Why Don’t We Have Stronger Gun Laws?

Guns are killing us, but the politics of fear ties our hands.

Posted Jan 03, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

This is the third in a series of posts about the disaster that is America’s gun culture. If you’re interested, here is the first, and here’s the second.

Why doesn’t the U.S. have safer gun laws? Politics. But why are U.S. politics this way? History and the Second Amendment are part of the story: “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.” Gun advocates emphasize the conclusion, that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” while supporters of greater restrictions point out that this “right” is explicitly limited to “A well-regulated militia,” and not to individuals. Another contributor is the widespread American self-image of independent frontiersmen, ready and willing to defend their homestead against marauders.

But why are politicians so reluctant to stanch what is an ongoing national tragedy, especially given that most Americans are not now threatened by raiding Comanches and ravenous wolves? Fear doubtless remains a key motivation: fear of the influence and financial clout of the National Rifle Association, an organization that for most of its history was concerned entirely with gun safety and education, but that in recent decades has become perhaps the most ferocious and powerful single-issue lobby in the country.

The NRA’s power derives from a complex stew of perceived threats, including a supposed loss of personal power and autonomy, the risk that a dictatorial government (either domestic or foreign) will otherwise take over, and dangers believed to be posed by the modern-day equivalent of angry Native Americans, cattle rustlers, and wild beasts: namely, armed criminals. Freudians can have a field day with the first of these, the second is so absurd as to be unworthy of refutation, whereas the third has at least some plausibility, evidenced by the widespread slogans that “when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns,” and that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a guy is a good guy with a gun.”

Although both these maxims have a degree of intuitive appeal, there is no reason to think that either is true. There is considerable evidence, in fact, the other way: In countries where guns are outlawed (more accurately, where access is more difficult) everyone has fewer guns, outlaws as well as law-abiders. And fewer notions are more outlandish than the proposal that school shootings, for example, would be reduced if teachers were armed. Law enforcement officers point out that almost certainly, this would result in greater carnage, not less, if – as would surely happen – students occasionally gain access to these weapons.

Moreover, some teachers will be revealed to be not only inadequately trained but lethally lacking in self-control, while potential gunfights will risk endangering yet more lives when young bystanders are caught in the cross-fire. This would be especially true because “good guys” would never be as prepared to deal with the sudden onset of gun violence as perpetrators necessarily would be. Nor would the good guys’ weapons be as immediately accessible.

Lacking empirical supporting arguments, it remains unclear what explains America’s extraordinary resistance to tightening its gun laws. Most likely it is an array of fears: politicians’ fear that supporting gun control would threaten their re-election prospects, a threat to them that is largely embodied by the NRA, which is powered in turn by some people’s fear of government, fear of neighbors, fear of strangers, fear of personal weakness and vulnerability, a sense of being threatened by pretty much everything and everyone.

As a result, Americans are indeed seriously threatened – not by everything and everyone, but by many of those people with guns (often including themselves) who shouldn’t have them in the first place. The comparison with other industrialized countries is striking: In 2013, according to the non-partisan Global Burden of Disease Study, there were 35.5 gun murders per million population in the U.S., compared to 4.9 per million in Canada, and fewer than one per million in the UK.[i]  

In 2012 – a year for which good global data are available – gun homicides per million were: Australia, 1.4; New Zealand, 1.6; Germany, 1.9; Austria, 2.2; Denmark, 2.7; Holland, 3.3; Sweden, 4.1; Finland, 4.5; Ireland, 4.8; Canada, 5.1; Luxembourg, 6.2; Belgium, 6.8; Switzerland, 7.7; and the U.S., 29.7. Correlated with this, guns are far more abundant in the US than elsewhere: With 4.43% of the world’s population, we have 42% of the world’s civilian-owned guns.

The rate of gun deaths in the United States exceeds even that of Iraq and Afghanistan. As for mass shootings among countries with a population greater than 10 million, only Yemen exceeds the U.S. in frequency per capita.[ii]

Moreover, looking across 171 different countries, frequency of mass shootings varied directly with the proportion of gun ownership in each country. This association was not due to different countries simply being more violent, because when the data were controlled for differences in homicide rates, the correlation still exists. Nor does it appear due to violent video games, contrary to what opponents of gun control like to assert; extensive research data are inconclusive, such that if video games have any effect, it is almost certainly a minor one. Japanese and South Koreans, moreover, spend more time and money on such games per capita than do Americans, and yet murder rates in those two countries are dramatically lower than in the United States. (Japan and South Korea, unlike the U.S., have stringent gun control legislation.)

China, where civilian gun ownership is strongly prohibited, provides an interesting contrast with the United States. Between 2010 and 2012, there were roughly a dozen apparently random attacks on schoolchildren. Twenty-five were killed, and in nearly all cases the assailant used a knife, never a gun. During this same time period, there were five mass shootings in the U.S., resulting in the death of 78 persons. Given that the population of China is roughly four times that of the United States, its lethality rate, scaled up to the population of China, would equate to 312, which is to say that attacks in the US were 12 times more deadly.

Or, consider Japan vs. the U.S. During 2013, guns were involved in the following number of deaths in the United States: 505 accidental shootings, 11,208 murders, and 21,175 suicides, for a total of 32,888 gun-related deaths. In Japan, during that same year, guns were the lethal instruments 13 times. Scaling up the Japanese population to that of the U.S. (Japan has about a third of the U.S. population), this equates to 39 total deaths. Hence, the average American is 843 times more liable to die by gun accident, murder, or suicide than is the average Japanese (32,888 divided by 39).

Granted, as ever, that correlation is not causation. Moreover, there are some countries – notably impoverished ones with very high crime rates, such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Brazil – with higher gun homicide rates, but there is no question that among its “peer” developed countries, the U.S. is far in the lead when it comes to both guns per capita and gun deaths.

Not only that, but the U.S. does not have an especially high crime rate – excepting gun-related murders.[iii] The reality is that when violent crimes occur in the United States, they are more lethal, because guns are more likely to be used. Comparing a resident of New York with someone in London, each is equally likely to be robbed, but when this happens, 54 New Yorkers are liable to be killed for every Londoner.

An additional troublesome fact is that some of the killing – especially within the U.S. — is done by police, ostensibly in performance of their law enforcement duties. In addition to the increasingly evident racial bias in such killings[iv], there is this discomfiting prospect: In a society drenched in guns, police are not surprisingly more worried about their own safety and thus more likely to shoot first and ask later whether their suspect was lethally armed. There is a suggestive correlation between the number of guns in a country and the number of police killings that occur there. Here are data for 2016-2017, with the first number in each case indicating the abundance of guns per 100,000 people and the second, in parentheses, showing the number of police killings: Iceland 32 (0), Switzerland 27 (0), Finland 32 (3), Sweden 23 (6), Canada 35 (36), and, for the United States, 121 and a whopping 996 police killings.

In 2018, 1165 Americans were killed by police; it is only common sense that some proportion of these deaths were precipitated by anxiety on the part of law enforcement officers that they may have been dealing with a gun-toting opponent – anxiety that is almost certainly magnified by the abundance of guns in civilian hands, and that applies whether or not the worry is well-founded in any particular case.

However you cut it, worry about guns in America is all too well-founded.

David P. Barash is professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Washington. His most recent book is Threats: Intimidation and its Discontents (2020, Oxford University Press). 


[i] https://vizhub.healthdata.org/gbd-compare/#

[ii] Lankford, A., 2016. Public mass shooters and firearms: a cross-national study of 171 countries. Violence and victims, 31(2), pp.187-199.

[iii] Zimring, F.E. and Hawkins, G., 1999. Crime is not the problem: Lethal violence in America. Oxford University Press.

[iv] L. Peeples. 2019. What the data say about police shootings. Nature 573, 24-26