A week ago 17 students of the Stoneman Douglas High School were murdered in Parkland, Florida. The assassin was a teenager who reportedly owned at least 10 rifles and had a troubled history with guns. Using the most accepted counting methodology, the Parkland shooting was the eighth school shooting in the year, a list that includes a 12-year old girl booked for negligent firearm discharge in LA’s Sal Castro Middle School (shooting a 15-year old boy in the head and injuring three more) and a 15-year old student who shot 16 people, killing two other teenagers, at Marshall County High School in Benton, Kentucky. The current political discussion is gravitating around school safety and mental health. However, mass shootings occur in other venues. Calling for mental health as the root cause is not supported by data.
The United States’ love for guns has been traditionally supported by the following arguments.
#1- The Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms
I have found, more often than not, that the amendment’s advocates and opponents have not read it. The exact writing of the Second Amendment is as follows: “a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”.
You are not alone if your head is spinning upon reading this poorly constructed statement. I argue that the full sentence makes more sense suppressing everything between the second and third commas: “a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, shall not be infringed”. In either case, the amendment is absurd in today’s context. It’s more aligned with the needs of countries that have a reduced permanent army (like Switzerland), or the needs of a place with a weak footing in the world that is likely to descend into chaos. Since the United States has the most powerful army in history, currently funded at the pace of $634 billion per year, the only reason left for anyone to support the “militia” argument is distrust in the government. You are not alone if you find yourself thinking about the subversive tone of this logic. Moreover, a higher defense budget would make the government more “oppressive”. There is an innate contradiction for anyone who supports the second amendment and at the same time, a more powerful US military. Finally, let’s not forget about the “well-regulated” qualifier. It implies restrictions in the availability and use of guns.
Perhaps the historical context of the second amendment can help explain its intention. The amendment’s origin, as has been recognized by the US Supreme Court, is in the English Bill of Rights. It was the reaction of the Protestants to James II’s attempt to disarm them, with James II being the last Catholic king of England. Upon his dismissal, the English Bill of Rights sought to reaffirm the right of Protestants to bear arms. We must keep in mind that the 17th century was a time of unrest in England, including a fully-fledged Civil War. That was the reality then. Laws in the United Kingdom evolved since. Today, the law tightly controls the general public access to firearms. More specifically, the Firearms Act of 1997 has made almost impossible to privately possess handguns.
Verdict: false statement. The confusing second amendment appears to support the existence of a well-regulated militia, which would limit the use and availability of guns, and in any case, is outside our current historical context. It was not created by our forefathers. It’s legacy from the English, who since have enabled strict gun possession laws. There has been only one instance of mass shootings in the United Kingdom since the Firearms Act aforementioned (Cumbria shootings, 12 dead, 2010).
#2- Since murder rates are improving and gun laws have not changed significantly, guns are not the problem
The next time you hear this, please reply immediately: you are wrong. The statistics are not only available to the public, but also incontrovertible. The official murder rate in the United States (per the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2016 is the last year in the data) is 5.3 per 100,000 inhabitants and 5.4 if Puerto Rico is added. This rate includes “murder and non-negligent manslaughter”. In order to provide some context, the murder rates in Kenya (5.75) and Somalia (5.56) are just slightly higher. There are 125 countries in the world with a lower murder rate than the United States. You read that right, 125. The Western Europe country with the highest murder rate is Belgium, at 1.95/100,000 (2015), and the gold, silver and bronze medals, after excluding countries with less than 1 million people, are Singapore (14 murders, 0.25 per 100,000 inhabitants), Japan (395 murders, 0.31/100,000) and Austria (44 murders, 0.51/100,000).
You may be asking how the 5.3/100,000 of the United States compares to previous years. The chart below offers three key observations:
- The incredibly high murder rate that the country had between 1967 and 1998, three decades in which it fluctuated between 6 and 10/100,000. To provide more context, a murder rate of 10/100,000 is approximately today’s rate for Nigeria, Haiti or Papua New Guinea.
- The declining or flat trend during the Clinton, Bush and Obama years, up to 2014.
- The uptake in 2015 and 2016, which is putting us back to where we were in 1966 and 2008.
Once we establish that the murder rate is not decreasing (as many say), and more importantly, that the murder rate has never been below 4/100,000, we must look further into guns. The best compilation of data that I have found is the “Gun Violence Archive” (www.gunviolencearchive.org), which unfortunately only covers the period 2014-2018 and does not include suicides. Official suicide numbers exist for 2013-15 from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It must be noted that gun murders, excluding suicides, have increased from 11,208 to 15,593 in a 4-year span (+39%, 8.6% YoY ). It should be noted too that gun suicides are on a slight rise. There were 22,018 gun suicides in 2015, a number used by the CDC to compare against 16,599 gun suicides in 1999 (+33%, +1.8% YoY). About two thirds of gun related deaths are suicides. There is consensus in the health care expert community that easy access to guns are responsible for a large percentage of these deaths. This is fundamental evidence in favor of safe storage gun proposals in local communities.
Finally, mass shootings are also on the rise. The Gun Violence Archive reports 266 deaths in 2014, 367 in 2015, 456 in 2016, 437 in 2017 and 60 for the first 54 days of 2018 (projected to end the year over 400).
Verdict: false statement. Murder rate in the United States is on the rise in the last 2 years of reported data. Murder rate has never been below 4.0 per 100,000 inhabitants since reliable statistics were introduced. Murder rate in the United States is an order of magnitude higher than in any other developed country. Gun related deaths are on the rise. Gun suicides are on the rise. Mass shootings are on the rise.
#3- The problem is the man, not the gun
Second amendment defenders claim that guns do not kill people. Men do. In doing so, they point to the presence of evil and mental health issues. These conclusions are not corroborated by data. On the contrary:
- Data clearly indicates that gun related deaths are higher in states that have lax gun control laws. The states with the highest rate of gun-related deaths? Alaska, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma.
- Statistics exist for mental illness by country. Per the World Health Organization, the United States is indeed one of the top 10 countries with the greatest burden of disease for mental health and behavioral disorders. However, the top 2 countries in the list, China and India, have a murder rate of 0.74/100,000 and 3.21/100,000 respectively. The only other developed country in the Top 10 is Germany, where the murder rate is 0.85/100,000, that is, less than a sixth of the rate of the United States.
- In regards to mass shootings, the murderer is a white man almost 100% of the time. There is no evidence suggesting that mental illness is higher in men than in women in such a disproportionate manner. In the same way, there is no evidence suggesting this disparity in mental health between Caucasians and other races. It’s not a secret that our society is intoxicated with masculine violence and racial stereotypes.
Verdict: false statement. While mental healthcare is an important part of the overall approach, it’s not the differentiating factor in gun violence.
Note: this is my second “demythifying” article, in which I seek to inform the community about the real facts. The first article was about the Electoral College.