A Problem From Hell
America is not giving up its love of guns. Can we cut down on gun violence anyway?
The United States now has a fifth again as many guns in circulation as we have people. Nearly half (44%) of all American households include a gun-owner; with 130 million households and 400 million guns, that implies an average gun ownership rate of nearly 7 guns per gun-owning household. One third of all the civilian-owned guns in the world are owned by Americans; since the United States comprises just a bit over 4% of the world’s population, that means that Americans own guns at roughly 12 times the rate of the rest of the planet. And Americans’ enthusiasm for gun ownership shows zero signs of abating. On the contrary, more guns were sold in America in 2021 than in any other year . . . except 2020. In those two years alone, 42.7 million firearms were sold, enough to arm nearly one in every three American households.
In the wake of yesterday’s horrific massacre in Uvalde, anyone with a heart surely wants to do something to prevent that kind of violence from ever happening again. From the perspective of many people I know, the obvious thing to do is to end America’s love affair with firearms, and follow Britain’s and Australia’s example by severely restricting the availability of firearms. But that is a fantasy. Even if the non-gun-owning majority were fervently committed to the cause, and gun ownership rates were falling rather than rising, giving them the wind at their backs, disarming the United States is inconceivable. The logistics alone boggle the mind, to say nothing of the political impossibility.
I wish those facts were more apparent to gun owners, that more of them felt sufficiently confident in their political strength that some kind of reforms were possible. I wish that the vast majority of gun owners could be separated politically from the most fervent opponents of any firearms regulation. Instead, the current political response to every atrocity is the same as the private response: to call for an even more-heavily armed society, and for even fewer restrictions on gun ownership. Whatever that something is that we’re going to do, then, it will have to be something that works with America’s gun obsession, not against it. You can be hate that conclusion or be pleased with it, but it remains the only conclusion I can come to given the facts.
Is there any hope of reducing the horrific toll of guns in American life without giving up America’s enthusiasm for guns? At first glance, it would seem not. Canada, for example, is similar to America in many ways: another developed North American country founded by England (and France) as a settler society, with a highly diverse population and a federal structure of government. Canada’s population is even fairly heavily armed, with nearly twice the per-capita gun ownership rate of France and more than twice the per-capita gun ownership rate of Australia. But Canada doesn’t have nearly as many guns as we do—“only” 35 guns per 100 people—and lo and behold, its firearm-related death rate is 1/6th of America’s.
The sheer quantity of guns clearly matters. But other things clearly matter as well. Canada’s firearm-related death rate per firearm, after all, is a bit over half of America’s rate. By contrast, consider Uruguay, which has the same gun-ownership rate as Canada has—but the same firearm-related death rate as America. That implies a per-firearm death rate more than three times America’s—and six times Canada’s. Uruguay is not nearly as wealthy a country as either America or Canada, but it is hardly impoverished; its GDP per capita is roughly on par with the Czech Republic or Portugal. Moreover, its Gini coefficient (a measure of wealth inequality) is lower than the United States, and its poverty rate (admittedly a difficult figure to compare across countries) is also lower than America’s. And for those who care about such things, Uruguay’s population is also the most homogeneous of all countries in Latin America, the overwhelmingly majority descending from Spanish, Italian and other European settlers and immigrants.
I know little about Uruguay’s gun laws, but I believe they are considerably more restrictive than America’s. I don’t have any idea what they are doing “wrong” that results in such a high firearm-related death rate. But the dramatic disparity between Uruguay and Canada, with comparable rates of firearms ownership (both much higher than typical European levels, though much lower than American levels), suggests there are other cultural and legal factors worth investigating.
What drives America’s extraordinarily high death rate from firearms? More than half of gun deaths are suicides. Gun suicides are overwhelmingly White, overwhelmingly male, and (at least among White suicide victims), skew dramatically older. The rate of gun suicide scales very well with the rate of gun ownership; Wyoming, Alaska and Montana are the states with the highest gun suicide rates, and New Jersey, Massachusetts and New York are the states with the lowest. These victims sound to me mostly like people who already owned a gun, most likely legally, long before they contemplated suicide.
Given those demographic facts, it’s hard for me to imagine any realistic gun control proposals short of mass confiscation that would make a dent in gun suicide. So if we’re not going to give up our love affair with guns, the question is whether any kind of education toward practical behavior modification—for example, encouraging gun-owners to make their weapons less readily accessible, such as by storing ammunition separately and under lock and key, since any obstacle to acting quickly on suicidal ideation can potentially prevent a death—could make a material difference. A heavily-armed society simply has much less margin of safety in dealing with suicide risk; if we want to reduce the toll without reducing the number of guns, we’ll have to get better than our peers at preventing suicide.
Of the remaining gun deaths, over 90% are homicides. Of those homicides, a vastly disproportionate percentage are young Black men killed by other young Black men. In 2019, 37% of gun homicide victims were Black men aged 15 to 34, a group that comprises only 2% of the American population. And in the dramatic surge in homicides since 2019, fully 65% of the increase was Black victims. It’s very hard for me to look at that data, particularly the surge since 2019, and not conclude that a significant part of the problem is one of ineffective policing, producing a situation where large numbers of individuals feel both the necessity and the opportunity to go armed so as to be able to defend themselves against others similarly armed. If we really want to make a dent in these numbers, and we’re determined not to consider radically reducing the number of firearms in circulation, then we have to figure out how to police effectively without policing oppressively. Neither our recent nor our more distant history inspires confidence in our ability to achieve that goal, but the goal remains nonetheless.
The kinds of events that drive incredulous coverage of America’s gun culture—events like those in Buffalo, NY, Santa Ana, CA, or Uvalde, TX (or for that matter the random shooting death on a NYC subway not far from me earlier this week)—are extraordinary because they essentially do not happen in any other developed country. But they are not the drivers of America’s extraordinary death toll from guns; rather, they are the long tail of a distribution with a very fat and bloody middle. They get the headlines because, like acts of terrorism, they come without warning and strike not merely the innocent but the completely uninvolved. And, like terrorism, they drive more extreme political responses than mere numbers suggest they should—including the response of mass gun buying that we’ve observed over the past two years.
Could we prevent such tragedies by implementing red flag laws, raising the minimum age for gun ownership, and requiring a rigorous course of safety instruction before purchase—some of the common sense reforms that Nicholas Kristof advocates in a recent New York Times piece? I sincerely hope so—and I hope that Kristof is right that these kinds of reforms could separate the vast bulk of gun owners from the most extreme gun rights advocates, and that “gun safety” could be a more effective framing than “gun control.” But I wonder. It’s not as easy as people think to identify who shouldn’t own a gun; an effective dragnet that caught a large percentage of genuinely unstable or menacing individuals might have to bar far more people from gun ownership than advocates likely realize. Moreover, it might have the kind of disparate impact that raises an entirely different set of red flags. Meanwhile, we’ve already seen teenagers unleash carnage with guns provided by their parents. How are we going to close that gun loophole?
I hate to end on such a sour note, but I’m afraid I don’t have a more pleasing tune. As I wrote five years ago, on the occasion of going shooting with my son right after the Las Vegas massacre, I believe in the idea of self-mastery, and that gun ownership pursued in that spirit can be not only fine but actively virtuous. I’m just not convinced that American culture as it exists is capable of inculcating that spirit in all the people here who want to own guns. Kristof’s hope is to convince America’s gun-loving citizenry that with great power comes great responsibility, and thereby to build a new political center that demands that responsibility of would-be gun owners, and is willing to deny them guns if they won’t demonstrate it. But if he’s wrong, and our armed society isn’t determined to be a responsible society, then it isn’t going to be a particularly polite or safe one either.