Gun control vs. gun rights: A look at the numbers
The U.S. was in shock, again, by the mass shooting at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday, May 27. People from the entire political spectrum condemned this mass murderous action.
But the unity is quickly dismantled when it comes to how to fight gun violence.
Modern history has shown that, at the breakout of each incident of mass gun violence, gun rights advocates and gun control proponents would seize the opportunity to advance their respective doctrines. This time is no exception.
The immediate focus of the debate over gun violence is whether "assault weapons" like the one used in the Uvalde killing should be barred from civilian use. Gun control groups want to ban the sale of weapons such as the AR-15 rifle to civilians, arguing that they put the public in the greatest danger of mass killing. This notion is strongly opposed by gun rights advocates, who believe that no particular type of weapons should be excluded from people's right to keep and bear arms.
Both arguments miss a critical point. Pew's research data show that, among the total of 45,222 people who died from gun-inflicted injuries in 2020, only a little over 1% of the gun deaths (513 to be precise) were the result of a mass shooting, which is defined as four or more people injured or killed in one shooting scene. Even if the 500 lives could be saved via banning certain kinds of weapons and eliminating those mass shootings in that year, an "assault weapon" ban alone would not yield a meaningful reduction in total gun-inflicted deaths.
Although Americans own nearly half of the worldwide privately held guns, only 15% of the total gun-related deaths occurred in the U.S. in 2019 (37,000 U.S. vs. 250,000 worldwide). It is obvious that a higher number for private gun ownership should not be extrapolated simply and directly to a higher number of gun-inflicted deaths.
It is well recognized that statistical numbers can be difficult for ordinary people to understand. The total gun-related deaths in the U.S., although already alarmingly misleading, can be further dissected in order to illustrate the pitfalls of using statistics without due diligence. After taking into account the total number of a nation's population, the gun-related death rate in the U.S., measured as per 100K habitants per year, ranks tenth worldwide in 2019.
To add a little more flavor to the numbers, of the total annual gun-inflicted deaths in the U.S., half are due to suicides. Tougher gun control measures might bring down the number of gun-related suicides but would be unlikely to change the total number of suicide deaths simply because a determined mind could not be changed by simply removing one tool.
The above numbers, however, do not negate the existence of higher homicide rates in the U.S. than in many other countries. Taking India for a comparison, Indians hold the second highest number of privately owned firearms in the world. However, India's adjusted gun-related death rate per 100K inhabitants per year is much lower than that of the U.S., ranking somewhere around the 60th in the world in 2019. This huge difference between the two countries in the adjusted gun-related death rates cannot be explained convincingly by the number of guns owned by private citizens. Rather, we must look to careful analyses of philosophical and cultural differences between the two nations.
The thoughts presented here cover only a small fraction of the gun control versus gun rights debate. There are many more important elements that need careful deliberation. Would tougher gun control measures treat law-abiding citizens and those whom the measures are intended for indiscriminately? Should ordinary people be persuaded to rely more on public power to safeguard personal safety, given the incompetent police response in the Uvalde shooting? What are other mechanisms more effective than gun restriction in preventing gun-related killing and other forms?
The heated debate will continue.
Daniel Jia is the founder of consulting firm DJ Integral Services. He writes analytical reports on public-related matters including health and policy.
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