How Should We Approach Gun Control?

As many pointed out last Friday, after the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, politics is one of the most important ways in which a democratic society deals with thorny issues—and the regularity of mass killings in the United States is a complicated issue that deserves a political lens. As David Waldman put it, “If you live under a regime of self-government, everything is political. Even the decision to decline to address things politically.”

With that said, here are a few things we know about gun violence in this country. There are an estimated 270 million privately owned guns in the U.S, and the total rate of gun ownership is 88.8 firearms per 100 people. Overall, there are guns in 40 to 45 percent of American households, and nearly a third of adults own a firearm. This makes the United States the most gun-saturated country in the world.

We also have a high rate of gun-related violence. There were 16,272 homicides in 2008. Of those, more than 58 percent—or 9,484—were committed with a firearm. In 2005, guns were used in more than half of all suicides, and that same year, nearly 800 people died in gun-related accidents.

To many people, particularly liberals, the solution is simple—we need more gun control. Unfortunately, as much as it seems like there ought to be a relationship between the number of guns and the amount of gun violence, there isn’t. Or rather, if there is a relationship, it’s incredibly difficult to ascertain. According to the most recent literature, various case studies show a positive relationship between violence and gun ownership, but there’s little evidence of a causal relationship. Does high gun ownership result in greater violence, or are violent people more likely to own guns? Do guns reduce the barrier to committing violence, or would violence happen regardless, with a different weapon?

Likewise, there’s no direct relationship between guns and crime. A community with lots of guns is no more safe than one with few guns, and vice-versa. There’s certainly a relationship between guns and safety—gun injuries require guns, after all—but there’s only so much you can do about that fact. Indeed, as John Sides notes at The Monkey Cage, violent crime and gun ownership are at a lower point now than they’ve been in recent history. Here’s what violence in America looks like from 1960 to 2010:

And here’s what gun ownership looks like during the same period:

Reducing the number of guns in circulation might reduce everyday crime in the aggregate, but given the degree to which mass killings are sui generis, it's not clear that they would do much to prevent Aurora-style shootings. Other than a speeding ticket, the gunman, a 24-year-old man, had a clean record. Barring a ban on privately owned firearms, there was nothing that could have kept him from purchasing a gun. Indeed, given the extent to which the United States is—and has always been—saturated with guns, he could have easily gone to another state to purchase a gun. And if he had a criminal record, he could easily purchase one off of the black market. If someone is determined to kill a lot of people, there is little that can stop him.

The simple fact is that the issue of gun control is much thornier than it looks. There’s no way to know if greater gun control will actually have an effect on crime or the incidence of mass killings. It’s unsatisfying, but “we need more gun control” is probably the wrong lesson to take from the Aurora shootings.

But that’s not to say that we shouldn’t talk about guns. Even if there isn’t much we can do, policy-wise, to stop mass killings, we still ought have a public conversation about the gun culture, and the immense power of the gun lobby. In doing so, however, we should know and understand the limits of our ability to change things.


I suggest you apply occams razor to the problem. Easy access, more powerful weapons, easier to kill, more dead people. Now that wasn't difficult.

You might want to look also at the rate of gun related homicides and deaths in other countries to get an idea of the relationship.

In essence, we are trying to prove a counter-factual. Yes, short of a prohibition on private gun ownership, would have been able to buy a gun possible several guns and maybe even everything he did actually buy. However, tighter gun controls could have meant that:

- He wouldn't have been able to legally purchased the assault rifle, as would have been the case a decade ago.
- He wouldn't have been able to buy the quantity of ammunition and firearms that he did in the time frame that he did, at least without raising some red flags.
- If it hadn't been legal, he could have been caught in the process of committing the crime of purchasing any/all of it illegally.

Obviously, he put some significant planning into this, however, stretching out the time span in which he could legally amass the kind of firepower he did increases the opportunity for some intervening event that could have prevented or reduced the severity of the event.

(I read that his mom was certain when that it was her son who had done it as soon as she heard about it. I point this out not to blame her in the least but to point out that people who knew him knew he posed a risk and given more time and/or more warning, they might have had the opportunity to intervene).

More importantly, as these sui generis mass these shootings are, we still have far more than other OEDC countries. Obviously, you can't eliminate all of these shootings as the mass shootings in relatively less violent OEDC countries indicate. However, we tolerate a far greater magnitude of both mass shootings and run-of-the-mill single/double/triple shootings simply because it is "complicated" to draw a straight line from the availability of guns to gun violence when you just compare gun availability and crime in the US, particularly without accounting other factors that we know contribute to crime and violence. For example, not controlling for the crack epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s is a glaring oversight here.

Colorado Shooting, Batman & High Fructose Corn Syrup

The author is comparing apples and oranges. Few advocates are calling for "gun control" if it means taking away the guns. Rational people are saying that Americans do not need to privately own assault weapons with 100 round clips. Sure, crazies will be able to handguns or shotguns and will be able to shoot innocent people, but they won't be able to fire off so many rounds in such a short time. Forcing this shooter to stop and reload his shotgun might have enabled some victims to flee or fight back.

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