Truing our aim: the facts about guns and the myths that obscure them

One hundred sixty-two mass shootings.

That’s how many mass shootings—since the 2018 Valentine’s Day massacre at a Parkland, Florida, high school—have occurred, according to data pulled from the Mass Shooting Tracker through July 2, 2018.(1) One hundred eighty people were killed and 597 were injured in total from those shootings. The Gun Violence Archive reports a total of 7,255 people have died and 13,743 have been injured by gun violence alone from January 1, 2018, to July 2—and that doesn’t include the number of suicides carried out with a gun, of which 22,000 are completed per year.(2)

What’s been done to combat this public health crisis in the period since the Parkland massacre? Very little. Some loopholes in the background check system have been shored up, and some states have banned bump stocks (an item which was not used in Parkland, but instead used by the Las Vegas shooter in 2017). The state of New Jersey went further by giving courts the ability to issue orders temporarily prohibiting gun ownership by individuals who display themselves as a clear risk to themselves or others, along with a handful of other changes. But on the federal level, only two changes were made: a funding package to encourage more reporting into the background check system, and a possible future ban on bump stocks nationwide.(3) Most of these changes have been taken to court by the National Rifle Association (NRA), and the lack of federal changes means the flaws in a patchwork system continue to encourage a flood of guns from states with lax gun laws into states with more sensible laws.(4)

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The tens of thousands of people who are injured or lose their lives by way of a firearm each year have become an accepted cost of operation for those who believe in unrestricted access to firearms. Much of this opposition to common sense gun control is enabled by popular myths about the necessity of guns, despite a lack of supporting data. 

A survey carried out by Pew Research Center in 2017 showed 67% of respondents who own a gun will list protection as their primary reasoning.(5) If a criminal were to break into a person’s home, having an easily accessible firearm is believed to provide an assured means of defense against the loss of life or property; in a more extreme situation, such as a mass shooting event, it’s presumed that having a firearm could allow a person to become a sort of action hero, saving the lives of many people.

In practice, though, gun owners attempting to stop crime have resulted in police confusing innocent people with criminals(6), or a flood of armed parents showing up to a school.(7) This follows with the available research, which doesn’t indicate your safety is increased by having a gun on your person. In fact, using a gun for self-defense can make you more likely to face injury or death.

To properly evaluate the use of a gun in self-defense, it’s important to look at the information supplied by proponents of these beliefs. 

The number of supposed incidents in which someone defended themselves with a gun is often claimed to be somewhere in the millions; this statistic comes from surveys carried out in the early 1990s known as the National Self Defense Survey (NSDS)(8) and the National Survey of Private Ownership of Firearms (NSPOF).(9) Both surveys faced numerous flaws in methodology, ranging from a low response rate (which can overrepresent the number of self-defense incidents) to telescoping (an individual reports an event that occurred outside of the time frame the survey is intended to measure, increasing total events). The most egregious of flaws prominent in these surveys, though, concerns what is and isn’t considered an act of self-defense.(10)

As both of these surveys allow respondents to report any incident which they consider to be the use of a gun in self-defense, the definition is left open-ended. Someone could, for example, report that they used a gun in self-defense when investigating a suspicious noise that turned out to be a cat in a trash can, or they pulled a gun on someone they thought might be thinking of committing a crime—regardless of whether the person was or not.

Altogether, these flaws result in the surveys reporting 2,500,000 incidents of self-defensive gun use per year, and estimate an entire swath of dead bodies—numbering in the tens or even hundreds of thousands—that seemingly go undiscovered by authorities on an annual basis. Overestimates of this caliber muddy the waters of serious discussion about gun violence, making crime appear to be so rampant that every moment lived without being armed has a high likelihood of resulting in theft, injury, or death.

How many self-defense incidents involving a firearm do occur per year?

It’s difficult to determine. The lower end of estimates comes from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS)(11), carried out twice per year by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The number of respondents reaches around 100,000 individuals, with a 95% response rate, and households selected for the sample are contacted every six months for three years. Further, questions about self-defensive actions are asked only when someone has indicated to interviewers that they were the victim of a crime involving personal contact (sexual assault, burglary, car theft, etc.), whether or not the crime was carried out, rather than all respondents being asked if they’ve taken such actions, as happens in the NSDS and NSPOF.

These design decisions reduce the errors caused by flaws in the aforementioned surveys. Firstly, telescoping is nearly eradicated, as a respondent’s answers from a previous six-month period can be used to ensure the same event isn’t reported in a following period. Secondly, it limits the scope of what is considered a self-defense event, preventing noisy trashcan cats from inflating numbers.

With all of these preventative measures in place, the NCVS estimates there are roughly 116,000 times per year in which guns are used in the manner of self-defense—or, over two million fewer than estimated by other surveys. The survey’s design can lead to underreporting, such as respondents choosing not to report self-defensive actions that occurred while they were engaging in an illegal activity. However, reviews of NCVS methodology and results have not indicated such issues lead to a gross underestimate of reported self-defensive actions, and certainly not in the range of millions.

Using guns in self-defense is bad for your health.

The frequency of self-defensive gun incidents is only part of the story, of course. Even at the low end, one could say 116,000 people saved themselves or others from imminent danger. But the truth is much more complicated.

A study conducted in 2009 looked at individual cases where people were shot in Philadelphia(12), and specifically looked at the percent of victims who were armed at the time they were shot. By comparing this number with a survey of people asked about being armed in the same time period as the selected cases, researchers were able to determine the odds of facing injury or death when a crime is committed against you. What they found indicated that merely having a gun in your possession as a victim makes you 4.46 times more likely to be shot. And if you try to use the gun to defend yourself? Those odds increased to 5.45.

Another study looked at incidents in which victims initiated a resistive action.(13) The results indicated people who engage in active resistance through use of a gun do not improve their chances of escaping injury. The only actions which significantly reduce harm are running or hiding. 

And then there are Stand Your Ground laws.

If you’re charged with homicide in a court of law, you might be able to escape conviction by claiming you did so in self-defense. Two legal defenses exist in the United States that apply to such a situation: Stand Your Ground, and Castle Doctrine. The distinction between the two is important. SYG, in most states with some form of the law, means you are not required to retreat from an aggressor in any setting, whether that be on a public sidewalk, in a mall, or in a church; Castle Doctrine requires that you retreat from aggressors rather than engage in combat, unless you are within the confines of your own home, although some states have included vehicles under the doctrine.

The number of states with SYG laws is quite staggering, with 27 states having a full SYG law on the books, 7 having set precedent allowing SYG through court cases, and 3 which have adopted SYG but only when someone is in the confines of their vehicle. SYG laws are often supported by conservative politicians and the NRA alike, under the dual beliefs that such laws serve as a deterrent to crime and guarantee a person’s natural right to defend themselves.

In fact, the available evidence indicates SYG laws correlate with an increase in homicides. Three studies evaluated by RAND Corporation looked at the effects of SYG laws on total homicides, firearm homicides, and violent crimes.(14) Two of those studies, from 2013(15) and 2017(16), found that states which passed SYG laws experienced an increase in both firearm and total homicides afterwards, while a 2014 study couldn’t find any discernible effect these laws have on reducing the kinds of crime advocates say they’ll deter.(17) When the same study examined the effect of SYG laws on justifiable homicides, it found no effect whatsoever.(18) While homicides in total and firearm homicides in particular increase with SYG laws, the number of those homicides that can be ruled justifiable in a court of law has no measurable change.

Concealed carry doesn’t fare any better in deterrence.

The basis of SYG laws—deterring crime through deadly force—relies on such force being immediately available where a crime is occurring. This can be accomplished by ensuring people are legally allowed to carry a firearm in as many places as possible. The laws determining who can carry a gun in public varies from state to state, like most laws, but boils down to three main determinations: shall-issue, may-issue, and permit-less carry.

Shall-issue laws direct authorities and officials to always issue a concealed carry permit, so long as basic requirements are met, such as having no criminal background. The other method for permits is called may-issue, in which authorities and officials can use discretion in determining if someone—even those who meet basic requirements—should or should not be allowed a permit. Permit-less carry, found in 13 states and partially allowed in four more, dictates that a person can carry a gun, concealed or openly, without having to undergo any scrutiny by their state government. 

RAND’s analysis found only three studies that examined the effects of permit-less and shall-issue laws on mass shooting rates(19), with each of them coming to different conclusions. A 2003 study(20) claimed such laws decreased mass shootings over a span of twenty years, but it contained numerous methodological errors resulting in a large overestimate of any effects; a study from 2002(21) found no evidence such laws had any positive or negative impact on mass shootings, but suffered flaws in model parameters; and the last study, from 2016(22) showed permit-less carry laws increased the probability of mass shootings, but this was only a brief estimate used as part of the study’s main focus on the effects mass shootings have on gun policy.

As for violent crime itself? There were seven studies that didn’t suffer serious flaws(23), and none of them had any positive findings for concealed carry. All measurable impacts of concealed carry laws on crime rates showed no evidence the laws decrease any rates in any places they’ve been adopted. Robberies, physical assaults, and sexual assaults were completely unaffected based on the evidence. The only measurable impact which stood up to scrutiny came from a 2016 study(24) which aggregated all violent crimes into a single category. What did it find? Shall-issue laws for concealed carry actually increased violent crime in places where they were on the books.

But crime shouldn’t be the only focus for advocating gun control.

The Gun Violence Archive notes its ongoing tally of deaths by firearm do not include the 22,000 suicides completed each year. While a lot of the gun control discussion concerns violent crime, it should also be taken into account that over half of all gun deaths come from someone ending their own life.

It’s an indisputable fact that suicides are not violent crimes, but the increasingly high number of suicides carried out with firearms(25)—among veterans(26), farmers(27), and teenagers(28) especially—is a public health crisis that needs to be examined and addressed. Luckily, there’s already been a substantial amount of examination on exactly this subject. 

RAND was able to find 12 studies since 2003 alone(29) that have looked at the effects of gun prevalence and accessibility on suicide rates, likelihood, and increases over time. The conclusions they found from studies with positive peer review follow what should, at this point, be common sense: having a gun you can easily obtain makes you more likely to successfully complete a suicide attempt, and making guns easier to obtain increases suicides occurring in that region. This is something other countries have acted upon with positive results, applying not only to suicide rates, but to crime as well.(30)

Global results don’t just apply to suicide.

The United Kingdom, for example, has heavy restrictions on sporting rifles and shotguns. For handguns, an outright ban was enacted in 1997 after a major school shooting. In the time since, only one other mass shooting has occurred.

A void of mass shootings isn’t the only success. While the rate of firearm homicides per 100,000 inhabitants for the United States was 4.62 in 2016(31), the rate in the UK for 2013 was 0.04(32), or 115.5 times lower than the rate of the United States.

The United States, in fact, has the 31st highest rate of firearm homicides out of 195 internationally recognized countries.(33) Of the countries which surpass it, the majority are either ravaged by war (Iraq), swamped with violence between gangs and police (El Salvador), being run by hostile dictators (Philippines), or various other calamities that have destabilized the country. Most of the countries which have higher rates of firearm homicide than the US also have few restrictions in place over ownership and carry, or laws that are on par with current US laws.(34) 

Rates do fluctuate over the years, as evidenced by the UK’s recent increase in the number of firearm-related crimes.(35) But these fluctuations are minor, and signify how strict gun laws implemented on a national scale have a real effect in keeping firearms from being easily obtainable by people with harmful intentions.

Why is research so limited?

You may have noticed that, even in subject areas where multiple studies exist, the number is still low compared to tobacco-related cancers, the effects of lead on brain development, or other issues equally as pressing. The history that created this situation has a lot to do with lobbying.

In 1993, the Centers for Disease Control funded research which indicated a correlation between gun ownership and increased risks of homicide occurring in the home. The research was later published in the New England Journal of Medicine, with the authors concluding that gun ownership was not a boost to protection of life as often claimed, but instead put family members and intimate acquaintances at a higher risk of losing their own lives.

The NRA became outraged. They campaigned for the complete abolishment of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention (NCIP), claiming the research used tax dollars to advocate for “anti-gun” legislation.(36) And while the NCIP avoided closure, the NRA’s campaign has been successful in effectively killing most research into gun violence ever since. The key to this success was an amendment in the 1996 Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act(36), a spending bill Congress is meant to pass yearly to determine how taxes are spent in keeping the government and all its duties operable.  

Proposed by Republican House Representative Jay Dickey,  the amendment declared “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.” By utilizing vague language open to vast interpretation, the legislation was designed to kill off any potential for future research into gun violence, suicide, or anything else related to firearms. A severe cut to the CDC’s funding was included with the amendment, just to drive the message home.

The effects created fear among employees of the CDC and anyone requesting a grant for research. Employees refused to engage in or allow research as they feared the political blowback, regardless of whether or not they actually violated the amendment, would result in a job termination through a joint campaign from the NRA and Republican officials. It’s still working to this day, but it didn’t stop with the CDC; similar language was added to the 2012 omnibus(36), in response to the National Institutes of Health funding research which investigated any links between gun possession and gun assault published in 2009. So feared is the potential for blowback that the CDC will even notify the NRA any time a grant is filed that so much as mentions firearms.(36)

Reason appeared to be on the horizon in 2012; Dickey, following the massacre that occurred inside a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, co-wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post with the very director of the NCIP that he had gone after with his amendment, and called for a restoration of funding to gun violence research.(37) After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary happened later in the same year, scientists and researchers called upon President Barack Obama to find a way of undoing everything the NRA and its allies had done to kill research. The president’s response was to issue an executive action on the matter.(38)

But the Republican Party wouldn’t reverse course. An executive action differs from an executive order, in that its decrees aren’t carried out immediately; it’s up to Congress to determine if they want to perform any of the actions laid out by the executive office, and votes are required. In this case, despite Obama directing Congress to restore funding to the CDC so they may once again research issues related to firearms, the Republicans in Congress stopped anything from happening. Bills were introduced by Democrats to give the CDC the resources they needed, and each one was shot down outright.(39)

The battle is still ongoing, with a slight improvement in the chances that reason will win out. House Resolution 1478, introduced by Florida Representative Stephanie Murphy in 2017, seeks to undo the prohibition on allowing the CDC to use funds for research on firearm topics.(40) And at this time, seven Republicans have signed on to support it.

But that’s not enough.

Part of the reason gun control in Congress has been so hard to pass is certainly attributable to some lawmakers’ fear of the NRA mobilizing members against them, as has been done in every state attempting to pass laws protecting domestic abuse victims from their aggressors.(41) Pew surveys have indicated almost twice as many gun owners actively contact politicians with regard to gun policy(42), and some lawmakers have said as many as 8 of the 10 calls they receive will be in opposition to policies polling shows a majority of people support.

For voters in the US who support gun control, the lack of action combined with the loud, prominent voices of opposition can make the task of getting anything done seem daunting—even though it really shouldn’t. Surveys, for example, continuously show public opinion is in favor of stricter laws concerning gun ownership and availability, and the majority of the US believes gun violence is a public health concern.(43)

Furthermore, the majority of available research confirms that what we’re allowing gun lobbyists to institute for gun laws clearly isn’t working. The rebuttal may be to point out how little research has happened, but this only reinforces the point that people on any part of the spectrum of this issue should be in favor of returning the CDC’s ability to fund research in this area (among lifting other restrictions such as those tied to gun trace data).(44) For those opposed to gun control, more research may illuminate claims that are currently unsupported yet used often in the debate, and create an environment of open, honest dialogue that will direct effective policy decisions in the future.

A good start for honest discussion is agreement on historical facts.

Opponents to gun control have been winning their demands for decades, culminating in the District of Columbia v. Heller decision from 2008 that interpreted the Second Amendment as guaranteeing an individual’s right to own a gun. The decision, alongside its successor in McDonald v. City of Chicago, singlehandedly invalidated laws across the country pertaining to the types of guns people could own, declaring that cities had no right to institute their own laws on ownership. Several states adopted permit-less carry laws in the years proceeding.

Compare this to the “Wild West” era of American history, portrayed in movies as lawless lands full of gunslinging cowboys and bandits. In reality, society understood at the time that unfettered firearm access didn’t mesh well with safety and security. Some of the very cities seen in the classic westerns of the 20th century, like Tombstone and Dodge City, had more restrictive laws in the late 1800s than they do today.(45)

One of the reasons this has been possible comes from a sudden shift in how the Second Amendment’s text was interpreted, changing it greatly from its original, documented intention: protecting state militias. As the Constitution was going through its rough drafts, a debate came up between the Federalists and Antifederalists. The former group wanted the new Congress to have a great deal of control over state militias, being in charge of arming and funding them, while leaving other management concerns to the states themselves; the latter felt this was too much power ripe for abuse, and wanted as little authority as possible relegated to the federal government. For example, putting Congress in charge of arming militias meant certain states could be de-powered by having resources withheld and sent elsewhere, opening the door to corruption. So, in compromise, the two sides agreed to what is now written as the Second Amendment: that the right to bear arms could not be infringed.(46)

From the moment the quill touched the paper, this was understood as a safeguard against the potential for Congress to abuse its power of arming the militias; the concept of the Second Amendment guaranteeing an individual’s right to own guns in their home was never intended, nor even implied in its creation. (When it did come time for Congress to fund militias, however, they instead told the states to take care of it, who then told militia members to procure their own resources. This is why the whole idea of state militias petered out in the end.)(47,48)

This was the meaning as understood by scholars, lawmakers, and courts for almost two centuries of US history. What sparked the change was a 1959 article in the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine, containing an alleged quote from a Chinese emperor in 124 BC on the necessity of individuals owning weapons to defend against tyranny. The article led to a slew of law review submissions—many of them funded by the NRA itself—interpreting this idea as evidence of the Second Amendment guaranteeing a right to individual ownership of firearms. Then, 1981 brought along with it a senator by the name of Orrin Hatch who, with the authority of his place on the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, declared to have uncovered “clear—and long lost—proof that the second amendment [sic] to our Constitution was intended as an individual right of the American citizen to keep and carry arms in a peaceful manner, for protection of himself, his family, and his freedoms.”(48)

What exactly this proof was doesn’t seem to have ever been disclosed. But it was enough to boost the efforts of gun rights activists and start a shift in public opinion from conservatives that continues to this day. In 1993, according to Pew polling, 47% of Republicans viewed controls on gun ownership as more important than protecting the right of Americans to own guns; by 2000, this had increased to 55%. But in the years following, the number has dropped as low as 17% in 2017, while 78% believe gun rights to be more important. During the same period, Democrats shifted from 65% placing gun control higher in importance, to 78%.(49)

Relaxing our gun laws hasn’t made us safer.

Despite Republicans throwing their support overwhelmingly behind the NRA, and mobilizing to oppose restrictions whenever possible, the threat to public health posed by firearms hasn’t changed much. Historically, homicide rates have fluctuated from around 5 per 100,000 in the 1980s to 7 per 100,000 during a peak in the 1990s.(50) A low point occurred around 2013 when the number dropped to 3.6, but it’s climbed ever since, hitting 4.62 in 2016.(31)

Suicide isn’t much different. From 1999-2014, suicide rates increased from 10.5 per 100,000 to 13, with firearms being responsible for more than half the cases.(51)

And when it comes to mass shootings, they’ve objectively gotten worse, whether it’s a matter of frequency or deadliness. The database compiled by Mother Jones(52), which measures shootings in which at least four people other than the shooter died, goes as far back as 1982, and shows the average increasing from one incident per year to several, with the number of deaths rising over the last decade.(53) Other investigations, one compiled by Politico and another by Harvard, indicate the number of incidents may not have increased, but the number of people killed in each shooting has.(54) Finally, data from the Mass Shooting Tracker highlights an increase in recent years, from 339 in 2013, to 427 last year, and this year’s count hitting 175 just after the third week of June.(55, 1)

If, in theory, we are meant to be safer by reducing the restrictions on where guns may be carried and what it takes to buy them, it hasn’t been reflected in practice.

Now that we understand the need for gun control, it’s time to get serious and stop backing down.

In the aftermath of Parkland, marches were held and voices were heard—including those which hadn’t been getting the proper attention they deserved.(56) People of all ages stood behind the young people of America, who demanded an end to accepting everyday gun violence as an acceptable cost of easily accessible firearms. Months later, student die-ins and demonstrations haven’t let up. To the people who felt fear in standing up to the gun lobby, and shied away from the discussion, a single message was delivered: being afraid isn’t necessary anymore.

A myriad of ways exist to bring about change. The March For Our Lives website(57), created in reaction to the shooting at Stoneman Douglas, provides several resources to get involved in advocating for change. These range from voter registration drives to outlines for setting up an activist club in your own location, as well as information on attending organized rallies across the country. Another important activist group is Sandy Hook Promise, created by parents of the victims, with similar resources on their site.(58) For people seeking to learn more about the effects mass shootings and gun violence have on people, check out The Rebels Project(59), founded by survivors of Columbine and the Aurora theater shootings.

Contacting the people responsible for translating change into law is equally important, from the local level on up. For contacting state and congressional legislators, two sites have made finding the proper channels of communication extremely easy. Open States will help you find whoever represents you at the state level(60), and Call My Congress gives all the contact information available for your senators and representatives—even their Twitter handles.(61) If your members of Congress haven’t already signed on to support H.R. 1478, get in touch and tell them why they should. (Unfortunately, finding your city councilors may require a bit of Googling.)

If your current elected officials aren’t taking action, vote in someone who will! Vote 411(62) can tell you who’s running for almost every office relevant to you. Nobody to vote for? Then take a look at Run For Office(63) to see how to get yourself into the game and bring about the change you want.

With so many resources available, and the momentum of youth activism carrying us forward, we can implement common sense regulations we know will save lives. We can demand that restraining orders include the confiscation of firearms possessed by the aggressor. We can require that permits for gun ownership include mandatory relicensing just like vehicles, and information regarding the sale and transfer of firearms be made available to researchers. Licenses themselves should require extreme vetting, documented training in de-escalating situations without the use of a firearm, and home visits from an independent board similar to those required in some states for adopting an animal. Even more, we should demand that people requesting to own a high-powered, semi-automatic firearm be required to present justifiable reasons for why possessing such a weapon is necessary.

Firearms are clearly a societal issue and public health hazard, and the majority of people in the United States have made it clear they are no longer willing to let this problem go unaddressed. We have the numbers, the power, and the research to make changes that will improve lives. We have the drive to push forward like so many countries before us. We can make this happen. So let’s get going.

Editing by Axel Bordelon. Special thanks to Mark Pitcavage for contributing, and P. Persica for additional editing.

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