Guns in America

Americans and Their Guns

Americans own more guns than anybody else on earth, even adjusted for population. (Yemenis are second.) This is either a sign of the nation’s historic devotion to personal freedom or of cultural psychosis and political gridlock; the argument, as distinctively American as the gun culture itself, rages on. Measured by victories in courts and legislatures, the dominant pro-gun group, the National Rifle Association, claiming 5 million members, is on a 20-year winning streak.

The Situation

The most ambitious efforts to restrict gun ownership in two decades spread across the U.S. in 2013. That was in response to mass shootings by gunmen the previous year at a movie theater in Colorado and a school in Newtown, Connecticut. A counter-reaction by gun-rights groups was more effective. Congress took its biggest gun-control vote in 19 years, on a measure to expand background checks for gun purchasers. It was defeated. (Months later, a madman shot his way into the Washington Navy Yard and killed 12 people a mile from the U.S. Capitol.) ConnecticutNew York and Maryland expanded bans on assault weapons. California created a new type of restraining order meant to keep guns out of the hands of mentally unstable people. Legislatures in Colorado, 16 other states and the District of Columbia tightened their laws in other ways. In 2014, voters in Washington state expanded background checks for firearms purchases. Twenty-eight states passed laws weakening restrictions, including seven that now specify that guns are allowed in schools. In Colorado, the NRA financed recall elections that ousted politicians who backed the gun control measure. Discussion of new firearms restrictions led to a run on gun stores and record profits for manufacturers. More than half of U.S. states introduced constitutionally dubious bills that would nullify new firearms restrictions passed by Congress.

Source: Small Arms Survey, 2007
Source: Small Arms Survey, 2007

The Background

The post-Newtown flurry of gun-control oratory and activity followed two decades of gun-rights expansion that included easing state restrictions on concealed weapons — now allowed in all 50 states — and expanded rights to use guns in self-defense. Congress let its ban on assault weapons expire in 2004. Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the first time that the constitution gave individuals a right to own guns. Obama, in 2009, signed a bill allowing guns in national parks. America has the highest ratio of firearms to citizens with 89 guns per 100 people. Yet evidence shows that the percentage of Americans who owned a gun slid to 34 percent in 2012 from 49 percent in the 1980s, which could mean those who are rushing out to buy guns already have at least one. Shootings in other countries lead to similar debates. Switzerland, with the third-highest number of guns per capita, began considering weapons-control measures in 2013 after mass shootings in consecutive months.

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, 1993-2011
Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, 1993-2011

The Argument

The U.S. is one of three countries to include gun-ownership rights in its constitution (alongside Mexico and Guatemala). But the Second Amendment articulates those rights in eccentric syntax that scholars parse in conflicting ways. Not until 2008 did the Supreme Court rule that individual citizens have a right to own arms, a view that had been pushed since the 1970s by America’s largest gun lobby and was at odds with the previous thinking that the right applied to state militias. Legal experts say the decision leaves room for some gun control for weapons not in common use, though it remains unclear whether the new state-level bans on the commercially popular assault rifles used in Connecticut and Colorado will withstand court challenges. Gun-control groups say limiting weapons will drive down gun-related crimes. They point to data showing America’s homicide rate is 6.9 times higher than that of 23 other high-income countries, all of which have lower rates of gun ownership. Gun-rights advocates also point to crime trends. They note that since the assault-weapon ban ended in 2004, violent crime in America has fallen significantly, while fatal and non-fatal shootings are also down slightly.

The Reference Shelf

  • Report by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Information on the number of background checks requested for weapons per month from 1998 to present.
  • Data on the amount and types of weapons manufactured in the U.S. by state, compiled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
  • Small Arms Survey compares rates of private gun ownership by country.
  • Data showing non-fatal gun-related crime falling from 1993 to 2011.
  • Report summarizing gun control laws in 18 industrialized countries and the European Union.

First Published Dec. 12, 2013

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Annie Linskey in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:

Jonathan I. Landman at