Surprising facts about America and guns
Differences of opinion about guns have become tribal, part of a larger culture war, with people dug in on both sides. Maybe the way forward is to acknowledge that we’re all probably wrong in one way or another. Our ideas about how people die from firearms are an example.
The most common type of gun death, according to Pew Research’s website (February 2022), isn’t murder, but is instead, at 54 percent, suicide. And only a fraction of the remaining fatalities—perhaps as few as 10 percent according to Steven Pinker in his book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”— take place during the commission of a robbery or other crime. The typical gun homicide instead involves someone resolving a personal dispute with a person or persons he/she knows.
The mass slayings that are so prominent in the news cause only the tiniest fraction of gun deaths — 0.2 percent according to Larry Wallace at theconversation.com. And only 30 percent of those involve the use of the assault weapons that command so much attention, or rifles of any kind for that matter (see statista.com.) Handguns are by far the preferred weapon.
All of these facts suggest that the intensity surrounding the debate about Illinois’ recent assault weapons ban is somewhat misplaced on both sides. The ban probably won’t, on the one hand, do much by itself to reduce gun violence, nor is it likely, on the other hand, to limit people’s ability to defend themselves. 63 percent of the American public in an August 2021 Pew survey favored banning assault weapons.
Preventing gun deaths, whether by suicide, crime, personal disputes or the demented dreams of mass slayers, is an essential duty for any civilized society. The United States is far behind in this when compared to the rest of the developed world. Part of the reason seems to lie in two facts.
The first is that America ranks first by far in firearm death rates among comparable high-income countries (see healthdata.org). Our rate is 13 times greater than France’s, for example, and 22 times greater than the European Union’s as a whole.
The second is that we also rank number one, by an incredible margin, in the possession of firearms per person. We own 46 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns, yet make up only five percent of its population, according to pbs.org/newshour.
This connection between gun ownership and gun deaths likewise applies to comparisons among states within the U.S. Nine of the 10 states with the most permissive gun laws have gun death rates that are far above the national average (see Elbie Bentley at visualcapitalist.com). Gun fatalities in eight of the 10 with the most restrictive regulations, on the other hand, are well below average.
And yet we’re all aware of the many incidents in which gun owners with firearms have saved themselves and others. The explanation for this seeming contradiction lies, I believe, in something I heard from a conservative economics professor of mine many years ago: “That which is true of the part is not necessarily true of the whole.”
He used a football game as an example. When one fan in the audience stands up, he can see the game better. But when everyone does likewise, they’re all worse off.
One person with a gun has an advantage. But as more and more others follow his/her example, the correlation between guns and gun deaths takes its toll. We can see it not just in homicides, but also in the most common form of gun death, which is, as noted above, suicide.
Reasonable regulations that respect the right to own firearms for recreation and self-protection are only part of the answer. The deeper problem is the fears that lie behind America’s extraordinary rate of gun ownership. The solution requires us to heal our society’s social, cultural and political wounds. When that happens, people will no longer believe that guns will make us safer.
Lowell Harp is a retired school psychologist who served school districts in Ogle County. His column runs monthly in The Ogle County Life. For previous articles, you can follow him on Facebook at http://fb.me/lowellharp.