The gun control debate is one that has loomed large in American politics for years. President Obama has featured weapons restrictions in multiple speeches and his latest round of executive order use. There seems to be a lot of confusion about the issue, with pro-firearms conservatives calling for firearms as a way to protect themselves and anti-firearms liberals screaming about guns enabling criminals. With any issue like this, it’s perhaps best to look at the statistics.
A study done by Pew Research in 2013 revealed a startling fact: “56% of Americans believe gun crime is higher than 20 years ago and only 12% think it is lower.”(1) The reason for this is unclear, although I suspect it’s because of hype on the part of the media over gun control. In fact, US gun-related homicides dropped 39% over the course of 18 years (1993-2011). Over the same period, non-fatal firearm crimes decreased by 69%. The sharpest declines occurred in the first ten years of this period and the decline leveled off in the last 8.(2)
So if the gun-related homicides and non-fatal gun-related crime rates are dropping, then it makes little sense for media and politicians to be so worried about increasing regulation on guns in order to lower gun crime. It’s dropping on its own, which implies that what is needed is not more legislation; what is needed is greater enforcement of the laws already in existence.
A frequent claim is that buying guns online and at gun shows in the much-touted “gun show loopholes” allows people looking to illicitly acquire firearms to do so easily. But when we look at the process for buying firearms in each of these situations, it’s certainly not that easy. Restrictions exist on rifle cartridges that can puncture the body armor worn by police; background checks are required to purchase guns through legal channels. Buying guns on the Internet requires that you have the weapon shipped to your local Federal Firearms License (FFL) dealer, who will receive the gun, take you through the background check process, inspect the firearm, and then (and only then) will you receive the gun. Certainly, the internet could be used as a communications tool for setting up an illicit firearms sale or trade, but so can cell phones, the postal system, or if you’re really being archaic, a letter drop. Short of shutting down or heavily censoring the Internet, there’s not much the federal government can do about that problem.
Now for gun shows. The purchase of a firearm at a gun show is extremely difficult to do without going through proper legal channels and accounts for a mere 2% of prison inmates’ firearms (DOJ study in 2004). To even get into a gun show, you have to be a member. Signing up requires two pieces of ID and a copy of your CCW (Concealed Carry permit). Then, in order to actually purchase a firearm, one must fill out a “comprehensive” application and show the CCW and ID again. At this point, the customer pays for the firearm and the seller takes the paperwork to a computer to run a background check, verify the customer’s information and the validity of their CCW, and register the sale- who sold the gun, its serial number, and the customer. The process takes approximately half an hour. The customer can then leave with the new firearm, which is typically in a safe or a holster, unloaded and safety on, and frequently has a zip tie through the barrel to disable it. It’s all very regulated and official.
The CCW features pretty heavily in this whole process. So what are the requirements for getting one in my home state of Washington?
Applications are filed at local law enforcement agencies- county sheriff’s offices or town police department. (Required documents vary from agency to agency.) Say you go to the police department, because you live in a small city or large town. There you’ll fill out an application, which requires (among other things) a reason to want a CCW (usually self-protection) and two forms of valid ID. The police will run a background check involving fingerprints and a verification with the “national instant criminal background check system, the Washington state patrol electronic database, the department of social and health services electronic database, and with other agencies or resources as appropriate” to determine if you are eligible for a CCW.(3) The application will be approved or denied within 30-60 days. All in all, it’s a lot harder to get a driver’s license, and statistically, a lot more people die in car accidents every year than in gun homicides.
The DOJ study in 2004 did not include results as to how many of those 2% of prison inmates’ guns acquired at gun shows were legal or illegal sales, although I would guess a lot of them weren’t legal, because people with criminal records would not be permitted to buy a firearm at a gun show. The study’s results, in entirety, were that “only two percent who owned a gun at the time of their offense bought it at either a gun show or flea market. About 10 percent said they purchased their gun from a retail shop or pawn shop, 37 percent obtained it from family or friends, and another 40 percent obtained it from an illegal source.”(4)
A look at federal laws regarding firearm control shows that they’re actually pretty comprehensive. The Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits sale of guns to minors, people with criminal records, illegal immigrants, mentally disabled people, and dishonorably discharged military personnel, among some other, smaller categories. The Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act in 1993 (which was, coincidentally, the peak year for gun homicides in the US) amended the Gun Control Act and made mandatory “background checks for all unlicensed persons purchasing a firearm from a federally licensed dealer.”(5) More recent changes in the gun control scene have been added with President Obama’s January 2016 executive order package, which contains changes designed to decrease gun violence, notably a measure to require dealers selling firearms at gun shows or online to obtain federal licenses and, in turn, conduct background checks of prospective buyers.”(5) It is as yet unclear what the backlash from this action may be, although the fact that it was done by executive order indicates that the White House judged the measures to be unlikely to pass Congress.
A look at general gun statistics, not just homicides and non-fatal violent crimes, is interesting as well. In America, with an estimated 270 million civilian-owned firearms, guns are used over 80 times more frequently for self-protection than for violent crime. Women benefit from the 200,000 times a year that a gun has been used to defend against sexual assault. Three out of five polled felons say that if they know or suspect a victim to be armed, they will walk away. States that adopted laws permitting concealed carry of firearms reduced murders by 8.5%, rapes by 5%, aggravated assault cases by 7%, and robberies by 3%. World statistics place the US first for international gun ownership rate per 100 residents, with 88.8 guns owned per 100 US citizens. Second is Yemen, with 54.8, and Switzerland is third with 45.7. Comparatively, the US ranks far below the leaders of gun homicide rate (per 100 residents), the top four placings going to Honduras (91.6), El Salvador (69.2), the Côte d’Ivoire (56.9), and Jamaica (52.2) while the US scores 4.8 gun homicides per 100 residents.
A case study of the UK, which is considered the most violent country in the EU, does not allow possession of handguns and has a rate of 2034 violent crimes per 100,000 people, compared to 466 violent crimes per 100,000 people in the US. In the decade after the Labor party was elected in the UK and banned handguns in 1997, the number of recorded violent attacks soared by 77%. And when looking at mass shootings, every single instance of public mass shooting except one since 1950 has been in a gun-free zone, and despite much stricter gun regulations than the US, Europe has been the site of 3 of the worst 6 school shootings in that period.*
So, looking at all this data, what conclusions can be drawn?
First, we can presume based on international comparisons that the US is a lot more successful than other nations at balancing firearms ownership with rates of violent gun crime. Second, allowing citizens to carry weapons increases their chances against an armed offender and does in fact provide protection from assault, rape, murder, and robbery. Third, since a very small percentage of criminals’ firearms come from gun shows, with 77% of criminal firearms coming from either an illegal source (robbery, deals with fences, etc.) or from family and friends, it appears that restrictions on firearms purchase through gun shows are doing their job to keep most transactions made at a gun show legal and registered. Illicit gun purchasing is not nearly as easy as the media and leftist politicians would have you think. Our Second Amendment right to possess firearms, carry them, and use them for protection (after we turn 18, anyway) is therefore not something to be infringed upon by the federal government beyond reasonable measures for our “general welfare.”
*All statistics in this paragraph come from the website americangunfacts.com.
(4) Disarming Realities: As Gun Sales Soar, Gun Crimes Plummet