America is an enormous outlier, relative to other high-income countries, both in terms of its gun ownership levels and its rates of gun mortality. We have about one gun for every man, woman, and child in the US —about 300 million in all. No other country has a civilian arsenal that approximates this number. At the same time, we have 25 times the gun homicide rate when compared to the combined (aggregated) rate for 23 other advanced countries. We are global leaders in women and children murdered with guns, mass shootings, and school shootings.
The obvious interpretation for America’s “exceptional” status as a leader in gun homicide and mortality is its exceptionally high level of gun ownership and widespread access of citizens to guns. However, gun rights advocates take issue with this interpretation and argue that America’s high rates of gun violence and mass shootings are due to its exceptionally high rates of overall violence, mental illness, and even violent videos. In fact, the US is around average in its overall violence levels and does not stand out with regard to its rates of mental illness. Countries like Japan, South Korea, and the UK, each of which have a fraction of America’s gun violence death rates, spend more per capita on violent videos.
To illustrate how a segment of society will contort itself to avoid attributing gun violence to the vast civilian arsenal in this country, consider Tennessee gubernatorial candidate Diane Black’s claim that pornography is responsible for America’s “exceptional” level of mass shootings. This statement is utterly absurd and displays the challenges of trying to have a reasonable, evidence-based discussion on gun policy with some conservatives. What’s really pornographic is the continuing refusal of many political conservatives to yield an inch on policy in order to prevent the slaughter of children and other residents of this country.
Unintentional (accidental) shootings illustrate how gun violence and mortality are closely linked to the number of guns in an area, state, or country. Unlike intentional shootings, one cannot plausibly attribute these shootings to a more violent culture, mental illness, or violent videos because they are by definition unintentional. Nor can one make the argument, as if often made in relation to gun homicide and gun suicide, that in the absence of guns people will merely substitute another method to kill another or oneself. This argument does not apply where there is no intention to harm others or oneself.
Therefore, the examination of unintentional shootings provides a good test as to the role of gun availability in firearm-related deaths. If there are more accidental shootings where there are more guns, there are few conclusions one can draw other than the obvious one: more guns equal more gun deaths.
When we compare Japan and the USA, the impact of the difference in the prevalence of firearms is striking. The US has about two and a half times Japan’s population. However, according
to the most recent data available, the USA has over 120 times Japan’s number of unintentional gun deaths. Adjusting for population differences, the USA has about 45 times more unintentional gun deaths than does Japan (2.7 vs. .06 deaths per million people). This is an astounding difference. Is this due to the enormous disparity in gun ownership or are Americans just much more accident prone and careless with guns than the Japanese?
The USA has about 88 times the rate of gun owners per million people as Japan. Recent surveys show that in the USA about 22 % of the population are gun owners; whereas, in Japan, there are about 2.5 licensed gun owners for every 1000 people, well under 1 % of the population. Are Americans more prone to gun accidents due to carelessness or other factors? I calculated the fraction of gun owners who die from a gun accident and found that in Japan there is approximately one fatality for every 42,000 gun owners. In the US, there is an unintentional gun fatality for every 81,000 gun owners, illustrating that the average American gun owner is less likely to die of an accidental shooting than his counterpart in Japan. Thus, US owners are not more accident prone and the massive gap between the two countries in fatal gun accidents is very likely due simply to the much higher level of gun ownership in the USA. This is the case because the number of these fatalities is far higher—45 times higher adjusting for population differences—in the USA despite the fact that the average Japanese gun owner is about two times as likely to be the victim of a fatal gun accident.
Researchers in the US support the idea that accidental gun deaths are simply a numbers game. Harvard researchers examined the link between gun availability and state unintentional gun death rates over a 19-year period. For every age group, states with more guns tend to have more accidental gun deaths than states with fewer guns. The death rate was seven times higher in the four states with the most guns compared to the four states with the fewest guns. Douglas Wiebe of UCLA, using national data, found that the relative risk of death by an unintentional gunshot injury was nearly four times greater for subjects living in homes with guns than those living in homes without guns.
In his book Lethal Logic, attorney Dennis Henigan recounts the story from his childhood of a neighbor who was shot accidentally by her husband while he was cleaning his handgun at the kitchen table. It is an obvious truth that people are rarely killed during the cleaning of knives, baseball bats, or other potential weapons. Henigan explains that, apart from their greater lethality, guns are more susceptible to accidentally injuring the user or others because they are more complex than these other weapons. For example, accidents often occur because people, often children, are unaware that a gun is real or loaded. In other cases, a gun discharges after it has been dropped. In still other cases, hunting accidents are enabled by the long range of rifles and shotguns as people are mistaken for game. Henigan notes that Americans are six times more likely to die from an accidental firearm discharge than from an accident involving a knife or other sharp object. This is the case despite the fact that knives are present in far more homes, are greater in number, and are used more frequently than are guns.
The most obvious explanation for high levels of gun violence is a high level of gun ownership. From the gun lobby and gun rights advocates, we get many convoluted alternative explanations as they try to find every conceivable reason for America’s unacceptable levels of gun mortality other than the most obvious one: we are a nation awash with guns.
Thomas Gabor, Ph.D., is a criminologist, sociologist, and author of Confronting Gun Violence in America.
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