Guns in the US

Over at The Monkey Cage, Patrick Egan considers some of the statistics about gun violence and gun ownership in America. He concludes that both are actually on the decline, despite America’s reputation as a gun crazy country and the recent mass shootings:

First, we are a less violent nation now than we’ve been in over forty years. In 2010, violent crime rates hit a low not seen since 1972; murder rates sunk to levels last experienced during the Kennedy Administration. Our perceptions of our own safety have shifted, as well. In the early 1980s, almost half of Americans told the General Social Survey (GSS) they were “afraid to walk alone at night” in their own neighborhoods; now only one-third feel this way.


Second, for all the attention given to America’s culture of guns, ownership of firearms is at or near all-time lows. Since 1973, the GSS has been asking Americans whether they keep a gun in their home. In the 1970s, about half of the nation said yes; today only about one-third do. Driving the decline: a dramatic drop in ownership of pistols and shotguns, the very weapons most likely to be used in violent crimes.

The original post contains the graphs and data.

Balanced beside this should be the report from CNN:

Analysis: Fewer U.S. gun owners own more guns

A decreasing number of American gun owners own two-thirds of the nation’s guns and as many as one-third of the guns on the planet — even though they account for less than 1% of the world’s population, according to a CNN analysis of gun ownership data.

The data, collected by the Injury Prevention Journal, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the General Social Survey and population figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, found that the number of U.S. households with guns has declined, but current gun owners are gathering more guns.

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  • FO

    Ok, now, I’m feeling stupid.
    If in 2010 the murders decreased to the same level as 1972, it means that between 1972 and 2010 they also rose exactly of the same amount they decreased…
    Was there any special reason for an increase in violence after 1972?

    Anyway, gun or not, the fact that violence is decreasing and people feel safer is very encouraging (also because scared people are dangerous.)

    • UrsaMinor

      In the metropolitan area where I live, the statistics of people feeling safer in their own neighborhoods now than they did 40 years ago probably has something to do with the fact that 100,000 people moved out of the city and into newly-built, low-density, low-crime suburbs during those four decades. Crime tends to correlate strongly with poverty, and migration to the suburbs tends to correlate strongly with higher income.

      We’re an interesting metro area in that our population has not changed significantly since 1970. We have simply rearranged our living patterns, and physically sorted ourselves by income. We used to have a high-density urban core where most of the population, wealth and political power were concentrated, surrounded by farmland and a few small villages and towns with lower incomes. The urban core today still has the higher population density, but it no longer dominates the region in terms of total population, and it has little wealth or political influence. The wealth and power have moved out to the suburbs. The old core business and industrial districts were abandoned and reproduced in a ring around the city (albeit cast in a form more suited to the modern automobile culture, and indeed, utterly unusable if one does not have access to a car).

      So this might explain some of the new-felt ease, at least in my area. People feel safer in suburban neighborhoods where standards of living are higher, and we’ve built a whole lot of them in the past forty years- so many that our land use for housing and retail business has doubled even though our population growth has been zero.

    • Val

      A large (if not the largest) portion of America’s gun crimes are tied both directly and indirectly to gangs and the drug trade. Nixon declared the “war on drugs” in 1971, and gun violence sort of peaked in the ’80′s in conjunction with the rise of trade in crack cocaine. A lot of changes have been made in law enforcement since that time which have helped lower gun crime and the overall crime rate.

      • Paul

        The war on drugs has had the same effects as prohibition did: Increase in urban crime, largely gang related, increased power and intrusiveness of the government and decreased freedom and safety for the general population. I always wonder if Nixon paid attention in History class.

  • Kristian

    My friend in Virginia (I’m from Europe btw) has more guns than he could shoot in a day! He’s got most of them stashed around his farm for “easy access if someone attacks”, and still I don’t think of him as paranoid or crazy.

    For an European, the facination with guns in the US seem alien, but there are more rifles per person here in Norway, than in the US (no citation, sorry).

    • FO

      What if someone uses the very guns he stashes around to shoot him? oO
      Assuming that the statistics about Norway are true, they still have no cowboy attitude, much smaller income disparity, and their public healthcare is available to treat anyone before they go postal.

    • trj

      More rifles, perhaps, but the USA clearly has the lead in the rate of firearms: link

      And the difference in rate of homicides by firearm speaks for itself: link

  • Paul

    One of the stats from this year’s Black Friday was that there were more guns and ammunition sold this year than in previous years. It is also right that people who own guns tend to own more than one. My grandfather lived in the country and his pickup truck had a rack in the back window with a 22 for small game, a rifle for deer and a shotgun for turkeys, geese and ducks.

    I think there has also been a very effective scare campaign aimed at gun owners that Obama was going to take away their guns. This happened in 2008 as well and for the first year of his administration gun dealers couldn’t keep bullets in stock.

    Most gun owners are not wild eyed psychopaths but as my grandfather told me when I asked why he had three rifles, you need the right tool for the job.

    I think one of the other factors in people stockpiling guns and ammo is that they are hoping to be able to resell them at a profit. A lot of guns sites refer to this as blue collar gold.

    I don’t worry about the folks who buy them legally. There will be occasional folks like the guy in Ct. that shot up the school but he is not only the exception but without access to guns he would have found some other way to try and cause the same results. The ones I worry about are the ones who get them illegally and in particular young gang members who do not always realize the finality of their actions. This was the reason behind having a separate juvenile justice system. But now we routinely see kids tried as adults due to the magnitude of the crime not because the child was mature enough to understand the results of his actions.

    • JohnMWhite

      “without access to guns he would have found some other way to try and cause the same results”

      What way is there to slaughter two dozen people in a few seconds other than a gun? Was he just as likely to get himself a hellfire missile? It is the speed and killing efficiency of guns that make them so dangerous, not solely the user’s determination. He could not kill multiple people in the blink of an eye from across the room with a knife or baseball bat. Without access to guns, the same results seem exceedingly unlikely.

      • Kodie

        He could drive into a crowd of Christmas shoppers. Seriously.

        I am finding it difficult to understand the quantity as opposed to quality problem. Many other parents are burying their children this week from preventable deaths. 26 is above some threshold above which we should care as to the manner of death? 26 American schoolchildren as opposed to many more children elsewhere in the world? I hate the fixation on guns from both sides, really, and the safety of our citizens … why it matters more because it was children or not, why does it feel we are treating the 6 adults as an afterthought. Whenever something bad like this happens, I just wonder why we don’t care all the time about everyone. It’s a sudden shock and children and guns and double digits that makes this a popular concern, but it feels to me like when it’s not happening and everything seems ok because it’s not on the news, but when someone feels like solving their problem with murder, I don’t care if it’s one or a thousand.

        What way was he going to kill 26 people in 15 minutes? Is that the only way to kill someone? Is the only thing that matters reducing the number of people who die to a number that we don’t have to confront every day because it’s too small?

        • JohnMWhite

          I think you’re somewhat misinterpreting what I’m saying. I am not trying to offer any kind of magic shield to stop death, and I am not trying to argue that the only thing that’s important is reducing the number of potential casualties by making killing harder. Also, driving into a crowd of shoppers is still a lot more difficult to effectively pull off than pulling a trigger. Logistically you have to have a lot more going for you than holding what amounts to a death-remote control in your hand and pointing and clicking. It’s feasible but difficult and nitpicking about what other methods are available to kill somebody is completely missing the point. The point I’m trying to make here is that gun control is a step in raising the barrier of difficulty so that those who lose themselves have less options and will hopefully do less damage. It doesn’t mean that we can stop anybody dying needlessly, but I never suggested it did.

          Changing our culture and stopping murder in general is a much different debate that I’m not having at the minute. I do care about preventable deaths, however they occur, and I dislike the implication that just because I’m talking about one particular set right now I’m somehow a sheep bleating about whatever the TV tells me to care about. I talk about it a lot, and so do a lot of people I know; I don’t think we are in a situation where we collectively don’t care about anybody but the big shocks, the issues of both gun control and wanton violence is often brought up and concerns a lot of people. Nobody said the only thing that matters is reducing the number of people killed, but that doesn’t mean reducing the number of people killed doesn’t matter. We’ve got to be practical, we’re not going to stop people wanting to kill one another and finding a way to do it overnight, but it is a silly strawman put forth by the pro-gun lobby that suggests anybody actually thinks that is the case. I’m not saying you are an NRA shill or something, but I don’t see where else you would have got the idea that in arguing for gun control I’m somehow claiming to have found a cure-all. I didn’t in any way say that with my words. I am aware this is a nuanced issue, and I believe these things have got to get better by steps and by degrees, and sitting on our hands lamenting that death happens ever isn’t going to make much progress, much as it is a laudable concern to care for everybody who loses someone to a preventable cause. I do think that if we can break the magic spell of guns, we can actually make further inroads beyond that in changing our culture to be one more caring and loving, because that desperation to cling to weapons designed to kill one another is a pretty significant symptom of the issue you’re describing.

          • Kodie

            No, really. Every single time something horrendous is reported on the news, people obsessively talk about it to the exclusion of all the other things. And how to stop things like that from happening? GUNS. I don’t hear any conversations about other stuff ever, and when this passes and we don’t talk about it anymore, nobody’s talking about guns either. Then it will just happen again. That’s how it cycles around and around, and that’s what I’m tired of.

            • JohnMWhite

              My experience is very different from yours but I don’t measure the national conversation solely by what cable news wants to talk about (which I am aware you did not specifically cite, so this is an inference by me). By their nature they’re going to reflect on what is the ‘big story’ of any news cycle and then move on, but the push for gun control and for generally addressing the culture of violence has been a bedrock of political action for literally decades. Even now, people are not excluding other things from the conversation, though sometimes dragging in home schooling, gay rights and evolution may be somewhat ill advised. I get that you have this sense that ‘people’ only talk about what’s right in front of them, served on a shiny platter by corporate news networks, but in my experience a lot more than one thing is being talked about at once by a good number of people.

              I can’t help but feel like you’re trying to police people’s conversation, which I don’t think you’d find particularly acceptable in other circumstances. This is important, and I don’t think it’s wrong for people to be somewhat focused on it for a time. It’s obviously also important that we avoid x incident distracting us from other things, and that we always strive to move forward and improve lives and so on, but a lot of people really do try. It’s just the people with the power to make a real difference, won’t. I definitely understand your frustration with a sense of stagnation and going in circles with our reactions to these incidents, but it’s not as if the will isn’t there in a lot of people to make a difference. Just not the people who matter, and I’d point out that rather than obsessively talking about this latest incident, the human roadblocks to progress on gun violence (such as Mitch McConnell) have been literally silent when asked to address the issue. Guns, drugs, rape, child abuse, human trafficking, indefinite detention, immigration, torture, gay rights, transgender rights, racism and countless other problems are being talked about all the time, they just never get traction with the gatekeepers. I get that you’re tired of the cycle, but only a very select few people have the ability to stop the treadmill, and a good portion of the rest of us are genuinely trying to keep going, while juggling two dozen balls in the air.

            • Kodie

              I had this idea a few weeks ago, making an observation – that people just get stunned at things like this, talk about it for a week or two, then go on about their business. It is the process of grief. Grief and something must be done. Something must be done and we need closure. I just don’t get stunned. I don’t remember the last time something like this impacted me. I don’t feel unemotional about it, I feel maybe overly emotional about everything, and I don’t find people talking about it. My observation is that it’s the tendency to make a huge deal out of one thing, by the numbers. The numbers seem to be the thing here.

              After Hurricane Sandy was on the news, I was talking to my mother about the time I had been through a fire and was stranded. When you see a lot of people’s houses devastated at once, it renders a fundraiser. I could see them getting desperate on my tv. After a few days, you just don’t know what you’re going to do when you don’t have access to normal everyday things, food and water and a permanent place to stay. I went crazy. I made probably the biggest mistake of my life under similar circumstances. How many people are shot today. How many children died in the US today. When I see a big number all in one place, I don’t get as upset as everyone else. I am out of step with society, I don’t know why. It seems bizarre to me to get suddenly upset over a single incident – a scary and deadly incident that shouldn’t be missed, but it happens every day. I don’t hear anyone talking about it.

      • Paul

        remember colombine? in addition to guns they had placed several large bombs which thankfully did not go off. In the coverage at the time any one of these propane and pipe bombs would have killed more than their guns did. Remember 9/11? these airliners killed a huge number of people. Remember Oklahoma city? the truck bomb was much more destructive than the guy in Newtown

        • Yoav

          remember colombine? in addition to guns they had placed several large bombs which thankfully did not go off.

          The last bit is important. Making bombs, as well as flying jumbo jets, require a level of skill and preplaning that far exceed picking up an assault rifle and a bunch of clips and heading to a movie theater or a school.

          • Kodie

            For some reason, I tend to correlate mass murders with people who like to plan. I don’t know how all minds work, but it does seem like nobody just wakes up and feels like a lot of murder today, even mass murderers who use assault rifles only.

          • Paul

            Likewise, in unskilled hands, semi automatic rifles (the guns resemble assault rifles but are not the same thing. Assault rifles have the ability to fire on full automatic like a machine gun.) can easily jam and clearing that without experience is difficult.

            In a classroom of first graders even a killer with a knife could have run up the same body count. The gun was a tool but the killer was the man pulling the trigger. Like many folks before him he chose suicide at the end of his spree rather than face the consequences. Sadly that deprives us of finding out what brought him to that classroom on that day with the decision to kill so many people.

            • Yoav

              You keep harping on the fact that civilian version of assault weapon don’t have the option to fire in a fully automatic as if it’s a significant point. Military versions have a full auto option but one of the first thing you learn is to never use it since unless you’re the hulk there is no way you will be able to control it and will just end up shooting at the sky. A semi automatic rifle is still a tool that allow someone with a minimal training to shoot a lot of people without having to reload which require some serious training to do quickly and, as happened in Tuscon, is the best chance there is for people to subdue the shooter.

    • Yoav

      Most gun owners are not wild eyed psychopaths but as my grandfather told me when I asked why he had three rifles, you need the right tool for the job.

      An assault rifle is a tool that is designed to do one job, kill humans in a very efficient manner.

      The ones I worry about are the ones who get them illegally and in particular young gang members who do not always realize the finality of their actions.

      There are relatively simple steps that can make obtaining weapons illegally much harder, such as requiring that person to person gun sales will go through a licensed dealer to prevent someone who can’t pass a background check from just buying a gun on eBay, and yet the NRA is fighting tooth and nail against them.

      • Paul

        “An assault rifle is a tool that is designed to do one job, kill humans in a very efficient manner.”
        Like most rifles used for hunting, assault rifles started off as military weapons. While an AR-15 looks like an M-16 r M-4 there are significant differences the most important of which is that the M-16 and M-4 are fully automatic while AR-15s aren’t. They are used for hunting and for competition. Look at other hunting rifles and then look at what weapons were used in the civil war, spanish american war, world war 1, world war 2 and the korean war. All of these hunting rifles began as military weapons.

        The assault rifles look different and this is where the difference comes. California’s gun laws are much more about how a gun looks rather than how it looks. An M1A target rifle will hold large capacity magazines, is semiautomatic and fires a much more powerful round than the AR-15 but it looks like what people think a hunting rifle should look like. The AR-15 actually uses ammunition that is much less potent than what most hunting rifles use.

        “There are relatively simple steps that can make obtaining weapons illegally much harder, such as requiring that person to person gun sales will go through a licensed dealer to prevent someone who can’t pass a background check from just buying a gun on eBay, and yet the NRA is fighting tooth and nail against them.”

        I agree and so do most of the gun owners I know but our focus has not served that purpose. We focus more on the gun than the buyer. Many of the areas with the most restrictive gun laws have the highest incidence per capita of gun violence. That is partially due to the fact that the criminals don’t follow the law but the good guys do. The shooting league I play with recommeds that persons selling through our email site either have a current georgia weapons permit or that the sale be done through a gun shop so they can do the background check. I always take a picture of the person, their license and permit and I keep these in case there is ever a question.

        I do think that the current background system can and will be improved as the technology allows it. I would also like to see laws targeted against illegal buyers as well as those who knowinglysell to them. Use of a weapon (note that is weapon, not just a gun) should have an automatic increase to their sentence. Use includes menacing with a weapon as well as harming someone with the weapon.

      • Paul

        I have no problem with the idea of selling through an FFL. I deal online and those transactions are always done through FFLs. BTW, ebay does not allow the sale of guns though you can buy some accessories through them such as scopes and holsters. Paypal refuses to allow payment for firearms through their secure website. There is a similar site with very strict rules that handles gun sales.

        What is often referred to as an assault rifle is a semiautomatic gun patterned after assault rifles. This is nothing new, most hunting rifles have been based on guns that started their lives as the military gun of their day. This is because the military is willing to pay for the development costs of new guns that make it into the civilian market later on.

        The semiautomatic AR-15 which resembles the M-16 is used frequently for both hunting and competition. The same applies to the semiautomatic version of the AK-47. They do not look like older bolt action rifles but there are many semiautomatic hunting rifles that look like the bolt action rifles that those not into guns see as hunting guns. These are also based on full automatic battle rifles but they don’t look like the M-16s. Many of the gun laws are based more on the look of the gun rather than its function. This is especially true of California.

        The reason that these guns have moved into the hunting, law enforcement and security markets is that they are improvements over the previous guns. The AR-15 is very light, built with many aluminum and polymer parts. If you are out hunting for a weekend carrying a rifle, a light one is preferable. There are also ergonomic changes that make it a better weapon, not just better for killing people.

  • vasaroti

    What gets me is the notion that these “patriots” can protect themselves from the government with hand-held weapons and bullets. All it takes is a certain level of threat for a switch from SWAT teams to hellfire missiles or LAWs.

    • Paul

      I agree, the government has been allowed to develop weapons denied to the people. The British did the same and were much better equipped than the original patriots. Pushed against the wall, church bells were melted down to make cannons and treaties were made with France for weapons and soldiers. It would be much harder today but I am not sure that a truly oppressive government would be able to retain control of the armed forces. The governors do have control over the national guard which does possess weapons. An outlaw militia group would stand no chance of overcoming the government but if the national government loses the support of the populace then a state led revolt might succeed, though that didn’t work well in the civil war. I am not arguing for such a revolt or that we would be successful if we did rise up against the government.

      I am though saying that the right to revolution was one of the ideas that some of those who were involved in crafting the second amendment held. If the government declared us a theocracy, how far would you be willing to go if the courts failed to strike down the theocratic laws they had passed?

      • Theory_of_I

        There are approximately 133000 public and private schools in the US. Students are in class about 170 days a year (not counting summer sessions).
        That is better than 22.5 million school days per year in the US.
        There have been 32 shooting incidents in schools since Colombine, or about 2.5 per year. The odds that a given school will have a shooting incident during a school year… .000000111 — 1 in a million.

        MORON ALERT! Wayne La Pierre, the NRA’s perennial power tripper, says an armed police officer in every school is the answer.
        That’s a mere $4.4 billion tax dollars or more. (133000 x 1/2 the current US avg. police officer salary) with no guaranties that 1 in a million event won’t still happen. MORON ALERT!

        Correct me if I’m wrong, Paul, but you seem to have the NRA worm screwed way up your dark stinky. All you have offered is the official NRA mantra – The only solution to the gun problem is MORE GUNS!

        You sound just a wee bit like a Posse Comitatus spokesperson. Besides your fear that the gov’t will limit the number of assault weapons you can have, what do you see as the other real threats the gov’t represents, you know, the things that are so egregious they call for an armed revolt?

        • Theory_of_I

          Check the math before you hit go dummy. That s/b 1 chance per million/day.