US Gun Policies: Facts You Should Know

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With the numerous recent mass US shootings, much has been written by pro-gun and anti-gun advocates, with each selecting arguments to bolster their positions. Let me be clear from the outset:

  1. Given the proclivity of guns/nutcakes in the US, I agree with the NRA that all schools should have armed guards;
  2. But longer term, I view guns as too dangerous for citizens to possess.

However, I do not believe data and research should be hand-picked by one or another group to support their position. And in what follows, I have tried not to do this.

Data and Research

I draw most of my data from Wikipedia for firearm deaths and for guns. Wikipedia assembled a table based on information from United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Health Organization, and the Organization of American States. Most of the research findings I cite come from the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.

a) Civilian Guns

The US ranks 1st against 177 other countries in the number of civilian guns owned – 270 million. Looking at the rate of guns per 100,000 people, the US also ranked number 1.[1] In the following sections, international data on total shootings, homicides, suicides, and shootings recorded as unintentional deaths are presented (as a percent of 100,000 population) along with data on guns per 100 population).

b) Total Shooting Deaths

In Table 1, shooting deaths for 10 countries with the most and least are presented. There are several points worth noting: The average shootings rate for the top ten is 30.2 deaths per 100,000 while the civilian gun ownership is 17.9 per 100 citizens (US civilian gun rate is an amazing 88.8). In contrast, the average shooting for the lowest 10 is 0.2 shootings with the civilian ownership rate of only 5.8.

If you look at the countries that have more shootings than the US, most are from Central and South America where criminal elements developed to provide illegal drugs to the US. And while the guns came in to support the gangs, guns are now used for other purposes. For example, in Jamaica, the murder rate has been increasing steadily, and most of the murders are with firearms. Most gun homicides occur during disputes or are revenge killings. The principal motives are disputes and revenge.  Drugs, gangs, and political killings are no longer the main factors associated with murder.[2]

Most of the countries with the lowest shooting rates have laws that make it very difficult for citizens to possess guns. In these countries, if you are found to have a gun illegally, the penalties are severe.

Sources: Wikipedia for firearm deaths; for guns.

Click to enlarge

c) Homicides

It is well documented that where there are more guns there are more homicides.[1] This holds across high-income nations[2], and also among US states.[3] States with higher levels of household gun ownership have higher rates of firearm homicide and overall homicide.  This relationship holds for both genders and all age groups.

Sources: Ibid     Click to enlarge

In Japan, most kinds of guns are illegal, and almost no one owns a gun. In 2008 there were 11 shooting homicides. The country has nearly eliminated murder by firearms. In 2009 in the United Kingdom only 18 people were murdered with a firearm. The greatest number of gun caused homicides in the last 14 years was 2004, with 52 people killed. But in these and other “low gun” countries, it is more than just the numbers. The people in these societies accept the fact that civilians should not own guns.

d) Suicides

One point is stands out from the suicide data: in high income countries, guns are used primarily for suicides, not homicides. I believe people should have the right to commit suicide. But I would far prefer to die under the supervision of a doctor/nurse than have to use a gun.

Suicide Research Findings:

  • The higher rates of suicide among gun owners and their families cannot be explained by higher rates of suicidal behavior, but can be explained by easy access to a gun.[1]
  • Adolescents who commit suicide with a gun use the family gun. The vast majority of adolescent suicide guns come from parents of other family members.[2]
  • Levels of gun ownership are highly correlated with suicide rates across all age groups, even after controlling for lifetime major depression and serious suicidal thoughts.[3]
  • Gun owning households do not have more mental health problems than non-gun owning households. So differences in mental health do not explain why gun owners and their families are at higher risk for completed suicide than non-gun owning families.[4]
  • Gun owners are not more suicidal than non-owners. The higher rates of suicide among gun owners and their families cannot be explained by higher rates of suicidal behavior, but can be explained by easy access to a gun.[5]
  • Adolescents who commit suicide with a gun use the family gun. The vast majority of adolescent suicide guns come from parents of other family members.[6]

Sources: Ibid                 Click to enlarge

e) Unintentional Shooting Deaths

Table 4 provides data on the top and bottom ten countries on unintentional deaths. As one might expect, unintentional deaths are much higher where citizens own more guns. The average number of guns for the top unintentional death countries is 21.82 per hundred people; for countries with the lowest unintentional deaths, guns are only 8.99 per hundred people.

Sources: Ibid       Click to enlarge

f) Countries with the Most Guns

What do we find if we look at countries with more guns per 100 citizens than any others? These data are presented in Table 5. The US again leads in all categories by a wide margin. There one other notable feature worthy of note: most of the countries in Table 5 are high income European, and it appears they mostly use guns to commit suicide with very low homicide rates. But then there is the US: it has the highest gun suicide rate of them all, but guns are also used to murder a lot of people.

Click to enlarge

Gun advocates cite Switzerland and Israel as examples nations with widespread gun ownership and permissive gun laws. In actual fact, when compared to the US, Switzerland and Israel have lower rates of gun ownership, stricter gun control laws, and policies that discourage gun ownership.[1]

Arguments for Why Citizens Should Be Able to Possess Guns

Three arguments are put forth:

  1. It is guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution;
  2. Hunting;
  3. Protection.

The 2nd Amendment Argument

The 2nd Amendment reads:

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

What did this amendment mean when written? Back then, the US had no standing militia. In the case a militia was needed, citizens with guns became that militia. But today, this is anachronistic nonsense: the US has a standing army of 1.4 million personnel with an annual defense budget of almost $1 trillion. In short, the US has “a well regulated militia”. As a consequence, we don’t need citizens to possess guns. The Supreme Court frequently reinterprets the Constitution, and it is time this canard was put to rest. Can you imagine what the authors of the Constitution would think if they saw what this literal interpretation of the 2nd Amendment has led to?


A new study funded by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) and carried out by Southwick Associates has found that that 21.8 million Americans hunted at least once over the past five years.[2] Hunted at least once over the last five years? Real hunters? The study went on: “it was determined that for every two hunters in the field this year, one is taking the year off.”

The Interior Department reported that in 2011 13.7 million people, or 6% of the U.S. population 16 years old and older, went hunting.[3] So for this 6% of the population, the NRA wants semi-automatic weapons that can shoot 100 bullets without reloading?

Any “real” hunter will tell you that a good hunter kills his prey with one or two shots at most. If three shots or more are needed, you should “get out of the woods”. So how about allowing registered hunters to buy rifles (not handguns) that shoot no more than 6 bullets without having to reload?


Many people have guns “for protection”. They say it makes them feel safer. And it has to be said, there are cases where guns have protected people. But the benefits of “feeling safe” have to be weighed against the costs of guns being misused, for example:

  • Newtown;
  • Unintentional shootings;
  • Trayvon Martin, or
  • The latest as reported by the New York Times:
  • “The suspect, Michael Dunn, 45, of Satellite Beach, was charged Wednesday with second-degree murder and attempted murder. Mr. Dunn told his lawyer that the victim, Jordan Davis, 17, who was parked at a convenience store in Jacksonville on Friday night with three other teenagers, pointed a shotgun at him through a partly rolled-down window, threatened to kill him and began to open the door. Mr. Davis, a junior at a Jacksonville high school who had moved from Georgia two years ago to live with his father, died after being shot twice. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office said officers had not found a shotgun in the car.”

What are the research findings on using guns for protection?

  1. Guns in the home are used more often to frighten intimates than to thwart crime; other weapons are far more commonly used against intruders than are guns.[1]
  2. Firearms are used far more often to frighten and intimidate than they are used in self-defense.[2]
  3. By a margin of more than 3 to 1, Americans would feel less safe, not safer, as others in their community acquire guns. Among women, but not among men, those who have been threatened with a gun are particularly likely to feel less safe.[3]
  4. Owners of semi-automatic weapons are more likely than other gun owners to be male, own a gun for protection, and report binge drinking.[4]
  5. To believe fully the claims of millions of self-defense gun uses each year would mean believing that decent law-abiding citizens shot hundreds of thousands of criminals. In actual fact, few criminals are shot by law abiding citizens. Using data from surveys of detainees in six jails from around the nation, it was found that very few criminals were shot by citizens.[5]
  6. For adolescents, most of the reported self-defense gun uses were hostile interactions between armed adolescents.  Males, smokers, binge drinkers, those who threatened others and whose parents were less likely to know their whereabouts were more likely both to be threatened with a gun and to use a gun in self-defense.[6]

Spurious Arguments

In the aftermath of recent shootings, there have been calls to bring back “mental care”. Tread carefully here. We got rid of most mental institutions because they had become jails for people with the mildest of mental problems. The problem is not “crazy people”. The problem is how easily they can get their hands on guns.

I was struck by a Wall Street Journal article trying to justify citizens owning revolvers that can shoot a lot of bullets without reloading:

“Nor are magazines holding more than 10 rounds something new. They were invented decades ago and have long been standard for many handguns. Police officers carry them for the same reason that civilians do: Especially if a person is attacked by multiple assailants, there is no guarantee that a 10-round magazine will end the assault.

What do you think of the notion that citizens should be carrying revolvers that can shoot more than ten bullets at assailants?


What can we draw from the above?

  • The more guns there are, the more shootings there will be. Data and research find this to be true internationally and among US states.
  • Because there are so many guns in the US, everyone is at risk of being shot.
  • Already, four US Presidents (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy) have been gunned down, not to mention Reagan (a near miss). There is no other country in the world with such a record. And then there are the tragic cases of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King….
  • Whatever happens with US gun policy, the US will remain a dangerous place for a long time. I draw from this that if we care about our children, all schools should have armed guards for the indefinite future.
  • There appears to be no justification for citizens possessing guns that can shoot more than 6 bullets before reloading.
  • History tells us that if there is a market for a product in the US, banning it will create a criminal element to provide it – just look at what happened with Prohibition and what is now happening with banned drugs.
  • The policy implications of this are to do what is being successfully done with cigarettes: tax guns heavily and use the proceeds to reduce the number of guns in the US.
  • However, the gun problem is so serious in the US that sales of all should be banned except for rifles shooting no more that 6 bullets at a time for hunters.
  • What do we do about the 270 million guns owned by civilians? Start by requiring licensed owners of revolvers and semi-automatic weapons to give them up.


[2] Lemard, Glendene; Hemenway, David. Violence in Jamaica: An analysis of homicides 1998-2002.Injury Prevention. 2006; 12:15-18.
[3] Hepburn, Lisa; Hemenway, David. Firearm availability and homicide: A review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior: A Review Journal. 2004; 9:417-40.
[4] Hemenway, David; Miller, Matthew. Firearm availability and homicide rates across 26 high income countries. Journal of Trauma. 2000; 49:985-88.
[5] Miller, Matthew; Azrael, Deborah; Hemenway, David. Household firearm ownership levels and homicide rates across U.S. regions and states, 1988-1997. American Journal of Public Health. 2002: 92:1988-1993.
[6] Miller, Matthew; Azrael, Deborah; Hemenway, David. State-level homicide victimization rates in the U.S. in relation to survey measures of household firearm ownership, 2001-2003. Social Science and Medicine. 2007; 64:656-64.
[7] Betz, Marian E; Barber, Catherine; Miller, Matthew. Suicidal behavior and firearm access: results from the second injury control and risk survey (ICARIS-2). Suicide and Life Threatening Behaviors 2011; 41:384-91.
[8] Johnson, Rene M; Barber, Catherine; Azrael, Deborah; Clark, David E; Hemenway, David. Who are the owners of firearms used in adolescent suicides? Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior. 2010; 40:609-611.
[9] Hemenway, David; Miller, Matthew. The association of rates of household handgun ownership, lifetime major depression and serious suicidal thoughts with rates of suicide across US census regions. Injury Prevention. 2002; 8:313-16.
[10] Miller, Matthew; Molnar, Beth; Barber, Catherine; Hemenway, David; Azrael, Deborah. Recent psychopathology, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts in households with vs. without firearms: findings from the National Comorbidity Study Replication. Injury Prevention. 2009; 15:183-87.
[11] Betz, Marian E; Barber, Catherine; Miller, Matthew. Suicidal behavior and firearm access: results from the second injury control and risk survey (ICARIS-2). Suicide and Life Threatening Behaviors 2011; 41:384-91.
[12] Johnson, Rene M; Barber, Catherine; Azrael, Deborah; Clark, David E; Hemenway, David. Who are the owners of firearms used in adolescent suicides? Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior. 2010; 40:609-611.
[13] Rosenbaum, Janet E. Gun utopias? Firearm access and ownership in Israel and Switzerland. Journal of Public Health Policy. 2012; 33:46-58.
[16] Azrael, Deborah R; Hemenway, David. In the safety of your own home: Results from a national survey of gun use at home. Social Science and Medicine. 2000; 50:285-91
[17] Hemenway, David; Azrael, Deborah. The relative frequency of offensive and defensive gun use: Results of a national survey. Violence and Victims. 2000; 15:257-272.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Hemenway, David; Richardson, Elizabeth. Characteristics of automatic or semi-automatic firearm ownership. American Journal of Public Health. 1997; 87:286-88.
[20] May, John P; Hemenway, David. Oen, Roger; Pitts, Khalid R. Medical Care Solicitation by Criminals with Gunshot Wound Injuries: A Survey of Washington DC Jail Detainees. Journal of Trauma. 2000; 48:130-132.
[21] Hemenway, David; Miller, Matthew.  Gun threats against and self-defense gun use by California adolescents. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. 2004; 158:395-400
[22] Johnson, Rene M; Barber, Catherine; Azrael, Deborah; Clark, David E; Hemenway, David. Who are the owners of firearms used in adolescent suicides? Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior. 2010; 40:609-611.

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2 replies on “US Gun Policies: Facts You Should Know”

  1. “a well regulated militia” – The Army, the Marine Corps, the Navy – these ARE NOT the militia.  I’d like to point you to Title 10 › Subtitle A › Part I › Chapter 13 › § 311 of the USC which clearly defines what the Militia of the United States consists of.
    “(a) The militia of the United States consists of all able-bodied males at least 17 years of age and, except as provided in section 313 of title 32, under 45 years of age who are, or who have made a declaration of intention to become, citizens of the United States and of female citizens of the United States who are members of the National Guard.(b) The classes of the militia are—(1) the organized militia, which consists of the National Guard and the Naval Militia; and(2) the unorganized militia, which consists of the members of the militia who are not members of the National Guard or the Naval Militia.”
    In the Supreme Court’s Heller decision – they essentially broadend the first sentence to encompass all able-bodied persons, not just males.  I won’t really argue any of your others points – it’s likely futile…

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