We’re better at killing Americans than our enemies are

If your gut tells you that mass public shootings are alarmingly common, your gut’s right.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines a mass murder as four or more deaths during a single incident with no distinct time period between killings. By this definition, according to Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, between 1980 and 2010 there were an average of 20 mass murders per year, or an average of one every 2.6 weeks.

Now it looks like that interval is shrinking. According to shootingtracker.com, there were 30 mass public shootings with four or more dead in 2014, and there have been 31 this year through the Oct. 1 tragedy in Roseburg, Ore., or one every 1.6 weeks.

No wonder President Obama feels like he’s repeating himself with sullen regularity in his post-shooting speeches.

Our gun problem of course extends beyond mass violence. In 2014 alone, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 11,208 people shot to death, 33,636 injured by gunfire and 21,175 who killed themselves with a gun. That’s a total of 66,019 people who were killed or injured by a gun, which comes out to 1,269 per week, 180 a day or 7.5 per hour.

Add up all the gun fatalities since 1970 (approximate annual average of 30,000, according to the CDC) and you get the staggering figure of 1.35 million dead, which is disturbingly close to the figure of 1.39 million Americans who have died in all wars since the American Revolution.

Perhaps this is the gruesome price of freedom. The 2nd Amendment guarantees us the right to own a gun, and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that right in two recent cases. But should you, dear reader, choose to own a gun?

Consider this finding from a 1998 study published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery: “Every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.”

In other words, the fantasy many of us have of facing down an intruder with a firearm is belied by the fact that a gun is 22 times more likely to be used in a criminal assault, an accidental death or injury, a suicide attempt or a homicide than it is for self-defense.

If you own a gun and keep it safely locked up and unloaded with the ammunition somewhere else (recommended by gun safety experts), do you really think that, in the event of a break-in, you could get to your gun, find your ammo and load it, engage the intruder, accurately aim and kill him, all before he takes your things? If you do, you’ve been watching too many movies. Go to a firing range and try shooting a handgun. It isn’t easy to do. It requires regular training.

If you own a gun and you don’t keep it safely locked up — if you keep it loaded and under your pillow, say — you might have a chance against an intruder, but you’re also setting yourself up for an accident. A depressed relative or perhaps a child could find the gun.

A 2009 study corroborated these findings. Conducted by epidemiologists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and published in the American Journal of Public Health, it found that, on average, people with a gun are 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not possessing a gun.

But let’s go back to your gut for a second. What if you acknowledge the validity of the statistics above, but your intuition tells you that gun control laws just won’t work to reduce the carnage. Is your gut right? No, it’s almost certainly not.

For a 2013 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. Internal Medicine, researchers mined a database of 121,084 firearm deaths between 2007 and 2010. Then they compiled a “legislative strength score” for all 50 states based on the number and force of their gun control laws, and divided the states into quartiles. As it turns out, the states in the highest quartile of legislative strength had the lowest overall firearm fatality rate, and those in the lowest quartile had the highest fatality rate. This correlation held for both homicides and suicides.

The authors were careful to note that correlation does not imply causation. But earlier studies have also found that the higher a state’s gun ownership rate, the higher its rate of gun-related homicides and suicides. Yes, people can kill one another and themselves with knives, ropes, lead pipes, wrenches and candlestick holders, but the data match the growing national intuition that guns are a major problem.

This opinion editorial was originally published by the Los Angeles Times online on October 6, 2015.

Additional Thoughts

Not surprisingly—given the heat generated by the gun debate in America—this op-ed produced a lot of mail.

First, let me assure readers that I am aware that there are lock boxes for hand guns that allow owners to store them safely and get to them relatively quickly for home defense in the event of a break in. Still, most likely you would need more than one gun in the home with the lock boxes positioned to be accessed relatively quickly wherever you happen to be in the event of a burglary, and of course you need to actually keep your guns stored in their lock boxes—or even get a lock box when you purchase the gun, which is not always the case.

Second, if you’re still not convinced that there’s a gun problem in America, since the October 1 mass shooting in Oregon that I wrote about there have been six more mass shootings through October 10, totally 6 dead and 20 wounded, bringing the 2015 total up to 300 for all types of mass shootings, and 31 that match the FBI’s definition of 4 or more dead. By the end of 2015 the average for mass shootings of any type will be 1 per day, and for the 4-or-more dead type the average will come in at around 1 every 1.5 weeks. No other Western country comes close to the U.S. in gun violence.

On the positive side, the Pew Research Center reports that the gun homicide rate is down 49% since the peak in 1993. The biggest plunge was in the late 90s, with declines less dramatic since 2000. The survey also found that, “The victimization rate for other violent crimes with a firearm—assaults, robberies and sex crimes—was 75% lower in 2011 than in 1993. Violent non-fatal crime victimization overall (with or without a firearm) also is down markedly (72%) over two decades.” Supporting my thesis in The Moral Arc that our brains are more geared to noticing short term trends of bad news while ignoring long term trends of good news, the survey also found that, “56% of Americans believe gun crime is higher than 20 years ago and only 12% think it is lower.”

Finally, my op-ed was primarily triggered by recent mass public shootings, but it is worth noting that between 1980 and 2008 these account for less than 1% of all homicide deaths. So if we want to reduce the carnage overall, the place to focus on is individual homicides.