It is natural to want to express feelings of sympathy for people who have experienced grief and loss. But as the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida have made it abundantly clear, trite expressions of condolences from lawmakers who do nothing are not enough. Teenagers with murdered friends are looking to those old enough to vote and legislate to honor those fallen by acting to decrease the chances of another shooting.
Unfortunately, evidence about what would decrease gun-related deaths is sparse and conflicted. This is due in part to the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is restricted in its ability to publish any findings about it. It would take the most generous definition of “disease” to include being shot, but the mission of the CDC has expanded to include prevention of other large-scale public safety hazards such as workplace danger and terrorism preparedness. And considering over 33,000 people died from gun-related causes last year (compared to 71 deaths from domestic acts of terrorism from 2005-2015), it is very arguable that firearms are justifiable as a public safety concern. But the extremely appropriately named Dickey Amendment in 1996 states that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control,” which hamstrings their ability to even perform any research.
We are not completely in the dark, however. As this well-made graphic demonstrates, gun deaths result from a number of causes. The majority are suicides, followed by homicides, and a small percent are accidents. As the authors at 538 point out, the variety of causes means that there is no one solution.
Suicide by gun is so lethal because, well, it works. Their lethality means the suicide attempt is survived much less often, and the availability and ease of use means that there is very little time between the decision and the action for the individual to reconsider or seek help. Added to the issue is that the stigma around depression and suicidal thoughts means that people are less likely to make it clear that they are in danger if they are around a gun, and will not remove that threat.
The highest profile category is mass shootings, although that makes up a small percentage of overall deaths. These receive a large amount of attention, and are often the impetus for discussion about legislation. This is understandable—they feel wrong on a visceral level. There is no sense to them, and should be the most avoidable. The weapon of choice in these is often an assault-style weapon, specifically the AR-15. The term “assault” is legally vague, but the AR-15 is identical to the military-grade M16, in all but the ability to fire a three-round burst. It suppresses recoil, has a pistol grip, and its magazines can hold a large number of rounds and be changed quickly and easily. Gun rights advocates argue these are cosmetic features, but they are all designed to allow a shooter to fire large amounts of bullets with precision. It is too large and unwieldy to be practical for protection, and if you need 30 bullets to take down a deer, you need to work on your aim. Assault weapons had been banned at the federal level from 1994-2004, when Congress allowed the ban to lapse. During the decade the ban was in effect, gun massacres, as defined by 6 or more deaths, fell 37% compared to the previous decade, and were 183% lower than the following ten years.
When looking at the much larger category of gun homicides overall, states with variable gun laws are some of our best places to look for what works. Retrospective analyses have more variables than designed, controlled studies, but often times are all that is available. Connecticut responded to the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting by passing legislation that banned sale of assault weapons and magazines over 10 rounds, and required registration of existing assault weapons and high capacity magazines. They also tightened background checks and created a registry for weapons offenders. Since then, gun deaths fell from 226 in 2012 to 164 in 2016. It is worth noting that in this time period there was a nationwide decrease in violent crime; Washington D.C., for example, saw a decrease in homicide after its handgun ban was lifted. In general, however, states with stricter regulations see less gun-related violence, and states with looser regulations see more. There are exceptions—most notably, cities with strict gun control such as Chicago and Baltimore, have very strict gun regulations and large amounts of gun violence, due to the ease of purchase and smuggling from nearby jurisdictions with much more lenient laws.
Stepping back to the big picture, there is scant evidence in favor of guns making us safer, which would make them worth their negative effects. Firearm assaults are 6.8 times more likely in states with the most guns versus states with the least, and people with firearms in their homes are almost twice as likely to be murdered as people who do not. There are cases of firearms being successfully used for defense/deterrence, but they are dwarfed by their use in accidental death, suicide, and assault or homicide.
Firearms are an integral part of U.S. history and culture, but that is not an excuse to deny the evidence of their danger. There are steps we can take that are not as drastic as an all-out ban (a la Australia, who screams at us every time a mass shooting happens). Allowing research to find out what regulations are most effective would be the place to start. Establishing what we need (hunting and livestock protection), versus what we want ( playing soldier and buying accessories) can be the next step. It is hard to obtain a driver’s license. It is hard to get on a plane. It is hard to buy cough syrup. It is reasonable to allow it to be hard to purchase something thats designed to end a life.
Please read the links below for more context and information. And whatever you decide what we need to change, please contact your elected officials. Change is possible, but it will take all of us.