Guns in America

Americans and Their Guns

Each new mass shooting in the U.S. reignites debate over the country’s treatment of gun rights as virtually sacrosanct. Americans own more guns than anybody else on earth, even adjusted for population. (Yemenis are second.) Firearms are involved in the deaths of more than 30,000 people in the U.S. annually, about two-thirds of which are suicides. Guns are also integral to the story of the nation’s founding. The National Rifle Association, the dominant pro-gun group, has been on a decades-long winning streak convincing courts and lawmakers to loosen gun restrictions and to prevent the passage of new ones. Unable to break Congressional gridlock in Washington, gun-control advocates have taken their fight to the states. Overall, the gun lobby is winning, there, too.

The Situation

U.S. gun sales have begun to level after a spike caused by fears that mass shootings, including the 2012 massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, would lead to restrictions. No such action materialized at the federal level; a Congressional bill to expand background checks for gun purchasers was defeated in a momentous vote in 2013. States led by Democrats, including Connecticut, New York and Maryland, expanded bans on assault weapons, while California created a new type of restraining order meant to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally unstable and Oregon closed a background-check loophole. But a majority of states weakened restrictions, and many now permit guns in more places, including schools, restaurants, churches and public buildings. Hidden guns are now allowed in all 50 states, and many states have expanded rights to use guns in self-defense. The U.S. has a higher per-capita rate of firearm homicides than any other industrialized nation. Harvard and Northeastern University researchers say mass shootings have been increasing in frequency since 2011.

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

The Background

The U.S. is one of three countries to include gun-ownership rights in its constitution. (Mexico and Guatemala are the others.) The right “of the people to keep and bear arms,” enshrined in the Second Amendment, was established in the 18th century to allow states to form militias to protect themselves against oppression by the federal government. Interpretation has evolved, and in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the amendment protected the gun rights of individuals, not just militias. Beyond the legalities, the gun is a cultural icon in the U.S. — a necessary instrument of soldiers in the Revolutionary War, frontiersman conquering the Great Plains, cowboys roaming the Wild West. The number of guns in private hands is thought to have grown to as high as 310 million, even as recent surveys show that a record low of 32 percent of Americans own at least one of those firearms or live with someone who does, down from more than 50 percent in the late 1970s to early 1980s. Shootings in other countries also lead to debates over regulation. Switzerland, which combines a high gun ownership rate with a low homicide rate, 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 well-funded NRA and its allies argue that gun regulations only hurt law-abiding gun owners because criminals simply ignore them. They note that since Congress let a ban on assault weapons expire in 2004, violent crime in America has fallen significantly, while fatal and non-fatal shootings are also down slightly. Meanwhile gun-control advocates (some backed by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP) say limiting weapons will drive down gun-related crimes. Australia enacted strict gun ownership laws after a historic massacre that left 35 people dead in 1996; since, there’ve been zero mass shootings, and the firearms homicide and suicide rates have plummeted. An editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine said the level of gun violence in the U.S. amounts to a public health crisis; the left-leaning magazine Mother Jones calculated direct and indirect costs of $229 billion a year.

The Reference Shelf

  • 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.

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First Published Dec. 12, 2013

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Esmé E. Deprez in Los Angeles at

To contact the editors responsible for this QuickTake:

Jonathan I. Landman at

Lisa Beyer at