Since many of these arguments seem to center around the idea that increases in gun availability cause increases in gun deaths, I thought it would be interesting to look at historical trends in US gun deaths of various types and compare them to gun ownership rates. While I'm fairly pro-gun, what I found honestly kind of surprised me.
Let's start by looking at murder. The US, as is well known, has a fairly high murder rate compared to other developed countries. A lot of those murders are committed with guns. Here's a chart showing the murder rate (number of murders per 100,000 in population) since 1981 for gun-murders and non-gun murders.
[These are drawn from the CDC data sets here and here.]
The spike in non-gun homicides in 2001 is the result of several thousand people being murdered by means of box-cutters and airplanes.
As you can see, although there was an increase in gun deaths during the height of the crack-cocaine inspired gang wars of the late eighties and early nineties, the overall trend of both gun murders and non-gun murders is down. Non-gun murders have been falling somewhat faster than gun murders, and the percentage of murders carried out by means of a gun is relatively high at 69% in 2007, the last year the CDC has data for.
As I said, the US murder rate is fairly high compared to other wealthy countries. Here's a comparison of the US gun and non-gun homicide rates with the homicide rates of the UK and Australia. I picked these two because their data is available in English (a matter of convenience for me) and because both countries had gun bans put in place after famous mass shootings, bans which are often pointed to as examples of what the US should do. Here's a comparison of the rates:
[UK data from here. Australian data from figure 2 here.)
Since the rates are so different in scale, it's interesting to index them to the rate of a starting year and see how they've trended.
As you can see, Australia has an indexed trend much like the US (declining less than our non-gun murder rate but more than our gun murder rate) while the UK has actually seen an increase in murder rate since 1989, though it's come off its record high a bit over the last ten years. I also marked a potential inflection point on the graph which is perhaps most interesting because it doesn't mark much of a change in the murder rate. In the 1996-1997 period, both the UK and Australia responded to horrific mass shooting events by passing draconian gun control legislation and removing a lot of guns from civilian hands.
The UK had already passed its first big round of gun control in 1988, in response to the Hungerford Massacre, placing severe restrictions on semi-automatic rifles (and not just the scary looking "assault rifles" which are so often discussed here in the US.) Then in 1997, in response to the Dunblane School Shooting, the UK passed much tougher gun control legislation, virtually banning civilian possession of handguns.
Australia had a similar legal change in the same 1996-1997 period due to the Port Arthur Massacre, in which a mentally disturbed man killed 35 and wounded 23 more.
Both countries not only restricted the sale and ownership of guns, but also instituted massive collection/buy-back programs which resulted in the collection and destruction of over a hundred thousand guns in the UK and over a million in Australia. The result was a widely touted reduction in gun fatalities, as shown by this graph discussion the situation in Australia:
However, what this type of analysis misses is that guns were not actually that large a source of violence in these countries to start with. The Australian government's Institute of Criminology provides some graphs that look at the percentage of murders in Australia committed using guns over the long term, and at the relative trends in gun murders and knife murders in recent decades
|Percent of Australian Homicides performed using a gun|
|Percent of Australian Homicides using gun vs. sharp instrument|
Guns have never accounted for more than about 40% of murders in Australia, and in the early '90s, shortly before the ban, they only accounted for around 20%. The UK appears to have had pretty similar trends, though I haven't been able to find data as specific. By comparison, guns account for 60% to 70% of murders in the US in any given year out of the last 35.
Perhaps this explains why the banning of guns seems to have had no real impact at all on the already low murder rates of the UK and Australia. The UK saw a flat murder rate for thee years after its ban, then a significant increase, then a reduction back to pretty much right where it was at the time of the ban. Australia saw four years of flat murder rates, then a gradual decline fairly similar to the decline which had been occurring already before the ban. Indeed, the US murder rate dropped much more in the years after the UK and Australian gun bans than did the murder rate in the countries that actually banned guns. In 1995 the US total murder rate (gun and non-gun) was 6.7 times that of the UK and 5.4 times that of Australia. In the third year of those countries' gun bans, in 2000 their murder rates were virtually unchanged, but the US murder rate had fallen to 4.2 times that of the UK and 3.8 times that of Australia.
One of the things that doesn't get discussed much when making comparisons between the US and Australia in terms of gun policy is that the two countries were fairly different in terms of gun ownership and culture before the 1997 Australian gun ban. In the period directly after its gun ban, Australians turned in roughly 1,000,000 guns, which were destroyed by the government. Estimates are that this represented roughly one third of guns in Australia. [source] (Others are either still owned and used at gun clubs under increasingly restrictive gun laws, or have entered the "grey market" of illegal guns.) A little quick math:
In 1997 Australia had 18.5 million residents. If their estimate of 3 million total guns is correct, that represents one gun for every 6.17 people. The congressional research service estimated that in 2009 the US had 310 million guns in civilian hands, and it's possible to use ATF reports on the number of guns manufactured and imported into the US to take the estimate backwards and forwards in time. That gives me an estimated 247 million guns owned by US residents back in 1997. The US population at that time was 273 million. So the US had one gun for every 1.1 people, nearly six times as many guns on a per capita basis as Australia. This means that even pre-ban (when Australia had more guns than now and the US had less) the ratio of guns to homicides in Australia was slightly higher than in the US, and post ban it became much higher.
Now let me be clear: This does not mean that taking guns out of the hands of law abiding Australian citizens caused a murder wave. The number of murders was almost identical pre and post ban: 299 in 1995 and 308 in 1999. (I avoided 2000 when there was a small one year murder spike in Australia and 2001 when 9-11 represented a non-gun-related one year murder spike in the US.) That's what drives the apparent spike in the number of Australian homicides per 100,000 guns: the number of homicides per year remained roughly the same while the number of guns fell by a third. In the US, during the same period, the number of homicides fell (22,895 in 1995 to 17,287 in 1999) while the number of guns in civilian hands increased (236 million to 256 million).
This leads to the data than genuinely surprised me, even as a gun rights supporter. I had known that the US murder rate as a whole had been falling for the last twenty years, despite a large increase in the number of guns. While this seems like an argument against the idea that more guns equals more gun homicides, there is at least the potential counter-argument that since crime and violence is falling overall these larger social trends swamped the effect of increased gun availability. What I hadn't realized until I got into the CDC data (linked above) is that gun suicides and gun accidents have been falling as well.
The gun homicide rate is down 22% since 1986. The gun suicide rate is down 24%. The gun accident rate is down a whopping 67%. By comparison: The non-gun homicide rate is down a steep 45%. However, the non-gun suicide rate is up 8%. Let's look at all of these metrics indexed against 1986 so that we can see their relative changes more clearly.
The number of guns, and thus it seems fair to say gun availability, has increased steadily throughout this period. However, no type of gun related deaths has increased in a way that correlates with the increase in gun availability. The only trend which mirrors gun availability somewhat in recent years is non-gun suicides, but it seems near impossible to argue that the availability of guns is causing people to commit suicide using methods other than guns.
This, I think, provides a useful corrective to some of the rhetoric on gun availability and gun deaths. Clearly, gun related deaths are subject to gun availability. You can't accidentally shoot yourself with a gun if you do not have access to a gun. You can't shoot yourself or another person with a gun if you do not have a gun to shoot with. However, the number of guns in civilian hands has increased by over 50% since 1986, and during that same period the rate of accidental gun deaths has decreased by 67% while the rates of both gun homicides and gun suicides have decreased by over 20%. It's hard to make the case that the increasing number of guns in the hands of US residents is increasing the chances of gun deaths when what we actually see is that the number of guns per person is rising steadily (.78 guns per capita in 1987 to .98 guns per capita in 2007) while the rate of gun deaths is falling. The CDC data cuts off in 2007, but FBI data on the overall homicide rate shows it falling significantly from 2008 to 2013 while the rate of gun purchases has doubled during the Obama administration versus the period before.
Does this mean that removing all guns, or virtually all guns, from our country would not reduce homicides, suicides and accidents? No. If you really could get all or nearly all guns out of the US civilian hands (a total of well over 360 million guns by now, based on ATF estimates) it would probably decrease violent deaths a bit. But even when the UK and Australia reduced gun ownership rates to levels far below what the US has had at any point in recent history, they saw virtually no impact on their total homicide rates. This probably puts change by this means well out of reach for the US. However, the rapid increase in the number of US guns has not led to an increase in the rates of homicide, suicide or even gun accidents. Indeed, the rate of all of those types of death has been dropping even as the number of guns per capita has increased. The continuing increase in the number of guns in the hands of US civilians has not led to a wave of gun deaths.