Over the past year, I have from time to time posted the most mild-mannered of comments on Facebook, suggesting that the gun issue is more complex than one might think. I am not exactly fearless on social media, anxious about the cultural disapprobation that comes with conservative views in my circles. My posts have been exceptionally mealy-mouthed, timid suggestions that the gun issue is tricky or perhaps a particular National Review article is “worth a look.” My reading suggestions have not been well received. My liberal friends have rather disdainfully rejected the facts offered, not usually with their own facts but with the statement that we just need to get on with doing “something.” This would seem to suggest that people who don’t agree with policy for window dressing’s sake are somehow hunky-dory with thousands of gun deaths every year. It is a little window into the sanctimony of some liberals, and I don’t like it very much.
Virtually all of the guns used in mass-murder situations in the past decade were lawfully obtained, and could have been lawfully obtained under proposed laws, such as the extension of background checks to private sales (eighteen states already do so). The Aurora, Newtown, and Orlando shootings were all committed with lawfully obtained guns, or with guns taken from licensed owners. And it is just not credible to think that restricting private sales at places like gun shows will substantially reduce urban violence. The most recent, though admittedly still dated, surveys of prisoners, which were undertaken back in the 1990s, indicate that only about. percent of guns obtained by criminals were from gun shows. I’m not terribly impressed with surveys like this, but I don’t have any reason to dispute the conclusions: that there are just too many lawful and unlawful ways to obtain a gun to believe that new restrictions will make a material impact on outcomes. And even if new laws reduced gun transactions in a meaningful way, people would still continue to steal guns at a frightful rate. Somewhere between 300,000 and 600,000 guns are stolen each year, enough to cover every gun-related crime in the country, several times over.
One of the key arguments for gun control is the unfavorable comparison between gun violence in the United States and in other developed countries. As President Obama noted in 2015, “What we also have to recognize is, is that our homicide rates are so much higher than other industrialized countries. I mean by like a mile. And most of that is attributable to the easy ready availability of firearms, particularly handguns.” And it is true; out of the 35 countries of the Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development (OECD), the United States ranks 31st in homicide rates, though gun proponents hasten to note that the United States is far safer than Russia, Mexico, and Brazil and a little safer than Latvia, none of which is likely to be bulletin- board material for our national tourism agency. And what is most disturbing is that we are not even a close 31. Our homicide rate is ten times the rate in Japan and three times the rate in Canada, for instance. It’s truly depressing stuff, unless you are planning to move to England, where the writer Bill Bryson recently reported, in all seriousness, and with some satisfaction, that you are more likely to be killed by walking into a wall than by being murdered. I’ve pondered that statement quite a bit, trying to figure out what impels so many Britons to rush into walls, presumably headfirst, at speeds high enough to kill themselves, and haven’t found any adequate explanation, but the sentiment expressed by Bryson is still true: England is an amazingly safe place. There were only 573 murders in all of England and Wales in 2015 (Chicago by itself is on pace to hit about 700 in 2017) and only about 40 of those murders were with firearms.
I couldn’t find statistics to confirm Bryson’s running-into- walls comparison, but it is true that in England you are about twice as likely to die from falling out of or through a building as you are to be killed with a gun, and about six times more likely to die from “malaise or fatigue.”
Those numbers are deeply satisfying to gun control advocates— and to the Brits as well, I should think—but it’s not clear what they mean for the United States. Gun control advocates link the low murder rate in England, for example, to the 1997 Firearms Act, which effectively outlawed private ownership of handguns, but in truth the homicide rate in England was low long before the Firearms Act and it has actually increased modestly since 1997. And the relationship between the number of guns and murder rates is not always very clear. If you are to believe the Small Arms Survey, countries like Russia and Brazil have relatively low firearms ownership rates, but apparently all those guns are in the hands of killers and thieves, and high-ownership countries like Switzerland and Finland have comparatively low murder rates.
Switzerland, for instance, is awash in guns—a “gun in every closet” is integral both to the national defense plan and the national culture—and there is roughly one gun for every two people in the country. And yet the murder rate is pleasingly low, not so different from England itself. It is not that there is no relationship between gun availability and homicide rates—of course there is—but the story of violence and the means of controlling it are far more complicated and nuanced than advocates on either side of the story would have us believe.
I started off this process thinking, as do many of my political coreligionists, that reducing gun violence is simply a matter of will, and of overcoming the Neanderthals at the National Rifle Association (NRA).12 But I have learned that it is not, and that if we really want to reduce gun violence, we should be focusing not first upon the weapons but on a lot of things around it: poverty, drugs, race, addressing mental illness, opportunity, and gangs, to name just a few.