Making sense of the gun debate: The numbers

Another day and another gun massacre in the United states. On May 23rd 2014 we saw a gun massacre occur in Santa Barbara California, another one added to the long lists of massacres. We saw another sympathetic speech from the president over the issue, another gun debate on the mainstream media, another hysterical warning that the government was going to take guns away from rightwing conspiracy theorists. It all seems like a never ending cycle of gun violence in the U.S and a never ending debate to boot and it seems like every man and his dog is coming out with ‘the answer’ to the matter. I’ve followed the gun debate since the Columbine shooting back in 1999 and over the years I have tried to make sense of the matter. It is difficult however to get around to understanding the gun issue as a whole as it is a complex issue that stems back to the founding days of the United States. It is an issue that spans a number of other issues, it spans ideologies and national culture. It is difficult for me to fit the entire gun debate into one article so in this one I will start off with mostly the statistics of it all.


The stats: Guns in the United States
First off let’s look at the statistics of guns and gun violence in the United States against the rest of world. As of April 2013 there were approximately 88.8 firearms to every 100 persons in the United States (1) compared to Switzerland and Finland which come up at just over 45 firearms to every 100 persons (1). The United States is well ahead of the rest of the world for firearm related deaths where there are 10.2 incidences per 100,000 in the United States in comparison to 3.84 incidences in Switzerland which comes in second. More americans have died at the hands of guns on U.S soil than all the wars since 1968 (2). In 2011, the latest piece of data I could find on this, 8,583 americans were murdered by use of guns, this takes 67.7% of weapons used in murders (3) in the United States. In comparison, death by cutting or stabbing (involving knives) amounted to 1,694 or 13.3% of all murders in the United States as of 2011 (3). So it is a matter of fact that guns are the main instrument of murder used in the United States, it by far outweighs the use of other tools to commit murder. It’s also evident that the United States seems to have more of a problem with gun related crimes in comparison to the rest of the world, the stats clearly indicate so.


Gun access
Let’s start with one sobering reality, gun numbers. In 2012 the congressional Research service found that there were 310 million non-military firearms in the United States (4). That’s about a gun to every single person in the United States from new borns to elderly. Add to that the fact that it is fairly easy to legally get access to a gun in many states in the United States. We can compare this to India which has the second largest number of non-military owned firearms, 46 million (7) and what’s more, they have 1.2 billion people sp per capita, it is about a fraction that of the United States. In Alaska for example a permit is not required to purchase a gun (5) and Arizona takes this a step further by not requiring a permit to carry one in public provided you’re 21 or over (5). In many of the States that do require permits to carry weapons, getting them are relatively easy and what’s more in Utah for example, by getting a gun permit there you can use your permit in 32 other states (6).
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the pair responsible for the heinous act committed at Columbine Highschool in 1999 were both underaged (under 18) to acquire the arms used in the shootings. However they were able to get a friend (former prom date of Dylan Klebold) who was 18 years old at the time was able to purchase the weapons for them instead (8). Seung-Hui Cho, responsible for the Virginia Tech massacre, was able to acquire his weapons from a pawnbroker and a gun dealer despite his history of mental illness (9). Cho apparently had to go through backround checks to acquire these weapons (10) however these backround checks did not include the fact a Virginia Court ordered him to undergo treatment at a mental facility. Cho however was obligated to mention this in the backround questionnaire but did not do so.


Gun fluidity

Gun proponents have argued the futility of tough gun laws and have pointed to this as evidence that tighter gun control is not the answer. They further argue that because gun laws have done little to change the mass shootings that have occured over the years and that this is indicative of their argument that the issue has little to nothing to do with gun accessibility. Firstly the gun proponents are correct in the argument that gun laws have done little to prevent the occurence of mass shootings over the years. Connecticut is one such example where the Sunnyhook shootings took place. It has been rated as having one of the toughest gun laws in the United States by the pro-gun control Brady campaign (11). California has been rated as number one for tough gun control laws in the United States (12) yet we had the more recent Santa Barbara shooting occur. While I give gun proponents a fact check approval on that argument, it’s important to understand the context behind why these laws have not been effective.
In a country like the United States with some 300 million guns within it’s borders alone, it is very hard for any state to prevent the flow of weapons coming in and out. The same could be said for cities and counties. Chicago is a city well known for its restrictive gun laws yet more gun were seized for unpermitted use there than New York and Los Angeles (13). Gun violence in Chicago is higher than most other cities. So given this fact, why has Chicago struggled more so with gun violence than many other cities despite it’s restrictive gun laws? Well as a concerned Chicago christian minister, Reverend Ira Icree, put it to the New York times:

“Chicago is like a house with two parents that may try to have good rules and do what they can, but it’s like you’ve got this single house sitting on a whole block where there’s anarchy,” (13)

In 2013 Chicago police recovered some 50,000 guns from various crime scenes and criminals and of that number 15,000 were traced outside of Illinois state lines (14). In 2012 in New York about 9,000 guns were recovered and seized by New York police. Only a fraction of that number, 1,595 guns, were traced within New York State lines (15). That’s about 80% of guns having originated from outside New York state borders used in crime. In 2011 that figure was higher in New York where approximately 90% of guns used in crimes were traced out of State (16). Putting aside the reality that gun flow is relatively free and unopposed in the United States regardless of State, even the most restrictive State laws do little to hinder gun access in my analysis of ‘gun access’. Despite California’s tough gun law Elliot Rodgers, the shooter in the recent Isla Vista massacre, was still able to purchase a number of handguns in California. Despite his mental history Elliot was still able to pass through California background checks, the fact he didn’t have a criminal history was not a factor at all (17).

“Even a diagnosis of serious mental illness, in itself, would not have prevented Rodger from buying a gun under California law, said Lindsay Nichols, staff attorney with the advocacy group Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.” (17)

So even the so called toughest of gun laws have not been tough enough in preventing the mass shootings that have occured.
To be continued.

(4) Congressional Research Service, Krouse, W (November 14, 2012), Gun Control Legislation. pp 8

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