Gun violence in the United States

Shooting of President William McKinley in 1901; McKinley died eight days later from his wounds.

Gun violence results in thousands of deaths and injuries in the United States annually.[1] According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2013, there were 73,505 nonfatal firearm injuries (23.23 per 100,000 U.S. citizens);[2] 11,208 homicides (3.5 per 100,000);[3] 21,175 suicides;[4] 505 deaths due to accidental/negligent discharge of a firearm; and 281 deaths due to firearms-use with "undetermined intent",[4] included in a total of 33,636 deaths due to "Injury by firearms",[4] or 10.6 deaths per 100,000 people.[4] Of the 2,596,993 total deaths in the US in 2013, 1.3% were related to firearms.[1][5] The ownership and control of guns are among the most widely debated issues in the country.

In 2010, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 67% of all homicides in the U.S. were committed using a firearm.[6] According to the FBI, in 2012, there were 8,855 total firearm-related homicides in the US, with 6,371 of those attributed to handguns.[7] In 2012, 64% of all gun-related deaths in the U.S. were suicides.[8] In 2010, there were 19,392 firearm-related suicides, and 11,078 firearm-related homicides in the U.S.[9] In 2010, 358 murders were reported involving a rifle while 6,009 were reported involving a handgun; another 1,939 were reported with an unspecified type of firearm.[10]

Firearms were used to kill 13,286 people in the U.S. in 2015, excluding suicide.[11] Approximately 1.4 million people have been killed using firearms in the U.S. between 1968 and 2011.[11]

In 2010, gun violence cost U.S. taxpayers approximately $516 million in direct hospital costs.[12]

Gun violence is most common in poor urban areas and frequently associated with gang violence, often involving male juveniles or young adult males.[13][14] Although mass shootings have been covered extensively in the media, mass shootings account for a small fraction of gun-related deaths[15] and the frequency of these events steadily declined between 1994 and 2007, rising between 2007 and 2013.[16][17]

Legislation at the federal, state, and local levels has attempted to address gun violence through a variety of methods, including restricting firearms purchases by youths and other "at-risk" populations, setting waiting periods for firearm purchases, establishing gun buyback programs, law enforcement and policing strategies, stiff sentencing of gun law violators, education programs for parents and children, and community-outreach programs. Despite widespread concern about the impacts of gun violence on public health, Congress has prohibited the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from conducting research that advocates in favor of gun control.[18]

Gun ownership

The Congressional Research Service in 2009 estimated there were 310 million firearms in the U.S., not including weapons owned by the military. Of these, 114 million were handguns, 110 million were rifles, and 86 million were shotguns.[19] In that same year, the Census bureau stated the population of people in the U.S. at 306 million.[20]

Accurate figures for civilian gun ownership are difficult to determine.[21] While the number of guns in civilian hands has been on the increase, the percentage of Americans and American households who claim to own guns has been in long-term decline, according to the General Social Survey. It found that gun ownership by households has declined steadily from about half, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, down to 32% in 2015. The percentage of individual owners declined from 31% in 1985 to 22% in 2014.[22] However, the Gallup organization has been performing similar polls for the same interval, and finds that household ownership of firearms was approximately the same in 2013 as it was in 1970 - 43%, and individual ownership numbers rose from 27% in 2000, to 29% in 2013.</ref name=conundrum> Pew found that fewer Americans are dying as a result of gun violence: In 1993, there were seven homicides using firearms for every 100,000; by 2013, that figure had fallen to 3.6.[23]

What the Pew research does not account for though, is that household firearms ownership hit a high again in the 1993-1994 timeframe where household gun ownership exceeded 50% according to Gallup polls. The Gallup polls further show that household firearm ownership currently exceeds 40% and that the long-term trend is a sharp decline in polling for stricter gun control laws. Lastly, Gallup polling has consistently been over 65% against, when asking whether there should be bans on possession of handguns.[24]

Gun ownership figures are generally estimated via polling, by such organizations as the General Social Survey (GSS), Harris Interactive, and Gallup. There are significant disparities in the results across polls by different organizations, calling into question their reliability.[25] In Gallup's 1972 survey, 43% reported having a gun in their home, while GSS's 1973 survey resulted in 49% reporting a gun in the home; in 1993, Gallup's poll results were 51%, while GSS's 1994 poll showed 43%.[26] In 2012, Gallup's survey showed 47% of Americans reporting having a gun in their home,[27] while the GSS in 2012 reports 34%.[26]

In 1997, estimates were approximately 44 million gun owners in the United States. These owners possessed approximately 192 million firearms, of which an estimated 65 million were handguns.[28] A National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms (NSPOF), conducted in 1994, indicated that Americans owned 192 million guns: 36% rifles, 34% handguns, 26% shotguns, and 4% other types of long guns.[28] Most firearm owners owned multiple firearms, with the NSPOF survey indicating 25% of adults owned firearms.[28] In the U.S., 11% of households reported actively being involved in hunting, with the remaining firearm owners having guns for self-protection and other reasons. Throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s, the rate of gun ownership in the home ranged from 45-50%.[26] Rapid increases in gun purchases characterized by exceptionally large crowds accruing at gun vendors and gun shows is consistently observed due to the possibility of increased gun control following highly publicized mass murders.[29][30][31][32][33]

Gun ownership also varied across geographic regions, ranging from 25% rates of ownership in the Northeastern United States to 60% rates of ownership in the East South Central States.[34] A Gallup poll (2004) indicated that 49% of men reported gun ownership, compared to 33% of women, and 44% of whites owned a gun, compared to only 24% of nonwhites.[35] More than half of those living in rural areas (56%) owned a gun, compared with 40% of suburbanites and 29% of those in urban areas.[35] More than half (53%) of Republicans owned guns, compared with 36% of political independents and 31% of Democrats.[35] One criticism of the GSS survey and other proxy measures of gun ownership, is that they do not provide adequate macro-level detail to allow conclusions on the relationship between overall firearm ownership and gun violence.[36] Kleck compared various survey and proxy measures and found no correlation between overall firearm ownership and gun violence.[37][38] In contrast, studies by David Hemenway and his colleagues, which used GSS data and the fraction of suicides committed with a gun as a proxy for gun ownership rates, found a strong positive association between gun ownership and homicide in the United States.[39][40]


Main article: Defensive gun use

The effectiveness and safety of guns used for personal defense is debated. Studies place the instances of guns used in personal defense as low as 65,000 times per year, and as high as 2.5 million times per year. Under President Clinton, the Department of Justice conducted a survey in 1994 that placed the usage rate of guns used in personal defense at 1.5 million times per year, but noted this was likely to be an overestimate.[38]

Between 1987 and 1990, McDowall et al. found that guns were used in defense during a crime incident 64,615 times annually (258,460 times total over the whole period).[41] This equated to two times out of 1,000 criminal incidents (0.2%) that occurred in this period, including criminal incidents where no guns were involved at all.[41] For violent crimes, assault, robbery, and rape, guns were used 0.83% of the time in self-defense.[41] Of the times that guns were used in self-defense, 71% of the crimes were committed by strangers, with the rest of the incidents evenly divided between offenders that were acquaintances or persons well known to the victim.[41] In 28% of incidents where a gun was used for self-defense, victims fired the gun at the offender.[41] In 20% of the self-defense incidents, the guns were used by police officers.[41] During this same period, 1987 to 1990, there were 46,319 gun homicides,[42] and the National Crime Victimization Survey estimated that 2,628,532 nonfatal crimes involving guns occurred.[41]

McDowall's study for the American Journal of Public Health contrasted with a 1995 study by Kleck and Gertz, who found that 2.45 million crimes were thwarted each year in the U.S. using guns, and in most cases, the potential victim never fired a shot.[43] The results of the Kleck studies have been cited many times in scholarly and popular media.[44][45][46][47][48][49][50] The methodology of the Kleck and Gertz study has been criticized by some researchers.[51]


There were 19,392 firearm-related suicides in the U.S. in 2010.[9] The U.S. Department of Justice reports that approximately 60% of all adult firearm deaths are by suicide, 61% more than deaths by homicide.[52] In the U.S., firearms remain the most common method of suicide, accounting for 51% of all suicides committed in 2006.[53] One study found that military veterans used firearms in about 67% of suicides in 2014.[54] Firearms are the most lethal method of suicide, with a lethality rate 2.6 times higher than suffocation (the second-most lethal method).[55]

A 1992 case-control study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed an association between household firearm ownership and suicide rates, finding that individuals living in a home where firearms are present are more likely to commit suicide than those individuals who do not own firearms, by a factor of 3 or 4.[1][56] A 2006 study by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found a significant association between changes in household gun ownership rates and suicide rates in the United States among men, women, and children.[57] A 2007 study by the same research team found that in the United States, household gun ownership rates were strongly associated with overall suicide rates and gun suicide rates, but not with non-gun suicide rates.[58] A 2013 study reproduced this finding, even after controlling for different underlying rates of suicidal behavior by states.[59] A 2015 study also found a strong association between gun ownership rates in American cities and rates of both overall and gun suicide, but not with non-gun suicide.[60] Correlation studies comparing different countries do not always find a statistically significant effect.[61]:30 During the 1980s and early 1990s, there was a strong upward trend in adolescent suicides with guns[62]:29 as well as a sharp overall increase in suicides among those age 75 and over.[63]


Homicides by weapon type, 1976-2004.[64]
Homicide offenders by age, 1976-2004[65]
Gun and overall homicides in Washington, D.C. are concentrated in crime hot spots located in neighborhoods (including Shaw, Sursum Corda, Trinidad, Anacostia, and Congress Heights) with socio-economic disadvantage, while homicide is rare in other neighborhoods.

According to the FBI, in 2012, there were 8,897 total firearm-related homicides in the US, with 6,404 of those attributed to handguns.[7] The Centers for Disease Control reports that there were 11,078 firearm-related homicides in the U.S. in 2010.[9] The FBI breaks down the gun-related homicides in 2010 by weapon: 6,009 involved a handgun, 358 involved a rifle, and 1,939 involved an unspecified type of firearm.[10] In 2005, 75% of the 10,100 homicides committed using firearms in the U.S. were committed using handguns, compared to 4% with rifles, 5% with shotguns, and the rest with unspecified firearms.[66]

There is a correlation between states with higher gun ownership rates having higher rates of overall and gun homicides, but not higher rates of non-gun homicides.[67] In the U.S. in 2011, 67 percent of homicide victims were killed using a firearm: 66 percent of single-victim homicides and 79 percent of multiple-victim homicides.[68]

In the 19th century gun violence played a role in civil disorder such as the Haymarket riot.[69] Homicide rates in cities such as Philadelphia were significantly lower in the 19th century than in modern times.[70] During the 1980s and early 1990s, homicide rates surged in cities across the United States (see graphs at right).[71] Handgun homicides accounted for nearly all of the overall increase in the homicide rate, from 1985 to 1993, while homicide rates involving other weapons declined during that time frame.[36] The rising trend in homicide rates during the 1980s and early 1990s was most pronounced among lower income and especially unemployed males. Youths and Hispanic and African American males in the U.S. were the most represented, with the injury and death rates tripling for black males aged 13 through 17 and doubling for black males aged 18 through 24.[62][65] The rise in crack cocaine use in cities across the U.S. is often cited as a factor for increased gun violence among youths during this time period.[72][73][74]

Prevalence of homicide and violent crime is higher in statistical metropolitan areas of the U.S. than it is in non-metropolitan counties;[75] the vast majority of the U.S. population lives in statistical metropolitan areas.[76] In metropolitan areas, the homicide rate in 2013 was 4.7 per 100,000 compared with 3.4 in non-metropolitan counties.[77] More narrowly, the rates of murder and non-negligent manslaughter are identical in metropolitan counties and non-metropolitan counties.[78] In U.S. cities with populations greater than 250,000, the mean homicide rate was 12.1 per 100,000.[79] According to FBI statistics, the highest per capita rates of gun-related homicides in 2005 were in D.C. (35.4/100,000), Puerto Rico (19.6/100,000), Louisiana (9.9/100,000), and Maryland (9.9/100,000).[80]

In 2005, the 17 through 24 age group remains significantly over-represented in violent crime statistics, particularly homicides involving firearms.[81] In 2005, 17- through 19-year-olds were 4.3% of the overall population of the U.S.[82] This same age group accounted for 11.2% of those killed in firearm homicides.[83] This age group also accounted for 10.6% of all homicide offenses.[84] The 20- through 24-year-old age group accounted for 7.1% of the population,[82] while accounting for 22.5% of those killed in firearm homicides.[83] The 20 through 24 age group also accounted for 17.7% of all homicide offenses.[84] Those under age 17 are not overrepresented in homicide statistics. In 2005, 13- through 16-year-olds accounted for 6% of the overall population of the U.S., but only accounted for 3.6% of firearm homicide victims,[83] and 2.7% of overall homicide offenses.[84]

People with a criminal record were also more likely to die as homicide victims.[62] Between 1990 and 1994, 75% of all homicide victims age 21 and younger in the city of Boston had a prior criminal record.[85] In Philadelphia, the percentage of those killed in gun homicides that had prior criminal records increased from 73% in 1985 to 93% in 1996.[62][86] In Richmond, Virginia, the risk of gunshot injury is 22 times higher for those males involved with crime.[87]

The likelihood that a death will result is significantly increased when either the victim or the attacker has a firearm.[88][89] For example, the mortality rate for gunshot wounds to the heart is 84%, compared to 30% for people who sustain stab wounds to the heart.[90]

The U.S. is ranked 4th out of 34 developed nations in regards to the incidence of homicides committed with a firearm, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data. Mexico, Turkey, Estonia are ranked ahead of the U.S. in incidence of homicides. A U.S. male aged 15–24 is 70 times more likely to be killed with a gun than their counterpart in the eight (G-8) largest industrialized nations in the world (United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, Canada, Italy, Russia).[91] In a broader comparison of 218 countries the U.S. is ranked 111.[92] In 2010, the U.S.' homicide rate is 7 times higher than the average for populous developed countries in the OECD, and its firearm-related homicide rate was 25.2 times higher.[93] In 2013 the United States' firearm-related death rate was 10.64 deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants, a figure very close to Mexico's 11.17, although in Mexico firearm deaths are predominantly homicides whereas in the United States they are predominantly suicides.[94] (Although Mexico has ostensibly strict gun laws, the laws restricting carry are often unenforced, and the laws restricting manufacture and sale are often circumvented by trafficking from the United States and other countries.[95]) Canada and Switzerland each have much looser gun control regulation than the majority of developed nations, although significantly more than in the United States, and have firearm death rates of 2.22 and 2.91 per 100,000 citizens, respectively. By comparison Australia, which imposed sweeping gun control laws in response to the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, has a firearm death rate of 0.86 per 100,000, and in the United Kingdom the rate is 0.26. In 2015, there were 372 mass shootings and 33,636 deaths due to firearms in the U.S, while guns were used to kill about 50 people in the U.K.[91] More people are typically killed with guns in the U.S. in a day (about 85) than in the U.K. in a year.[91]

Deadly mass shootings have resulted in considerable coverage by the media. These shootings have represented 1% of all deaths using gun between 1980 and 2008.[96] Although mass shootings have been covered extensively in the media, mass shootings account for a small fraction of gun-related deaths[15] and the frequency of these events had steadily declined between 1994 and 2007. Between 2007 and 2013, the rate of active shooter incidents per year in the US has increased.[16][17]

Handguns figured in the Virginia Tech massacre, Binghamton shootings, 2009 Fort Hood shooting, Oikos University shooting, and 2011 Tucson shooting. The Aurora theater shooting and the Columbine High School massacre were committed by assailants armed with multiple weapons.

Accidental and negligent injuries

The perpetrators and victims of accidental and negligent gun discharges may be of any age. Over 120 children 15 years old or younger were killed in gun accidents in 1998.[97] Accidental injuries are most common in homes where guns are kept for self-defense.[97] The injuries are self-inflicted in half of the cases.[97] On January 16, 2013, President Obama issued 23 Executive Orders on Gun Safety,[98] one of which was for the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to research causes and possible prevention of gun violence. The five main areas of focus were gun violence, risk factors, prevention/intervention, gun safety and how media and violent video games influence the public. They also researched the area of accidental firearm deaths. According to this study not only have the number of accidental firearm deaths been on the decline over the past century but they now account for less than 1% of all unintentional deaths, half of which are self-inflicted.[99]

Violent crime

U.S. presidential assassinations and attempts

At least eleven assassination attempts with firearms have been made on U.S. presidents (over one-fifth of all presidents); four were successful, three with handguns and one with a rifle.

Abraham Lincoln survived an earlier attack,[100] but was killed using a .44-caliber Derringer pistol fired by John Wilkes Booth.[101] James A. Garfield was shot two times and mortally wounded by Charles J. Guiteau using a .44-caliber revolver on July 2, 1881. He would die of pneumonia the same year on September 19. On September 6, 1901, William McKinley was fatally wounded by Leon Czolgosz when he fired twice at point-blank range using a .32-caliber revolver. Despite only being struck by one of the bullets and receiving immediate surgical treatment, McKinley died 8 days later of gangrene infection.[101] John F. Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald with a bolt-action rifle on November 22, 1963.[102]

Andrew Jackson, Harry S. Truman, and Gerald Ford (the latter twice) survived assassination attempts involving firearms unharmed.[103][104][105]

Ronald Reagan was critically wounded in the March 30, 1981 assassination attempt by John Hinckley, Jr. with a .22-caliber revolver. He remains the only U.S. President to survive being shot while in office.[106] Former president Theodore Roosevelt was shot and wounded right before delivering a speech during his 1912 presidential campaign. Despite bleeding from his chest, Roosevelt refused to go to a hospital until he delivered the speech.[107] On February 15, 1933, Giuseppe Zangara attempted to assassinate president-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was giving a speech from his car in Miami, Florida.[108] Although Roosevelt was unharmed, Chicago mayor Anton Cermak died in that attempt, and several other bystanders received non-fatal injuries.[109]

Response to these events has resulted in federal legislation to regulate the public possession of firearms. For example, the attempted assassination of Franklin Roosevelt contributed to passage of the National Firearms Act of 1934,[109] and the Kennedy assassination (along with others) resulted in the Gun Control Act of 1968. The GCA is a federal law signed by President Lyndon Johnson that broadly regulates the firearms industry and firearms owners. It primarily focuses on regulating interstate commerce in firearms by largely prohibiting interstate firearms transfers except among licensed manufacturers, dealers, and importers. The assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan largely contributed to the passage of the Firearm Owners Protection Act in 1986.[110]

Other violent crime

A quarter of robberies of commercial premises in the U.S. are committed with guns.[111] Fatalities are three times as likely in robberies committed with guns than where other, or no, weapons are used,[111][112][113] with similar patterns in cases of family violence.[114] Criminologist Philip J. Cook hypothesized that if guns were less available, criminals might commit the same crime, but with less-lethal weapons.[115] He finds that the level of gun ownership in the 50 largest U.S. cities correlates with the rate of robberies committed with guns, but not with overall robbery rates.[116][117] A significant number of homicides are the consequence of an unintended escalation of another crime in which firearms are present, with no initial intent to kill.[113][118] Overall robbery and assault rates in the U.S. are comparable to those in other developed countries, such as Australia and Finland, with much lower levels of gun ownership.[115][118]

See also Assault with a deadly weapon


Photo from a security camera of shooter Aaron Alexis holding his Remington 870 shotgun during his rampage.

Considering mass shooting alone (four people shot dead in a public place), nearly all were male. About 47% were white, 12% black, and 6% Asian (1982-2016).[119][120] This definition of mass shooting was created by two bloggers and does not match the international definition of a mass shooting or the definition utilized by the Department of Justice.[121] The mass shootings have represented 1% of all deaths using gun between 1980 and 2008.[96]


In 2015, Arizona State University researcher Sherry Towers said "National news media attention is like a 'vector' that reaches people who are vulnerable." She stated that disaffected people can become infected by the attention given other disturbed people who have become mass killers.[120]


African Americans were 55% of the victims of gun homicide in 2010, but 13% of the population. Non-Hispanic whites were 25% of victims but 65% of the population in 2010. Hispanics were 17% of victims and 16% of the population in 2010.[122]

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 1980 to 2008, 84% of white homicide victims were killed by white offenders and 93% of black homicide victims were killed by black offenders.[123]

Public policy

Public policy as related to preventing gun violence is an ongoing political and social debate regarding both the restriction and availability of firearms within the United States. Policy at the Federal level is/has been governed by the Second Amendment, National Firearms Act, Gun Control Act of 1968, Firearm Owners Protection Act, Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, and the Domestic Violence Offender Act. Gun policy in the U.S. has been revised many times with acts such as the Firearm Owners Protection Act, which loosened provisions for gun sales while also strengthening automatic firearms law.[124]

At the federal, state and local level gun laws such as handgun bans have been overturned by the Supreme Court in cases such as District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago. These cases hold that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm. Columbia v. Heller only addressed the issue on Federal enclaves, while McDonald v. Chicago addressed the issue as relating to the individual states.[125]

March on Washington for Gun Control in January 2013

Gun control proponents often cite the relatively high number of homicides committed with firearms as reason to support stricter gun control laws.[126] Firearm laws are a subject of debate in the U.S., with firearms used for recreational purposes as well as for personal protection.[1] Gun rights advocates cite the use of firearms for self-protection, and to deter violent crime, as reasons why more guns can reduce crime.[127] Gun rights advocates also say criminals are the least likely to obey firearms laws, and so limiting access to guns by law-abiding people makes them more vulnerable to armed criminals.[41]

In an interview with Bill Simmons of HBO, President Obama said that gun control will be the “dominant” issue on his agenda in his last year of presidency.[2][128]

In a survey of 41 studies, half of the studies found a connection between gun ownership and homicide but these were usually least rigorous studies. Only six studies controlled at least six statistically significant confound variables, and none of them showed a significant positive effect. Eleven macro-level studies showed that crime rates increase gun levels (not vice versa). The reason that there is no opposite effect may be that most owners are noncriminals and that they may use guns to prevent violence.[129]

Access to firearms

The most common type of gun confiscated by police and traced by the ATF are .38 special revolvers, such as this Smith & Wesson Model 60 .38 Special revolver with a 3-inch barrel[130]

U.S. policy aims to maintain the right of most people to own most types of firearms, while restricting access to firearms by people considered to present a higher risk of misuse.[115] Gun dealers in the U.S. are prohibited from selling handguns to those under the age of 21, and long guns to those under the age of 18.[115] There are also restrictions on selling guns to people not resident in the state.[115]

Assuming access to guns, the top ten guns involved in crime in the U.S. show a definite trend to favor handguns over long guns. The top ten guns used in crime, as reported by the ATF in 1993, were the Smith & Wesson .38 Special and .357 revolvers; Raven Arms .25 caliber, Davis P-380 .380 caliber, Ruger .22 caliber, Lorcin L-380 .380 caliber, and Smith & Wesson semi-automatic handguns; Mossberg and Remington 12 gauge shotguns; and the Tec DC-9 9 mm handgun.[130] An earlier 1985 study of 1,800 incarcerated felons showed that criminals preferred revolvers and other non-semi-automatic firearms over semi-automatic firearms.[131] In Pittsburgh a change in preferences towards pistols occurred in the early 1990s, coinciding with the arrival of crack cocaine and the rise of violent youth gangs.[132] Background checks in California from 1998 to 2000 resulted in 1% of sales being initially denied.[133] The types of guns most often denied included semiautomatic pistols with short barrels and of medium caliber.[133]

Among juveniles (minors under the age of 16, 17, or 18, depending on legal jurisdiction) serving in correctional facilities, 86% had owned a gun, with 66% acquiring their first gun by age 14.[14] There was also a tendency for juvenile offenders to have owned several firearms, with 65% owning three or more.[14] Juveniles most often acquired guns illegally from family, friends, drug dealers, and street contacts.[14] Inner city youths cited "self-protection from enemies" as the top reason for carrying a gun.[14] In Rochester, New York, 22% of young males have carried a firearm illegally, most for only a short time.[134] There is little overlap between legal gun ownership and illegal gun carrying among youths.[134]

Firearms market

Source of firearms possessed by Federal inmates, 1997[135]
ATF inspector at a federally licensed gun dealer

Gun rights advocates complain that policy aimed at the supply side of the firearms market is based on limited research.[1] One consideration is that only 60-70% of firearms sales in the U.S. are transacted through federally licensed firearm dealers, with the remainder taking place in the "secondary market", in which previously owned firearms are transferred by non-dealers.[28][136][137][138] Access to secondary markets is generally less convenient to purchasers, and involves such risks as the possibility of the gun having been used previously in a crime.[62]:119 Unlicensed private sellers were permitted by law to sell privately owned guns at gun shows or at private locations in 24 states as of 1998.[139] Regulations that limit the number of handgun sales in the primary, regulated market to one handgun a month per customer have been shown to be effective at reducing illegal gun trafficking by reducing the supply into the secondary market.[140] Taxes on firearm purchases are another means for government to influence the primary market.[141]

Federally licensed firearm dealers in the primary (new and used gun) market are regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). Firearm manufacturers are required to mark all firearms manufactured with serial numbers. This allows the ATF to trace guns involved in crimes back to their last Federal Firearms License (FFL) reported change of ownership transaction, although not past the first private sale involving any particular gun. A report by the ATF released in 1999 found that 0.4% of federally licensed dealers sold half of the guns used criminally in 1996 and 1997.[142][143] This is sometimes done through "straw purchases."[142] State laws, such as those in California, that restrict the number of gun purchases in a month may help stem such "straw purchases."[142] An estimated 500,000 guns are stolen each year, becoming available to prohibited users.[136][141] During the ATF's Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative (YCGII), which involved expanded tracing of firearms recovered by law enforcement agencies,[144] only 18% of guns used criminally that were recovered in 1998 were in possession of the original owner.[145] Guns recovered by police during criminal investigations were often sold by legitimate retail sales outlets to legal owners, and then diverted to criminal use over relatively short times ranging from a few months to a few years,[85][145][146] which makes them relatively new compared with firearms in general circulation.[141][147]

Federal legislation

The first Federal legislation related to firearms was the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution ratified in 1791. For 143 years, this was the only major Federal legislation regarding firearms. The next Federal firearm legislation was the National Firearms Act of 1934, which created regulations for the sale of firearms, established taxes on their sale, and required registration of some types of firearms such as machine guns.[148]

In the aftermath of the Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations, the Gun Control Act of 1968 was enacted. This Act regulated gun commerce, restricting mail order sales, and allowing shipments only to licensed firearm dealers. The Act also prohibited sale of firearms to felons, those under indictment, fugitives, illegal aliens, drug users, those dishonorably discharged from the military, and those in mental institutions.[115] The law also restricted importation of so-called Saturday night specials and other types of guns, and limited the sale of automatic weapons and semi-automatic weapon conversion kits.[142]

The Firearm Owners Protection Act, also known as the McClure-Volkmer Act, was passed in 1986. It changed some restrictions in the 1968 Act, allowing federally licensed gun dealers and individual unlicensed private sellers to sell at gun shows, while continuing to require licensed gun dealers to require background checks.[142] The 1986 Act also restricted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms from conducting repetitive inspections, reduced the amount of record-keeping required of gun dealers, raised the burden of proof for convicting gun law violators, and changed restrictions on convicted felons from owning firearms.[142]

In the years following the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, people buying guns were required to show identification and sign a statement affirming that they were not in any of the prohibited categories.[115] Many states enacted background check laws that went beyond the federal requirements.[149] The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act passed by Congress in 1993 imposed a waiting period before the purchase of a handgun, giving time for, but not requiring, a background check to be made.[150] The Brady Act also required the establishment of a national system to provide instant criminal background checks, with checks to be done by firearms dealers.[151] The Brady Act only applied to people who bought guns from licensed dealers, whereas felons buy some percentage of their guns from black market sources.[146] Restrictions, such as waiting periods, impose costs and inconveniences on legitimate gun purchasers, such as hunters.[141]

Semi-automatic versions of the AK-47 assault rifle were affected under the 1994 ban

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, enacted in 1994, included the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, and was a response to public concern over mass shootings.[152] This provision prohibited the manufacture and importation of some semiautomatic firearms with certain features relevant to military use such as a folding stock, pistol grip, flash suppressor, and magazines holding more than ten rounds.[152] A grandfather clause was included that allowed firearms manufactured before 1994 to remain legal. A short-term evaluation by University of Pennsylvania criminologists Christopher S. Koper and Jeffrey A. Roth did not find any clear impact of this legislation on gun violence.[153] Given the short study time period of the evaluation, the National Academy of Sciences advised caution in drawing any conclusions.[141] In September 2004, the assault weapon ban expired, with its sunset clause.[154]

The Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban, the Lautenberg Amendment, prohibited anyone previously convicted of a misdemeanor or felony crime of domestic violence from shipment, transport, ownership and use of guns or ammunition.[155] This law also prohibited the sale or gift of a firearm or ammunition to such a person. It was passed in 1996, and became effective in 1997. The law does not exempt people who use firearms as part of their duties, such as police officers or military personnel with applicable criminal convictions; they may not carry firearms.[156]

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, police and National Guard units in New Orleans confiscated firearms from private citizens in an attempt to prevent violence. In reaction, Congress passed the Disaster Recovery Personal Protection Act of 2006 in the form of an amendment to Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2007. Section 706 of the Act prohibits federal employees and those receiving federal funds from confiscating legally possessed firearms during a disaster.[157]

On Jan. 5, 2016, President Obama unveiled his new strategy to curb gun violence in America. His proposals focus on new background check requirements that are intended to enhance the effectiveness of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), and greater education and enforcement efforts of existing laws at the state level.[158][159] In an interview with Bill Simmons of HBO, President Obama also confirmed that gun control will be the “dominant” issue on his agenda in his last year of presidency.[160][161]

State legislation


Visitors at a gun show in Houston

All 50 U.S. states allow for the Right-to-carry firearms, with forty-two states generally requiring a state-issued permit in order to carry concealed weapons in public and the remaining eight states generally allowing individuals to carry concealed weapons in public without a permit. Right-to-carry laws expanded in the 1990s as homicide rates from gun violence in the U.S. increased, largely in response to incidents such as the Luby's shooting of 1991 in Texas which directly resulted in the passage of a carrying concealed weapon, or CCW, law in Texas in 1995.[162] As Rorie Sherman, staff reporter for the National Law Journal wrote in an article published on April 18, 1994, "It is a time of unparalleled desperation about crime. But the mood is decidedly 'I'll do it myself' and 'Don't get in my way.'"[163]

The result was laws, or the lack thereof, that permitted persons to carry firearms openly, known as open carry, often without any permit required, in 22 states by 1998.[164] Laws that permitted persons to carry concealed handguns, sometimes termed a concealed handgun license, CHL, or concealed pistol license, CPL in some jurisdictions instead of CCW, existed in 34 states in the U.S. by 2004.[1] Since then, the number of states with CCW laws has increased; as of 2014, all 50 states have some form of CCW laws on the books.[165][166]

Economist John Lott has argued that right-to-carry laws create a perception that more potential crime victims might be carrying firearms, and thus serve as a deterrent against crime.[167] Lott's study has been criticized for not adequately controlling for other factors, including other state laws also enacted, such as Florida's laws requiring background checks and waiting period for handgun buyers.[168] When Lott's data was re-analyzed by some researchers, the only statistically significant effect of concealed-carry laws found was an increase in assaults,[168] with similar findings by Jens Ludwig.[169] Lott and Mustard's 1997 study has also been criticized by Paul Rubin and Hashem Dezhbakhsh for inappropriately using a dummy variable; Rubin and Dezhbakhsh reported in a 2003 study that right-to-carry laws have much smaller and more inconsistent effects than those reported by Lott and Mustard, and that these effects are usually not crime-reducing.[170] Since concealed-carry permits are only given to adults, Philip J. Cook suggested that analysis should focus on the relationship with adult and not juvenile gun incident rates.[115] He found no statistically significant effect.[115] A 2004 National Academy of Science survey of existing literature found that the data available "are too weak to support unambiguous conclusions" about the impact of right-to-carry laws on rates of violent crime.[1] NAS suggested that new analytical approaches and datasets at the county or local level are needed to adequately evaluate the impact of right-to-carry laws.[171] A 2014 study found that Arizona's SB 1108, which allowed adults in the state to concealed carry without a permit and without passing a training course, was associated with an increase in gun-related fatalities.[172] A 2015 NBER working paper found that the apparent effects of RTC laws on crime rates depend significantly on the assumptions made in the analysis.[173]

Child Access Prevention (CAP)

Child Access Prevention (CAP) laws, enacted by many states, require parents to store firearms safely, to minimize access by children to guns, while maintaining ease of access by adults.[174] CAP laws hold gun owners liable should a child gain access to a loaded gun that is not properly stored.[174] The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claimed that, on average, one child died every three days in accidental incidents in the U.S. from 2000 to 2005.[175] In most states, CAP law violations are considered misdemeanors.[174] Florida's CAP law, enacted in 1989, permits felony prosecution of violators.[174] Research indicates that CAP laws are correlated with a reduction in unintentional gun deaths by 23%,[176] and gun suicides among those aged 14 through 17 by 11%.[177] A study by Lott did not detect a relationship between CAP laws and accidental gun deaths or suicides among those age 19 and under between 1979 and 1996.[178] However, two studies disputed Lott's findings.[177][179] A 2008 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper found that CAP laws are correlated with a reduction of non-fatal gun injuries among both children and adults by 30-40%.[174] Research also indicated that CAP laws were most highly correlated with reductions of non-fatal gun injuries in states where violations were considered felonies, whereas in states that considered violations as misdemeanors, the potential impact of CAP laws was not statistically significant.[180] All of these studies were correlational, and do not account for other potential contributing factors.

Local restrictions

Some local jurisdictions in the U.S. have more restrictive laws, such as Washington, D.C.'s Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975, which banned residents from owning handguns, and required permitted firearms be disassembled and locked with a trigger lock. On March 9, 2007, a U.S. Appeals Court ruled the Washington, D.C. handgun ban unconstitutional.[181] The appeal of that case later led to the Supreme Court's ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller that D.C.'s ban was unconstitutional under the Second Amendment.

Despite New York City's strict gun control laws, guns are often trafficked in from other parts of the U.S., particularly the southern states.[143][182] Results from the ATF's Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative indicate that the percentage of imported guns involved in crimes is tied to the stringency of local firearm laws.[144]

Prevention programs

Violence prevention and educational programs have been established in many schools and communities across the United States. These programs aim to change personal behavior of both children and their parents, encouraging children to stay away from guns, ensure parents store guns safely, and encourage children to solve disputes without resorting to violence.[183] Programs aimed at altering behavior range from passive (requiring no effort on the part of the individual) to active (supervising children, or placing a trigger lock on a gun).[183] The more effort required of people, the more difficult it is to implement a prevention strategy.[184][185] Prevention strategies focused on modifying the situational environment and the firearm itself may be more effective.[183] Empirical evaluation of gun violence prevention programs has been limited.[1] Of the evaluations that have been done, results indicate such programs have minimal effectiveness.[183]


SPEAK UP is a national youth violence prevention initiative created by The Center to Prevent Youth Violence,[186] which provides young people with tools to improve the safety of their schools and communities. The SPEAK UP program is an anonymous, national hot-line for young people to report threats of violence in their communities or at school. The hot-line is operated in accordance with a protocol developed in collaboration with national education and law enforcement authorities, including the FBI. Trained counselors, with access to translators for 140 languages, collect information from callers and then report the threat to appropriate school and law enforcement officials.[187][188]

Gun safety parent counseling

One of the most widely used parent counseling programs is Steps to Prevent Firearm Injury program (STOP), which was developed in 1994 by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.[183] STOP was superseded by STOP 2 in 1998, which has a broader focus including more communities and health care providers.[183] STOP has been evaluated and found not to have a significant effect on gun ownership or firearm storage practices by inner-city parents.[189] Marjorie S. Hardy suggests further evaluation of STOP is needed, as this evaluation had a limited sample size and lacked a control group.[183]


Prevention programs geared towards children have also not been greatly successful.[183] Many inherent challenges arise when working with children, including their tendency to perceive themselves as invulnerable to injury,[190] limited ability to apply lessons learned,[191][192] their innate curiosity,[191] and peer pressure.

The goal of gun safety programs, usually administered by local firearms dealers and shooting clubs, is to teach older children and adolescents how to handle firearms safely.[183] There has been no systematic evaluation of the effect of these programs on children.[183] For adults, no positive effect on gun storage practices has been found as a result of these programs.[28][193] Also, researchers have found that gun safety programs for children may likely increase a child's interest in obtaining and using guns, which they cannot be expected to use safely all the time, even with training.[194]

One approach taken is gun avoidance, such as when encountering a firearm at a neighbor's home. The Eddie Eagle Gun Safety Program, administered by the National Rifle Association (NRA), is geared towards younger children from pre-kindergarten to sixth grade, and teaches kids that real guns are not toys by emphasizing a "just say no" approach.[183] The Eddie Eagle program is based on training children in a four-step action to take when they see a firearm: (1) Stop! (2) Don't touch! (3) Leave the area. (4) Go tell an adult. Materials, such as coloring books and posters, back the lessons up and provide the repetition necessary in any child-education program. The ineffectiveness of the "just say no" approach promoted by the NRA's Eddie the Eagle program was highlighted in an investigative piece by ABC's Diane Sawyer in 1999.[195] Sawyer's piece was based on academic studies conducted by Dr. Marjorie Hardy, assistant professor of psychology at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.[196] Dr. Hardy's study tracked the behavior of elementary age schoolchildren who spent a day learning the Eddie the Eagle four-step action plan from a uniformed police officer. The children were then placed into a playroom which contained a hidden gun. When the children found the gun, they did not run away from the gun, but rather, they inevitably played with it, pulled the trigger while looking into the barrel, or aimed the gun at a playmate and pulled the trigger. The study concluded that children's natural curiosity was far more powerful than the parental admonition to "Just say no".[197]

Community programs

Programs targeted at entire communities, such as community revitalization, after-school programs, and media campaigns, may be more effective in reducing the general level of violence that children are exposed to.[198][199] Community-based programs that have specifically targeted gun violence include Safe Kids/Healthy Neighborhoods Injury Prevention Program in New York City,[200][201] and Safe Homes and Havens in Chicago.[183] Evaluation of such community-based programs is difficult, due to many confounding factors and the multifaceted nature of such programs.[183]

Intervention programs

Sociologist James D. Wright suggests that to convince inner-city youths not to carry guns "requires convincing them that they can survive in their neighborhood without being armed, that they can come and go in peace, that being unarmed will not cause them to be victimized, intimidated, or slain."[14] Intervention programs, such as CeaseFire Chicago, Operation Ceasefire in Boston and Project Exile in Richmond, Virginia during the 1990s, have been shown to be effective.[1][202] Other intervention strategies, such as gun "buy-back" programs have been demonstrated to be ineffective.[203]

Gun buyback programs

Main article: Gun buyback program

Gun "buyback" programs are a strategy aimed at influencing the firearms market by taking guns "off the streets".[203] Gun "buyback" programs have been shown to be effective to prevent suicides, but ineffective to prevent homicides[204][205] with the National Academy of Sciences citing theory underlying these programs as "badly flawed."[203] Guns surrendered tend to be those least likely to be involved in crime, such as old, malfunctioning guns with little resale value, muzzleloading or other black-powder guns, antiques chambered for obsolete cartridges that are no longer commercially manufactured or sold, or guns that individuals inherit but have little value in possessing.[206] Other limitations of gun buyback programs include the fact that it is relatively easy to obtain gun replacements, often of better guns than were relinquished in the buyback.[203] Also, the number of handguns used in crime (approximately 7,500 per year) is very small compared to the approximately 70 million handguns in the U.S.. (i.e., 0.011%).[203]

"Gun bounty" programs launched in several Florida cities have shown more promise. These programs involve cash rewards for anonymous tips about illegal weapons that lead to an arrest and a weapons charge. Since its inception in May 2007, the Miami program has led to 264 arrests and the confiscation of 432 guns owned illegally and $2.2 million in drugs, and has solved several murder and burglary cases.[207]

Operation Ceasefire

In 1995, Operation Ceasefire was established as a strategy for addressing youth gun violence in Boston. Violence was particularly concentrated in poor, inner-city neighborhoods including Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan.[208] There were 22 youths (under the age of 24) killed in Boston in 1987, with that figure rising to 73 in 1990.[208] Operation Ceasefire entailed a problem-oriented policing approach, and focused on specific places that were crime hot spots—two strategies that when combined have been shown to be quite effective.[209][210][211] Particular focus was placed on two elements of the gun violence problem, including illicit gun trafficking[212] and gang violence.[208] Within two years of implementing Operation Ceasefire in Boston, the number of youth homicides dropped to ten, with only one handgun-related youth homicide occurring in 1999 and 2000.[142] The Operation Ceasefire strategy has since been replicated in other cities, including Los Angeles.[213]

Project Exile

Federally supported gun violence intervention program

Project Exile, conducted in Richmond, Virginia during the 1990s, was a coordinated effort involving federal, state, and local officials that targeted gun violence. The strategy entailed prosecution of gun violations in Federal courts, where sentencing guidelines were tougher. Project Exile also involved outreach and education efforts through media campaigns, getting the message out about the crackdown.[214] Research analysts offered different opinions as to the program's success in reducing gun crime. Authors of a 2003 analysis of the program argued that the decline in gun homicide was part of a "general regression to the mean" across U.S. cities with high homicide rates.[215] Authors of a 2005 study disagreed, concluding that Richmond's gun homicide rate fell more rapidly than the rates in other large U.S. cities with other influences controlled.[214][216]

Project Safe Neighborhoods

Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) is a national strategy for reducing gun violence that builds on the strategies implemented in Operation Ceasefire and Project Exile.[217] PSN was established in 2001, with support from the Bush administration, channelled through the United States Attorney's Offices in the United States Department of Justice. The Federal government has spent over US$1.5 billion since the program's inception on the hiring of prosecutors, and providing assistance to state and local jurisdictions in support of training and community outreach efforts.[218][219]

Americans for Responsible Solutions

Americans for Responsible Solutions was started in January 2013 as a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to "encourage elected officials to stand up for solutions to prevent gun violence and protect responsible gun ownership by communicating directly with the constituents that elect them."[220] The organization was announced on January 8, 2013 by Gabrielle "Gabby" Giffords, a former Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives for Arizona's 8th congressional district, and Mark Kelly, a retired American astronaut.[221] In an op-ed published in USA Today, Gifford and Kelly referred to the NRA lobby and sought to counter it by creating a lobby dedicated to responsible gun control measures.[222]

Research limitations

In the United States, research into firearms and violent crime is fraught with difficulties, associated with limited data on gun ownership and use,[34] firearms markets, and aggregation of crime data.[1] Research studies into gun violence have primarily taken one of two approaches: case-control studies and social ecology.[1] Gun ownership is usually determined through surveys, proxy variables, and sometimes with production and import figures. In statistical analysis of homicides and other types of crime which are rare events, these data tend to have poisson distributions, which also presents methodological challenges to researchers. With data aggregation, it is difficult to make inferences about individual behavior.[223] This problem, known as ecological fallacy, is not always handled properly by researchers; this leads some to jump to conclusions that their data do not necessarily support.[224]

In 1996 the NRA lobbied Congressman Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) to include budget provisions that prohibited the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from advocating or promoting gun control and that deleted $2.6 million from the CDC budget, the exact amount the CDC had spent on firearms research the previous year. The ban was later extended to all research funded by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). According to an article in Nature, this made gun research more difficult, reduced the number of studies, and discouraged researchers from even talking about gun violence at medical and scientific conferences. In 2013, after the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, President Barack Obama ordered the CDC to resume funding research on gun violence and prevention, and put $10 million in the 2014 budget request for it.[225] Prior to this, U.S. public funding directed towards gun violence prevention was less than $2 million annually, a disproportionately low total compared to public funding totals for other leading public health burdens with respect to potential years of life lost.[226]

See also

Notes and references

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