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The Wild West


When will Americans finally become fed up with mass killings? In recent years we have had the Virginia Tech murders, the Gabby Gifford shootings in Arizona, the Batman movie killings in Denver and the shootings at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin.  In addition to these well-known incidents, there have been, in the last ten years, 18 other mass shootings yielding a death toll of 126 people in the United States. The perpetrators of the incidents at Virginia Tech, Arizona and Denver clearly had mental problems. No doubt many of the other gunmen did also. Curiously, these events have raised more of a cry for improved treatment of mental illness than for increased gun control.


The US has no more mental illness than the rest of the world, but it does have more guns per person than any other country in the world.* However, opponents of gun control have argued that mass killings occur nearly as often in Europe as in the United States and cite several school shootings in Germany and the tragedy in Norway in which a lone gunman (who was declared  sane) killed 77 people as evidence that gun control does not reduce killing. However, these European incidents merely show that strict gun control does not eliminate mass killings. Isolated incidents, either in Europe or in the United States do not give an accurate picture of gun-related deaths. The U.S. still leads all European countries, except Estonia, in gun related homicide rates and is 28th in the world behind  a number of South American, Caribbean and African countries in this category.** (The oft-cited statistic that the US has the highest rate of gun-related deaths in the world is simply inaccurate. However the rate of gun related deaths and gun related homicides in the US is the highest of any wealthy, developed country).


Would stricter gun control laws reduce the incidence of gun-related deaths in the U.S.? The data bearing upon this issue are suggestive but not conclusive. Across all fifty of the United States there is a significant  inverse relationship between whether a state has restrictive gun laws such as a ban on assault weapons, requirements for trigger locks and safe storage of firearms laws and rates of gun-related deaths.*** There is also a robust positive relationship across states in gun ownership and gun-related homicide rates.**** A well-known study found that jurisdictions with “right to carry” concealed weapons laws had lower crime rates than other jurisdictions. ***** However other large-scale statistical analyses comparing US counties that had passed laws allowing the carrying of  concealed weapons and those that hadn’t, failed to show any effect of such laws on gun-related homicides or crime rates in general.****


All of the above data are correlational. Higher education of its citizens, liberal orientation of its electorate and higher wealth (as well as higher percent of immigrants!) are all positively correlated with low gun-related death rates in the United States and it may be that those characteristics are what lead voters to pass stricter gun control laws, while the laws themselves have no direct causal effect upon death rates.  Violent crime rates, both across the United States and in many of the states which passed right to carry laws were decreasing when right-to-carry laws were passed and further decreases may have just mirrored a national trend.


So if we can’t say anything definitive about the causal influence of stricter gun control on gun-relate death rates, what can we say about the need for stricter gun control? More importantly, what suggestions can we make for reducing the rate of gun-related deaths in the United States? Well, people can’t use guns to kill people if they don’t have access to guns, so restricting access to guns ought to reduce gun-related deaths. The problem is how to do it. Mexico is an example of a country in which strict gun sale laws exist alongside outrageous rates of gun ownership (mostly via weapons smuggled in from the US). So strict gun sale laws need to exist, but alongside strict enforcement of those laws. This would include both a total ban on ownership of assault weapons and (as many countries have in place) a demonstration of a need to own a gun that does not include self-defense, as well as strict background checks on those who buy guns for legitimate reasons such as target practice or hunting.


Probably as much as by gun proliferation, the US is plagued by a culture of violence, which celebrates violence as a method of solving problems. We equate our country’s power and prestige with the strength of its armed forces, rather than with its intellectual or creative achievements.  Our media is saturated with images of violence in films, books and music.  When this veneration of violence is combined with the highest rate of gun possession in the world and a stubborn resistance to curb gun possession because of a belief that it is one of our inalienable rights, we find ourselves exactly where we are today—the most violent of the world’s well-developed countries.


The Editor






*****John R. Lott and David B. Mustard, 'Crime, Deterrence, and Right-to-Carry Concealed Handguns'. The Journal of Legal Studies, 26 (1997)


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