On the heels of yet another mass shooting, we are once again hearing renewed calls to repeal the Second Amendment or make ownership of some (or all) weapons illegal. But is the ability to own firearms the problem? Particularly in issues involving strong opinions and heated political rhetoric, facts are critical. Here are some important and relevant ones:
No. 1: According to a 2020 Gallup poll, 32% of Americans — or more than 82 million people — own some kind of firearm. More college graduates (35%) own a firearm than do Americans without a college degree (31%). And significantly more upper-middle class Americans own a firearm (38% of people earning more than $100,000/year) than do lower-middle class Americans (25% of people earning less than $40,000/year).
No. 2: Gun purchases skyrocketed in the past two years. Americans bought 22.8 million guns in 2020, and another 19.9 million guns last year. Many attribute this to COVID lockdowns, the epidemic of riots, burning and looting that Americans observed in our cities throughout 2020, and perceived threats to civil liberties from a Democrat administration in the White House.
No. 3: Most American gun owners (almost two-thirds, per a recent Pew Research survey) cite personal protection as their primary reason for owning a firearm, not sport or hunting. Data on defensive gun use appears to bear this out. According to the 2021 National Firearms Use survey published at Georgetown University, 31% of the 16,000-plus civilian gun owners who responded to the survey reported having used a gun defensively at least once in their lives. In almost 82% of those cases, no shots were fired; in other words, merely displaying the weapon was sufficient to ward off the attack.
No. 4: In states with more lenient gun ownership laws as well as states with the strictest laws, the overwhelming majority of crimes are committed by individuals who were illegally in possession of the weapon they used. Illinois, for example, has some of the strictest gun laws in the United States, and yet Chicago remains the nation’s most violent city. Chicago’s deadliest year this century was 2021, with 836 homicides and more than 3,500 shooting incidents.
No. 5: In Chicago and other cities across the country, Black people represent a disproportionate percentage of victims. Eighty-one percent of Chicago’s homicide victims in 2021 were Black. New York City saw a 52% increase in homicides and a 104% increase in shootings from 2019-2021. Black people, who represent 24% of the city’s residents, were the victims in 65% of murders and 74% of all shootings. Even in Los Angeles, where Black people account for only 9% of the city’s population, they were 36% of the murder victims in 2020 and 2021. (Latino people are 49% of the city’s population and were 50% of the homicide victims during that same time period.)
No. 6: Above and beyond the gang, crime and drug-related violence that plagues our cities, Americans are reeling from the mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, in the past month. The definition of “mass shooting” is admittedly muddy. Most people associate the term with horrific massacres like the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 (12 students and a teacher killed), the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass murder in 2012 (20 first graders and six teachers killed) or the nine Black congregants gunned down at Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015. But news media and organizations that study gun violence use the term “mass shooting” to describe any incident where three or more people are killed, excluding the shooter. This definition brings in large numbers of domestic violence cases and gang-related shootings.
No. 7: Even if one focuses only on the most extreme cases, pinning down causes is difficult. There is a tendency to blame unspeakable violence on mental illness. Although some perpetrators of mass shootings are clearly mentally ill, experts say that other factors like social isolation, a history of violence and a sudden fascination with weapons are far more predictive of future violence than mental illness alone, or even mental illness coupled with substance abuse problems. (Nicole Hockley and Mark Barden, parents of two children murdered at Sandy Hook, have started an organization, Sandy Hook Promise, that trains children and educators to recognize warning signs associated with likelihood of violence.)
No. 8: But some commonalities do stand out. A 2016 study published by psychologist Dr. Peter Langman revealed that 82% of the perpetrators of mass shootings came from broken homes with seriously dysfunctional families where “not just divorce and separation, but also infidelity, substance abuse, criminal behavior, domestic violence, and child abuse” were present. The research of criminologists Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi echoes Langman’s conclusions, finding that a fatherless home is a “powerful predictor of crime.” Salvador Ramos, the young man who killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde last week, not only displayed the warning signs defined by Sandy Hook Promise, but his home life was violent and unstable, with no father and a mother alleged to have a drug problem.
There’s no question that America is facing real crises: an epidemic of substance abuse, the collapse of marriage and families, inadequate mental health treatment and neighborhoods rife with crime. These are complicated problems that deserve our full attention. But trying to repeal the Second Amendment or pass laws banning the sale or ownership of firearms isn’t a solution. It isn’t even a “first step” to a solution. It is a form of denial that will punish law-abiding citizens while doing nothing to address the root causes of the violence that is ripping our country apart.
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