two pounds of potatoes and a small brown loaf.” Maybe this line from “The Goon Show” was heralding democratization of the aristocratic warrior code. The glint of sunlight on a knight’s armor and the clink of his trusty sword were now on the grocery list along with bread and potatoes. Or maybe it’s not because we have such romantic ideas. Whatever, we do have a lot of guns, and they do a lot of harm.
We 315M Americans who already possess 310M firearms spend on average $20 a year on firearms and ammunition, a total annual spend of $6B. That’s much less than we spend on bread and potatoes but it adds up. Much of the ammo is consumed but the firearms bought in previous years remain in service. In 1994 we owned 192M guns, one for every two people. Today’s average is almost one to one. Some of us have several guns, 47% of us have at least one gun in our home.
The total economic impact of the firearms industry including gun shop rent, utilities and wages, sales taxes and etc. is around $32B but that’s still only $100 per person per year. Maybe we should also consider a different cost. In 2009, the latest for which we have CDC statistics, we had a total of 31,347 firearm deaths. Our overall rate of deaths by firearm was 10.2 per 100K. Homicides were 40% of that total, suicides 60%.
First and foremost, then, firearms are used for suicide. Looking inside the 6.1 overall rate for firearm suicide rates and 5.9 by other means, we find 12.3 per 100K for firearm suicide by white males, 4.8 for black males and 7.6 for male American Indian or Alaska Natives. The suicide rate by other means was 9.3 for white males and 3.8 for black males. That says white males are significantly the most likely to commit suicide and their preferred method is a firearm. The next highest suicide rate is 10.3 for American Indian or Alaska Natives using other means.
Turning to homicides, inside the 3.7 per 100K overall rate for firearm homicides and 1.7 by other means, we find the firearm homicide rate was 3.1 for white males, 0.9 for white females, 28.4 for black males and 5.2 for American Indian or Alaska Natives. The homicide rate by other means was 1.8 for white males and 5.8 for both black males and American Indian or Alaska Natives.
Black males are almost eight times more likely than average to be killed by firearm homicide. White males and females are less likely than average to be killed by firearm homicide. So, if you’re black you are right to fear being killed by a firearm, if you’re white you have much less to fear. These statistics do not indicate the demographics of who shot the black males or any other group.
Why do people want guns? In answer to a recent survey, 67% said for self-defense, 58% for hunting and 66% for target shooting. Nobody said because guns are cool. Nobody said for suicide.
Do people think society would be safer if fewer guns were around? In the wake of the Newtown massacre, 58% of those surveyed in the most recent Gallup Poll said they favor stricter gun control laws. That’s up significantly from 43% in October 2011. What surprised me, however, is 51% are against any law making it illegal to manufacture, sell, or possess “semi-automatic guns known as assault rifles” vs 44% who favor such a restriction. I was only a little less surprised that a very large majority, 74%, opposes any greater restrictions on the possession of handguns vs 24% who do favor more restrictions.
I cannot fathom why the majority of those polled want more people to have “semi-automatic guns known as assault rifles”?
What restrictions are favored? Background checks? The number of firearms manufactured in the US is 5.5M per year, the number of gun registrations is 3.2M. That means a very large number of guns are sold every year to people we don’t want to have them. And remember, the guns used in the Newtown massacre were purchased legally. The owner whose son killed her with one of them bought those guns at least in part for self-defense, a tragic mistake.
I once bought a gun. It was when we were raising our forty sheep and a pair of dogs leaped the fence one day and attacked our prize rams. I heard their barking and, flooded with adrenalin, managed to chase them off before they did any lasting harm. It was very hard, I was very scared for my sheep, and I was very angry. “Next time,” I raged, “I’ll shoot the bastards!” So I bought a .22 rifle and did some target practice. As it happened, the story ended happily because we sold all the sheep a few years later before any more dogs came. I’m lucky I was never in a situation where I’d have used the gun. It could only have led to suffering.
So what should we do? First, what we should not do. Killing other beings for pleasure harms us but I don’t want to ban it because some people do it for food and, anyway, I have no right to dictate other folks’ pleasures. I have no objection to target shooting and have had fun doing it myself. Although having firearms for self-defense is a mistake because few of us could disable an attacker who was already set to fire, and a firearm in the house is more likely to be used for suicide or cause accidental death, I wouldn’t ban them because gun ownership is part of our culture. I hope that will change but in that hope I’m in the minority.
What I would do is make civilian possession of semi-automatic and other such weapons illegal and enforce it rigorously with heavy penalties. I would buy and destroy those weapons. Mark, in a comment on “The Massacre in My Home Town”, writes more about what weapons are OK and not OK to own. Defining that has some challenges but so do all laws. We’re capable of writing good ones.
Background checks are good but gun shows too often evade them and too many weapons I would ban are already in the hands of criminals. That’s why I would rigorously enforce possession. I would also mount a campaign like the one against smoking to make everyone aware of the real dangers of gun ownership.
It would take many years to remove even 80% of the banned weapons from civilian ownership. It would take many years before significant numbers voluntarily gave up guns the law allowed them to keep but whose danger they had come to recognize. So? There is, pardon the expression, no silver bullet in this case. The fact that there’s no immediate fix is unfortunate. We need to accept that and get started.
Our culture is different from nations with tighter gun control and correspondingly lower firearm death rates. We can learn a little from their experience but our path will be different. As practical people, we need not explore the cultural origins of our very high rate of gun ownership. We only need to recognize it results in too many preventable deaths. Then we can take positive action.