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.