On December 16, 1993 a United States Senator named Joe Biden gave a speech at the Rotary Club in Wilmington, Delaware. At the time, ‘Sleepy Joe’ chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, which meant he was a key figure in the spate of gun-control bills (Brady, Assault Weapons Ban) that became law during Bill Clinton’s first term. In speaking about those bills, as well as the more expansive crime bill which nearly doubled the size of incarcerated population, Biden said, “the United States is the most dangerous country in the world. No country in the world has a higher per capita murder rate than the United States.”
Sound familiar? Add to that the 350 million guns floating around, which gives the U.S. a per capita gun-ownership rate six times higher than any other OECD country, a causal argument that David Hemenway and his public health colleagues have been promoting for the past 20 years, and you now have the standard gun-control mantra trotted out every time Gun-control Nation says what it says about guns.
There’s only one little problem. And the problem has to do with the fact that the argument which ties gun-violence rates to the number of civilian-owned guns does not correspond in any way to what we know about the number and availability of guns. From 1986 until today, the size of the civilian arsenal probably grew by 50 percent. We don’t know how many guns were in civilian hands in the early 1980’s, but if we take the 1994 estimate of 190 million, then subtract the 50 million guns manufactured between 1980 and 1994, we wind up in 1980 with roughly 140 million civilian-one guns.
Now let’s look at additions to the civilian arsenal between 1981 and 2017, and the numbers from ATF add up to another 150 million guns, which brings us up to somewhere around the 300 million which is often cited for the total number of guns floating around today. Now here’s where things get interesting, okay?
The national violent injury death rate (from CDC) averaged 8.83 from 1981 through 1998. From 1999 through 2017, the rate averaged 5.80, going as low in 2014 as 4.98. From 1981 through 1998, the violent injury death rate involving guns was 5.77, the rate from 1999 through 2017 was 3.95. In other words, over the last thirty-six years, the rates of violence and rates of gun violence both fell by roughly one-third.
From 1981 through 1998, there were 397,912 homicides, of which 260,275 involved the use of guns, or 65 percent. From 1999 through 2017, there were 334,215 homicides involving 227,717 guns, or 68 percent. So the overall violence rate declined by roughly one-third from 1981 through 2017, but the proportion of murders where a gun was used remained the same. Meanwhile, during this same thirty-six year period, as many as 1,500,000 new guns entered the civilian arsenal. If there is a causal connection between our high rate of homicide and out high ownership rate of guns, how come the use of guns to commit gun violence hasn’t changed?
I’ll tell you why it didn’t change, or better yet, I’ll tell you why we don’t know why it didn’t change. There’s one very simple reason. With a few exceptions that are probably statistically insignificant, the number of gun murders which occur each year are overwhelmingly committed by people who aren’t supposed to own guns.
Most gun murders are committed by individuals who can’t, under law, own a gun. Since these individuals aren’t about to disclose gun access to anyone, how can you make a plausible cause-and-effect argument about the overall number of guns and how they are being used? At best such an argument is just a numbers game, at worst its academic sophistry and should be ignored.
I don’t care whether we own 300 million or 300 billion guns. The numbers alone simply can’t sustain the argument that more guns equals more gun crime.