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More Guns Have Not Produced More Killings, But We Still Need Gun Control

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I've beaten up on opponents of gun control in posts published on the day of the Newtown massacre and again on Sunday. In both posts, I strongly implied that more guns mean more shootings. Now I'd like to present statistics that contradict that hypothesis, or at least show it to be grossly simplistic. I found these stats in "Gun Control Legislation, "a report of the Congressional Research Service published on November 14, just a month before the Newtown massacre.

The number of guns in the U.S. surged from 192 million in 1994 to 310 million in 2009. That includes 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns. There are now about as many firearms in the U.S. as people. These stats have been widely reported. What has not been so widely reported is that the number of firearm-related homicides fell from 17,073 in 1993 to 9,903 in 2011 (up slightly from 9,812 in 2010). Per capita, the gun-related murder rate has dropped by more than 50 percent over the past two decades.

This is a remarkable and somewhat mysterious trend. Some scholars have attributed the decline in gun-related homicides and other violent crimes to rising rates of incarceration; the U.S. has by far the highest rates in the world. But the decline has continued since 2007 as incarceration rates have fallen slightly and as the U.S. economy has tanked. "This would also be the last time to expect a crime decline," legal scholar Frank Zimring told The New York Times last year.

So am I taking back my call for gun control? No. Rates of gun-related homicide in the U.S., in spite of the recent decline, are still unacceptably high, much higher than in any other developed nation. Moreover, according to an analysis by Mother Jones, there has recently been a rise, albeit erratic, in casualties from "mass shootings," defined as incidents in which one or, more rarely, as in the case of Columbine, two shooters kill at least four people. Mass shootings exclude armed robberies and gang violence.

There have been 62 such shootings over the last 30 years, according to Mother Jones. Within this period, 2012 already has by far the highest casualty count from mass shootings, with over 140 people killed or wounded. Before the Newtown massacre, there were mass shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. The third and fourth worst years--behind only 1999, the year of Columbine—were 2007 and 2009.

Mother Jones found that the vast majority of mass shooters used either semi-automatic handguns or assault weapons, most of which were purchased legally. So the logical step would be to ban possession—not just sale—of semi-automatic handguns and assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, all of which are, in effect, designed for mass shootings. The government could buy back banned guns, a program that has apparently worked well in Australia. Also, we obviously need much stricter background checks on would-be buyers. I like Canada's requirement—which I read about in a column by Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times--that would-be buyers have two people vouch for them.

The gun lobby is going to fight such restrictions. This afternoon, Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association, which reportedly receives much of its funding from firearm manufacturers, predictably called for more guns. not fewer. "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," he declared. "Would you rather have your 911 call bring a good guy with a gun from a mile away ... or a minute away?" This proposition, like much of the NRA's propaganda, flies in the face of the facts.

While LaPierre was speaking, media in Pennsylvania were reporting that a gunman had killed three people before being shot to death by police.

Postscript: A few responses to comments. Danarel asks about studies that correlate more guns with more homicide, which can be found at http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/research/hicrc/firearms-research/guns-and-death/index.html. If you compare countries and communities, you can indeed find a correlation between firearm availability and gun-related crimes. But as the historical U.S. data I cite indicates, the correlation is far from straight-forward. I'd like to see more research on why gun-related deaths in the U.S. have declined so dramatically over the past two decades, because maybe we can isolate factors that inhibit shootings. Randiana opposes banning high-capacity magazines, semi-automatic handguns and assault rifles, because shooters could do almost as much damage with many small magazines, revolvers, conventional hunting rifles, etc. I'd like to ban all guns, but since that doesn't appear to be feasible, I'm focusing, like most gun-control advocates, on weapons most suited to mass shootings. ljdgielmcoe notes that the Newtown shooter used a legally purchased assault rifle, in spite of a ban on assault rifles in Connecticut. To me, that shows that loopholes in the bans must be closed. alan.coffel notes that I wrote "cartridge" when I meant "magazine." Sorry for the error.

Image: http://www.thepetroc.com.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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