Gun Ownership and Firearm Homicide Rates in the United States, 1981–2010.” The study examined the relationship between levels of household firearm ownership and age-adjusted firearm homicide rates at the state level. The results of the study are as follows:
Gun ownership was a significant predictor of firearm homicide rates (incidence rate ratio = 1.009; 95% confidence interval = 1.004, 1.014). This model indicated that for each percentage point increase in gun ownership, the firearm homicide rate increased by 0.9%.
While the authors point out that their study does not establish a causal relation between gun ownership and firearm homicide, they do clearly demonstrate that “states with higher rates of gun ownership had disproportionately large numbers of deaths from firearm-related homicides.”
The second of the two aforementioned studies examines the same question but at the international level, comparing rates of gun ownership and gun-related violence in countries around the world. The study, which is published this month in the American Journal of Medicine, is entitled “Gun Ownership and Firearm-related Deaths.”
The study found that:
The number of guns per capita was a strong and independent predictor of firearm-related death in a given country, whereas the predictive power of the mental illness burden was of borderline significance in a multivariable model. Regardless of exact cause and effect, however,the current study debunks the widely quoted hypothesis that guns make a nation safer.
Further evidence in support of the correlation between gun ownership and gun-related violence can be found in a wide range of studies collected and referenced on the Firearms Research page of the Harvard School of Public Health. Among the many findings cited there are the following:
1. Across high-income nations, more guns = more homicide.
– “Firearm availability and homicide rates across 26 high income countries.” Journal of Trauma. 2000; 49:985-88.
2. Across states, more guns = more homicide
– “Household firearm ownership levels and homicide rates across U.S. regions and states, 1988-1997.” American Journal of Public Health. 2002: 92:1988-1993.
– “State-level homicide victimization rates in the U.S. in relation to survey measures of household firearm ownership, 2001-2003.” Social Science and Medicine. 2007; 64:656-64.
3. Across states, more guns = more suicide
– “Household firearm ownership levels and suicide across U.S. regions and states, 1988-1997.” Epidemiology. 2002; 13:517-524.
– “Household firearm ownership and rates of suicide across U.S. states.” Journal of Trauma. 2007; 62:1029-35.
4. Across states, more guns = more violent deaths to children
– “Firearm availability and unintentional firearm deaths, suicide, and homicide among 5-14 Year Olds.” Journal of Trauma. 2002; 52:267-75.
5. Across states, more guns = more unintentional firearm deaths
– “Firearm availability and unintentional firearm deaths.” Accident Analysis and Prevention. 2001; 33:477-84.
And much much more. Given this wealth of relevant data, one might wonder why there is any debate at all about whether guns make people more or rather less safe. One possible reason may have to do with a lack of appreciation for statistics. Switzerland, which has a high gun ownership rate (4th in the world) but relatively low level of gun-related violent crime, is often cited by gun enthusiasts as proof that more guns do not make people less safe. But on the issue of gun ownership, Switzerland is an exception to the rule, not an example of the rule. Switzerland is analogous to the man everyone knows who lives to 90 despite the fact that he smokes cigarettes his entire life. Such people do indeed exist but their existence in no way disproves the fact that smoking causes cancer. Similarly, Switzerland in no way undermines the correlation that has been found between gun ownership rates and gun-related violent crime, both at the state and the national level.
The case of Switzerland is nevertheless interesting, and one may rightly wonder how the Swiss have managed to keep their violent crime rate so low. Gun enthusiasts believe that the Swiss crime rate is low precisely because their gun-ownership rate is high. But that simplistic answer does not stand up to scrutiny. The following information on Firearms Control Legislation in Switzerland, which is described in detail in this academic article and also discussed in these reports by the BBC and Time, nicely explains the Swiss situation on gun ownership and why it is unique. A key part of the explanation of the high levels of gun ownership in Switzerland has to do with the size and shape of the country, which allows for easy invasions by other countries, and the need for a quick and efficient system of national defence. Gun ownership in Switzerland is strongly tied to the notion of civic duty and national, not personal, defence. Furthermore, there are strict laws in place to regulate the use of firearms by civilians and to control even the use of ammunition by those who serve in the militia (they must keep their ammo on military bases, not in their homes). In short, Switzerland has a relatively low level of gun-related violence not because of its high rate of gun ownership but because of its strict system of gun-control regulation.
So the key factual question at the heart of the American debate over gun control legislation has at this point a decisive answer, which is that more guns make people less safe. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that this fact, or the widespread appreciation of it, will do anything to alter the direction of the overall debate or bring about the gun control legislation that Americans so desperately need. If tragedies such as those as Newtown and Columbine (and so many more) can’t inspire Americans to give up their guns, nothing will.