An anti-gun violence rally on the steps of New York City Hall in 2019. (William Alatriste/NYC Council)
In the wake of mass shootings, Americans are regularly told that these atrocities do not happen in other developed countries. This, we are to believe, is the damnable result of the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Americans are told again and again that the key to solving this problem is to drastically reduce the number of firearms in circulation; specifically, the number of semi-automatic rifles.
Of course, America isn’t entirely unique. As we’ll examine later, many other developed countries experience mass violence, including France, Norway, and New Zealand.
Despite the hyperbole, though, there is an element of truth in the idea that America’s violence is unique in the developed world. As a country, we are much more violent, both in mass settings that capture our imaginations and headlines and in individual cases that tend to be accepted as somehow normal.
For example, when we compare US cities to those of comparable nations—Western Europe, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia—we find that American murder rates are startlingly high in comparison. Murder rates may not be a perfect indicator of overall violence but work very well as a way of identifying serious violent tendencies.
Glasgow, Scotland ranks as perhaps the most dangerous major city in America’s peer nations with a murder rate of around 5.1/per 100,000 residents in 2020.
That murder rate would make Glasgow, Europe’s deadliest city, the 62nd most deadly city in America in 2020, landing between San Francisco and Anaheim.
So, does that prove it? Is it true that because Americans have access to so many guns, we are much more likely to murder each other?
As it turns out, Americans do not rely on a single tool to commit murders.
Indeed, according to the FBI in 2019, the most common murder weapon was the handgun, used in 45.7% of murders. Firearms of unknown type were used in 23.9%. Knives were the second most common identifiable weapon at 10.6%.
It is worth mentioning that murders with hands and feet (600) outstrip murders with rifles and shotguns combined (564).
Now, there’s no doubt looking at those numbers, that the number of firearms almost certainly increases the number of murders—it’s just a lot easier to kill someone with a gun than with your hands.
But when we have gun control debates, lawmakers focus almost exclusively on one type of firearm: the semi-automatic rifle. A weapon so rarely used in murders the FBI does not distinguish its use from that of other rifles. I’ll say that again; rifles are so seldom used that the FBI does not count semi-automatic rifles separately from other, slower-firing rifles.
To further put this in perspective, in 2019, there were estimated to be 16,425 murders. 10,255 of these were committed with firearms. 364 were committed with rifles—that we can prove. We have to assume some of the unidentified firearms are rifles.
Even so, this is a tiny fraction of the overall number of murders; about 2.2%.
To put this further in perspective, there were 36,096 vehicular homicides in 2019.
There are 271,000,000 cars in the US.
There are believed to be more than 400,000,000 guns.
Despite this, a regular point of argument is that if we had the same kind of regulations around cars as we did guns, there would be fewer deaths. The belief is that by requiring training, licensing, registration, and other qualifications, deaths caused by firearms would be reduced. But as we have seen, the numbers don’t really bear this out, as cars—which have numerous, onerous regulations to own and operate, are involved in far more yearly deaths than guns, despite there being far more firearms.
But even if we were to impose greater regulations on gun ownership, we wouldn’t expect it to have much impact on their use in crimes. Simply put, weapons that are acquired through legal means are very rarely used in crimes.
In 2019, just about 10% of guns used in crimes were obtained in retail environments according to the Department of Justice. Retail environments include gun stores, sporting goods shops, gun shows, pawn shops, and flea markets. While it is often difficult to prove the provenance of firearms otherwise acquired, very few purchased in this verifiably legal way are ever used in crime.
About 20% of guns used in crimes fall into a legal gray zone, in which the criminal claims to have acquired the firearm from someone else, either through purchase or as a gift.
In total, 70% of firearms are acquired in an explicitly illegal fashion.
What this points to is that criminals generally seek out non-verifiable means to obtain firearms, meaning that adding further regulation to the acquisition of guns would have, if not negligible, very minor effects.
But again, given Americans’ highly violent nature, even if we were to ban all guns, and remove all firearms immediately, Americans would still attack one another by other means more commonly than our peer societies.
America, however, is not merely more violent than our peer nations.
We are much more criminal overall, with 715 per 100,000 people being held as prisoners. Some might say this is because of over-incarceration, with nearly 45% of those in federal prison being held for drug offenses. However, the statistic is still meaningful, as it demonstrates that Americans incur the risk of incarnation at a higher rate than our peer societies.
This tendency also appears when we look at traffic fatalities. We have nearly three times as many traffic deaths per capita as the European Union—11.7 vs 4.2, suggesting more reckless driving in the US.
Indeed, social science regularly demonstrates that Americans perceive less risk than those of other developed nations.
Lack of risk aversion is highly correlated with crime, and those who commit even low-level offenses are much more likely to also commit violent crimes.
All of this suggests that guns are not the root cause of violence in America.
American people are.
A murder committed with a firearm is just as evil and tragic as it would be with a knife.
Let us turn our attention now to mass shootings, the crimes that most often grab headlines and shake our nation.
Even looking exclusively at these horrifying crimes, the handgun is the weapon of choice for offenders, not the semiautomatic rifle. Handguns were used in 98 mass shootings since 1982 compared to 52 in which rifles were used.
Now rifles are disproportionately favored in mass shootings as compared to the more common individual murder—making up about 30% of the weapons chosen in mass murder, but only 2% in individual cases. They are, however, not universally, nor even particularly often used, making up—of the three categories (rifles, shotguns, and handguns)—about one-third of the weapons.
To sum all of this data up, targeting semi-automatic rifles would have a negligible impact on the overall American murder rate, and would not even prevent the majority of mass shootings. It is worth noting, that once a person has come to the point of deciding to murder a classroom of eleven-year-olds, the choice of which type of firearm is probably not extremely important to the outcome. In the cases of Uvalde, Parkland, and Sandy Hook, it would be foolish to suggest that had the shooters chosen handguns, rather than AR-15 style rifles, there would have been less carnage. The AR-15, firing once every time the trigger is pulled would not kill any more efficiently than a handgun operating in the same manner.
This makes the proposed ban on semi-automatic rifles—often erroneously called an “assault rifle ban”—window dressing, intended to allow lawmakers to claim to have “done something,” with little regard for the actual results of this policy.
This might lead one to ask, “why not ban all guns?” This is a topic we will turn to shortly in another post.
There is basically no support in the US for a handgun ban, despite this being the most commonly used murder weapon. American support for such an idea is actually shrinking, reaching an all-time low in 2019 according to the latest available data from Gallup. This is likely because Americans understand that the handgun is also an essential self-defense weapon.
In conclusion, we are a more violent people and a less risk-averse people than our peers. We kill each other at much higher rates than our peers, but rarely with rifles—semi-automatic or otherwise. Simply calling out our differences in gun laws and gun violence is not a strong enough reason to ban an entire class of firearms.
As we continue, we will examine what such a ban might look like, and what laws would need to be altered to implement it. However, our next piece will examine mass shootings specifically. How are they defined, who commits them, and where do they occur?
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