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The Tradeoffs of Gun Ownership

Scientific studies on the tradeoffs of gun ownership are reviewed

The United States (U.S.) is the most heavily armed society in the world.[1] In 2013 there were 40 million more guns than Americans, and that difference continues to grow over time.[2] Although the U.S. is only about 4% of the world’s population[3], U.S. citizens possess almost half (48%) of the world’s guns.[4] Guns are easily purchased in the U.S. with little oversight or regulation. Indeed, you can make your own gun using a 3D printer.[5]

The U.S. is unique among high-income countries with respect to the level of lethal violence, particularly gun violence.[6] About 68% of murders in the U.S. are committed with guns (the next highest category is 13% with knives).[7] Gun violence is a serious public health concern in the U.S. Each year there are over 30,000 gun-related deaths in the U.S.[8] In 2015, for the first time, gun deaths (36,252) exceeded traffic deaths (36,161) in the U.S.[9] The U.S. has the highest rate of gun fatalities among high-income countries—about 20 times the average for other high-income countries.[10]

Although violent crime in the U.S. has been decreasing since the mid-1990s, school rampage shootings have increased.[11] To protect children from school shooters, some companies have designed products such as bulletproof blankets, white boards, and backpacks. The Chief of the National Rifle Association (NRA) said, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” and that armed guards would make schools safer.[12, 13] However, the National Education Association has rejected the NRA’s claim and said that armed guards would make schools less safe rather than safer.[14]

At least 19 states have introduced legislation to allow concealed weapons on college campuses, but a recent study found that 78% of college students oppose such legislation and 79% said they would feel less safe if faculty, students, and visitors carried concealed weapons on campus.[15] Likewise 95% of college presidents oppose such legislation, and 91% cite accidental shootings of fellow students as the main reason why.[16] Some campuses even have separate housing for college students with and without guns, such as the University of Colorado.[17] Other states have passed laws that allow people to carry concealed weapons in public places. For example, in the state of Virginia you can carry guns inside banks, churches, restaurants, malls, schools, and other private businesses. However, visitors to the National Rifle Association (NRA) Headquarters building in Fairfax, Virginia are not allowed to bring guns inside (although visitors can shoot guns at the firing range in the basement of NRA Headquarters, which has a separate entrance). In the state of Iowa, even legally blind individuals can carry guns in public.[18]

Why Do People Own Guns?

Most gun owners say they use the guns to protect themselves from criminals, for hunting, and for target practice. [19]

Males are about five times more likely than females to use guns for recreational purposes (e.g., target shooting, hunting). [20]

Some gun owners arm themselves because they don’t trust the government to protect them from outside sources, or because they are afraid the government will try to take their guns away.[21] These individuals view the gun as an icon for democracy and personal empowerment. For example, some bumper stickers read: “"I'll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

The main reasons juvenile offenders give for carrying weapons is for self-protection.[22] Some youth own guns to frighten others and gain respect, and these youth also have very high rates of antisocial behavior.[23] Especially in youth gangs, guns are used to project and protect a tough image.[24] Juvenile offenders aren’t the only ones who use guns to intimidate others. A U.S. survey found that guns in the home are more likely to be used by men to intimidate women than against strangers.[25]

In the U.S., the Second Amendment allows people to legally possess guns. Some people believe that guns make people safer because they can protect themselves if attacked, whereas others believe that guns make people less safe. One recent study provided the first mathematical analysis of this tradeoff.[26] The model compared two alternative scenarios on homicide rates: (1) a policy banning private possession of guns, and (2) a policy allowing the general population to carry guns. The results showed that a ban of private gun possession, or possibly a partial reduction in gun availability, might lower the rate of gun-related homicides.


Gun ownership is the strongest predictor of homicide in U.S. homes, even after controlling for other potential confounding factors (e.g., drug use, previous criminal record, history of violence).[27] Analysis of crime records found that people who had been shot with a gun were 4.5 times more likely than average to be carrying a gun themselves at the time.[28] Thus, guns did not protect those who possessed them from being shot. The increased availability of guns in a community is also related to the number of police officers killed by guns.[29] One additional problem with guns is that they can lead to rapid violent escalations.[30] Similar findings occur outside the home. For example, businesses that allow guns in the work place are about 5 times more likely to experience a homicide than businesses that do not.[31] For example, one Florida man was shot to death in a movie theater for texting on his phone during movie previews.[32]

Although one can certainly kill people with other weapons (e.g., knives), one can kill more people much faster with guns than with other weapons. For example, the same day of the Newtown shooting a man stabbed 22 children in China, but none of them died.[33] Guns also increase the physical and psychological distance between the killer and the victims, which makes killing much easier.[34] When is the last time you heard of a drive-by stabbing?


Among people who successfully commit suicide, most used a gun, followed by ingested poisons, hangings, and inhaled poisons.[35] For example, one study found that 86% of suicides were committed with guns in homes with guns, whereas only 6% were committed with guns in homes without guns.[36] People often use guns to commit suicide because they are faster, less painful, and more reliable than other means. (People seeking to survive an attempted suicide in order to get attention will typically avoid guns.) Similar findings have been reported for other countries. For example, one study found that gun ownership was positively related to suicide rates in the U.S. and 20 other countries.[37] Gun experts agree. A Harvard University survey found that 84% of firearms researchers either agree or strongly agree with the statement “In the United States, having a gun in the home increases the risk of suicide.”[38]


One unintended cost of gun ownership is the increased risk of accidents, including fatal ones. Each year in the U.S. there are about 19,000 gun accidents, and about 600 of these are fatal.[39] One study found that the surge in gun sales following the Sandy Hook mass shooting led to an addition 60 accidental gun deaths.[40] For example, at an Arizona shooting range called “Bullets and Burgers,” a 9-year-old girl accidentally shot and killed her shooting instructor when she lost control of the high-powered Uzi submachine gun she was firing.[41] Accidents can even occur with BB guns[42] and cap guns.[43] Accidental gun deaths often occur in more rural areas among poorer families.[44] In U.S. homes that contain both children and firearms, 55% of the guns are loaded and unlocked.[45] The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that gun owners unload and lock up guns to avoid accidents. To reduce the weapons effect, gun owners could not only follow AAP recommendations, but also keep guns out of sight of family members, rather than visibly displayed in glass cabinets or on shelves.[46]

Toy Guns

The available evidence, though sparse, indicates that children who play with toy guns are more aggressive afterwards.[47] In one experiment,[48] for example, 4- to 5-year-old children were randomly assigned to play with toy guns or with toy airplanes. During a free play session, the children who played with guns were found to be more aggressive.

Impact of Gun Laws on Gun-Related Deaths

The evidence indicates that gun laws work to reduce gun-related deaths. Using data from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.[49] I computed the correlation between the number of gun laws in each state and the number of gun-related deaths in each state (i.e., suicides, homicides, fatal accidents). The correlation was -.715. Note that the correlation is negative — the stricter the gun laws, the fewer the number of gun-related deaths. If you square a correlation, it gives the percentage of variance explained. Thus, gun laws explain over 51% of the variance in gun-related deaths in the U.S.

Research shows that background checks can reduce gun homicides. For example, one recent study found that gun-related homicides increased 25% after Missouri repealed its law requiring background checks, even after the researchers controlled for several other factors related to homicides (e.g., policing levels, incarceration rates, unemployment, poverty).[50] When gun control laws are passed, suicides due to guns decrease, with most studies showing no increase in suicide by other means.[51, 52]

Similar findings have been reported worldwide. Evidence from 130 studies in 10 countries suggests that the simultaneous implementation of gun laws (e.g., background checks) is associated with reductions in gun-related deaths.[53] Laws restricting the purchase of and access to (e.g., safer storage) guns are also associated with lower rates of intimate partner homicides and unintentional deaths in children.


In summary, the main benefits of gun ownership are feeling safe, free, independent of the government, and powerful. However, the available data show that if you own a gun it is much more likely to be used to kill you (suicide) or someone you love (accident, homicide in a heated argument) than a stranger in self-defense. The costs of living in a society of gun owners also means a substantially higher rate of homicides, suicides, and accidents. To many social scientists, the costs of gun ownership far outweigh the benefits.


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[2] Ingraham C. (2015, October 5). There are now more guns than people in the United States. The Washington Post. Retrieved from…

[3] Schlessinger, R. (2013, December 31). The 2014 U.S. and world populations. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved from…

[4] Fox, K. (2018, February 15). How US gun culture compares with the world in five charts. CNN. Retrieved from

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[7] FBI (2013) Uniform crime reports. Retrieved from…

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[9] Centers for Disease Control (2017). National Center for Health Statistics. Retrieved from

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[11] Rocque, M. (2012). Exploring school rampage shootings: Research, theory, and policy. The Social Science Journal, 49(3), 304-313. DOI: 10.1016/j.soscij.2011.11.001

[12] Lichtblau, E., & Rich, M. (2013). N.R.A. envisions ‘a good guy with a gun’ in every school. New York Times. Retrieved from…

[13] BBC (2013, April 2). NRA calls for armed guards in US schools. BBC News. Retrieved from

[14] National Education Association (NEA) (2013, January 15). Educators support stronger laws to prevent gun violence says NEA poll. Retrieved from

[15] Thompson, A., Price, J. H., Dake, J. A., Teeple, K., Bassler, S., Khubchandani, J., Kerr, D., Fisher, J. B., Rickard, M., Oden, L., Aduroja, A., Lyde, A., Philips, K., Adeyanju, M., Eggleston, B., Ferng-Kuo, S.-K., Duquette, D., Bartholomew, K., & Stratton, C. (2013). Student perceptions and practices regarding carrying concealed handguns on university campuses. Journal Of American College Health, 61(5),243-253. DOI: 10.1080/07448481.2013.799478

[16] Price, J. H., Thompson, A., Khubchandani, J. Dake, J., Payton, E., & Teeple, K. (in press). University presidents’ perceptions and practice regarding the carrying of concealed handguns on college campuses. Journal Of American College Health DOI: 10.1080/07448481.2014.920336

[17] New York Times (2012, August 28). New man on campus, armed. Retrieved from…;

[18] Clayworth, J. (2013, September 8). Iowa grants gun permits to the blind. USA Today. Retrieved from…

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[21] Jiobu, R. M., & Curry, T. J. (2001). Lack of confidence in government and the ownership of firearms. Social Science Quarterly. 82(1), 77–88.

[22] Sheley, J. F., & Wright, J. D. (1993). Motivations for gun possession and carrying among serious juvenile offenders. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 11(4), 375–388.

[23] Cunningham, P. B., Henggeler, S. W. Limber, S. P. Melton, G. B., & Nation, M. A. (2000). Pattern and correlates of gun ownership among nonmetropolitan and rural middle school students. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 29(3), 432–442.

[24] Stretesky, P. B., & Pogrebin, M. R. (2007). Gang-related gun violence: Socialization, identity, and self. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 36(1), 85–114.

[25] Azrael, D., & Hemenway, D. (2000). 'In the safety of your own home': Results from a national survey on gun use at home. Social Science & Medicine, 50(2), 285-291.

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[27] Kellermann, A. L., Rivara, F. P., Rushforth, N. B., Banton, J. G., et al. (1993). Gun ownership as a risk factor for homicide in the home. The New England Journal of Medicine, 329(15), 1084–1091. But also see criticism by Kleck, G. (2001). Can owning a gun really triple the owner's chances of being murdered? The anatomy of an implausible causal mechanism. Homicide Studies, 5(1), 64-77. doi: 10.1177/1088767901005001005

[28] Branas, C. C., Richmond, T. S., Culhane, D. P., Ten Have, T. R., & Wiebe, D. J. (2009). Investigating the link between gun possession and gun assault. American Journal of Public Health, 99(11), 2034–2040.

[29] Lester, D. (1987). The police as victims: The role of guns in the murder of police. Psychological Reports, 60(2), 366.

[30] Phillips, S., & Maume, M. O. (2007). Have gun will shoot? Weapon instrumentality, intent, and the violent escalation of conflict. Homicide Studies: An Interdisciplinary & International Journal, 11(4), 272–294.

[31] Loomis, D., &, Marshall, S. W. (2005). Employer policies toward guns and the risk of homicide in the workplace. American Journal of Public Health, 95(5), 830–832.

[32] Robles, F. (2014, January 13). Man Killed During Argument Over Texting at Movie Theater. New York Times. Retrieved from…

[33] Associated Press (2012, December 14). Man stabs 22 children in China. New York Times. Retrieved from…

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[36] Kellermann, A. L., Rivara, F. P., Somes, G., Reay, D. T. et al. (1992). Suicide in the home in relation to gun ownership. The New England Journal of Medicine, 327(7), 467–472.

[37] Killias, M., Van Kesteren, J., & Rindlisbacher, M. (2001). Guns, violent crime, and suicide in 21 countries. Canadian Journal of Criminology, 43(4), 429–448.

[38] Harvard Injury Control Research Center (2014, May). Firearm researcher surveys. Retrieved from…

[39] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). Retrieved from

[40] Levine, P. B., & McKnight, R. (2017). Firearms and accidental deaths: Evidence from the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting. Science, 358(6368), 1324-1328. DOI: 10.1126/science.aan8179

[41] BBC (2014, August 27). Arizona shooting: Girl, nine, kills gun instructor. Retrieved from

[42] Damore, D. T., Ramundo, M. L., Hanna, J. P., & Dayan, P. S. (2000). Parental attitudes toward BB and pellet guns. Clinical Pediatrics, 39(5), 281–284.

[43] Maze, D. A. E., & Holland, A. J. A. (2007). Cap gun burns in children. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 43(7–8), 555–556.

[44] Ruddell, R., & Mays, G. L. (2004). Risky behavior, juveniles, guns, and unintentional firearms fatalities. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 2(4), 342–358.

[45] Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Retrieved from

[46] Bushman, B. J. (2013). The weapons effect. JAMA Pediatrics, 167(12), 1094-1095. DOI:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.3824

[47] Watson, M. W., & Peng, Y. (1992). The relation between toy gun play and children’s aggressive behavior. Early Education and Development, 3(4), 370–389.

[48] Turner, C. W., & Goldsmith, D. (1976). Effects of toy guns and airplanes on children’s antisocial free play behavior. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 21(2), 303–315.

[49] Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Retrieved from

[50] Webster, D., Crifasi, C. K., & Vernick, J. S. (2014). Effects of Missouri’s repeal of its handgun purchaser licensing law on homicides. Journal of Urban Health, 91(2), 293-302. doi: 10.1007/s11524-014-9865-8.

[51] Carrington, P. J., & Moyer, S. (1994). Gun control and suicide in Ontario. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 151(4), 606–608.

[52] Lambert, M. T., & Silva, P. S. (1998). An update on the impact of gun control legislation on suicide. Psychiatric Quarterly, 69(2), 127–134.

[53] Santaella-Tenorio, J., Cerdá, M., Villaveces, A., & Galea, S. (2016). What do we know about the association between firearm legislation and firearm-related injuries? Epidemiologic Reviews, 38, 140-157. doi:10.1093/epirev/mxv012

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