This is the key question so many of us involved in the gun debate face. On a personal level, answering it has big implications for our families’ safety. As Amy discussed in a recent post, having a gun in the household increases the chances that someone in the household will die by gunshot, though even in households with guns there are many things you can do to keep your kids safer.

US and Japanese Flags With GunBut what about across the country? At the national level, the question has big implications for our country’s laws. Many people carry concealed or unconcealed weapons in public places out of fear of crime. Some people argue (see, for instance, here) that laws that allow easy access to guns and that allow guns to be carried in public places in the United States help to keep crime rates down. A recent study in The American Journal of Medicine – one of our country’s most prestigious sources of cutting-edge research in medicine and public health – concludes that that the answer is decidedly “No.”

The authors of this study examine rates of firearm ownership in 27 developed countries: from culturally relatively similar ones like Australia and New Zealand, to culturally quite different ones such as Japan. They also consider rates of major depressive disorder in those countries. Then they ask how firearm ownership and mental health problems in each country are related to the crime rate and the number of firearm deaths per person.

What they find is striking: the more guns in a country, the higher its rate of firearm deaths. The relationship is very strong, and holds up even when you don’t consider the countries at the extremes, such as the United States (high gun ownership, high firearm death rate) and Japan (low gun ownership, low firearm death rate). No matter how you slice the data, the more guns a country has, the more likely the average citizen is to die by gunshot. By contrast, there is a small, statistically significant relationship between mental illness and rates of gun deaths, but the association is very weak.

But some people might say that even if more guns means more gun deaths, criminals will be less likely to strike in countries where they fear that their potential victims could have a concealed weapon. In other words, maybe crime rates go down at the same time that would-be criminals are more likely to get killed. Unfortunately, once again the authors find that the answer is “No.” They find that there is no relationship between the number of guns per person in a country and the country’s crime rate. The U.S. happens to have a lot of guns and, in recent years, pretty low crime rates. But Japan has very few guns and even lower crime rates. And the UK and Israel have fewer guns than the U.S., but more crime.

Surely there must be some cases in which the presence of guns helps to prevent a crime, or in which potential victims kill would-be attackers. Still, this study has a very clear conclusion: on average and across the developed world, having more guns does NOT make countries safer.

Exactly nine months after the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, schools across the country countinue to face problems with guns on campus.

 

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Mass shootings are so common now that many aren’t even mentioned in national news media. We decided to keep a watchful eye one weekend, not to note every shooting (that would be an enormous undertaking), but every shooting involving multiple victims. Surely we’ve missed some. In addition to the 13 incidents on this infographic, we found several more, all from this weekend: two people were shot in Brooklyn NY; two in Lackawanna, NY; two in Buena Vista, MI; two in Union City, CA; two in Syracuse, NY; two in Jacksonville, FL; three in Rochester, NY; three in Asbury Park, NJ; three in Portland, OR.

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We recently posted an infographic about murder rates in Chicago as compared to other U.S. cities. Some skeptics thought we must be distorting the data. They complained that, while we did use an apples-to-apples comparison of Metropolitan areas, what they would have preferred was a comparison only of murders within the city limits. They also complained that we were comparing all murders, not just gun-related murders. Well, here are three different ways of comparing murder rates. As you can see, the point we were making (that Chicago is not uniquely murderous) bears out in each case. (And to reiterate, that’s the only point we’re making in this post–violence has many factors, of which gun laws are only one. We can’t point to any one factor and say “that’s why this city is more violent than that city.” But we can provide real data to combat factually inaccurate assertions.)

 

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And here are some supporting links:

Data table from the Federal Bureau of Investigation

Data table from the Centers for Disease Control

Article in PoliticusUSA on the most dangerous cities in the U.S. as of 2013

Article on Yahoo about the most dangerous cities in America

Article in the Chicago Tribune about murder rates

Article in the Wall Street Journal about the ten most dangerous American cities

Article in US News and World Report about the 11 most dangerous American cities

One argument we’ve seen ad nauseum is that Chicago has extraordinarily high violence due to its gun control laws. It’s true that Chicago’s homicide rate is higher than some other cities (Chicago has 6.4 homicides per 100,000 people, whereas New York has 4.5). There are so many variables affecting violence that we’re not sure how anybody could say conclusively how Chicago’s crime rates are affected by its gun control laws–especially since the city and the state have porous borders through which people can easily bring guns from neighboring jurisdictions. But what we CAN say conclusively is that Chicago is NOT EVEN CLOSE to having the worst violence in the U.S.

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“Bystanders got to Loughner and subdued him only after he emptied one 31-round magazine and was trying to load another.”

—Larry Burns, Federal District Judge who sentenced Jared Loughner to seven consecutive life terms plus 140 years for his shooting rampage in Tucson.

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Young people between the ages 14 and 24 in the U.S. die from firearm-related murders at 42 times the rate that they do in nearly two dozen other developed countries. In other words, if you’re between the ages of 14 and 24 and you live in the U.S., your chances of being killed with a gun are 42 times higher than if you lived in most other developed countries. A recent study in the medical journal Pediatrics looked at how many youth who go to the ER as a result of gun violence own guns themselves — and where they get their firearms.  Many of the findings of the study may not seem surprising — more firearm victims also owned guns, and most of the guns were obtained illegally. Still, more of this kind of research is necessary to learn the best policies that might eventually help reduce gun violence.

Photo by Guidonz at sxc.hu.

Photo by Guidonz at sxc.hu.

Such research on firearm injuries had been banned until the Obama administration removed a 17-year-long moratorium on firearm injury research. Hopefully this study is one of many more to come that can provide policymakers with a stronger evidence base for using research-based approaches to reducing gun violence.

The researchers, led by Dr. Patrick Carter at the University of Michigan Injury Center in Ann Arbor, surveyed 689 youth who came to the emergency department in Flint, Michigan with injuries related to assault (excluding child abuse, suicide attempts and sexual assault). The patients were all 14 to 24 years old, and the survey questions asked about the patients’ characteristics, firearm ownership, attitudes toward aggression, substance use and past history of violence.

About a quarter of those surveyed (23%) said they had carried or owned a firearm within the past six months, but only 17% of those with guns had gotten the gun legally. About 17% said they got the gun from a friend and 17% said they paid cash, and about half the youth said it would not be difficult to get a firearm. Among the youth who said they had carried or owned a gun, one in five had an automatic or semi-automatic weapon.

Given the number of youth in the study who had gotten a gun from a family member or friend, Dr. Robert Sege at the Boston University School of Medicine wrote in an accompanying editorial that the study’s findings provide reasons to follow the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations regarding firearms: “that there should either be no guns in the home or, when that is not possible, the gun(s) should be stored unloaded and locked, with ammunition locked separately.”

The youths’ most commonly cited reason for carrying a gun is a familiar one: more than a third (37%) said they had the gun for protection. “The perceived need to own and carry firearms for protection among respondents with assault injury suggests a need to address youth’s perceived and real feeling of safety through individual and community intervention,” the authors wrote. Other reasons included “holding it for someone” (reported by 10% of those with guns) or having one because their “friends carry guns” (reported by 9%).

When the researchers looked at other characteristics of the patients, they found several patterns: the gun owners were more likely to be male, to use illegal drugs and to have been in a recent serious fight. For example, 40% of the gun owners binge drank, compared to 27% who didn’t own guns, and 67% of the gun owners used illegal drugs, compared to 49% of the non-gun-owners. White and black youth were equally likely to have guns, and higher income youth were more likely to have guns.

Most youth in both groups had been in serious physical fights in the past six months (86% of gun owners and 80% of non-gun-owners), but more than twice as many of the gun owners had caused an injury that required medical treatment. While 21% of non-gun-owners had caused such an injury in the past six months, 46% of the gun owners had. There were also high rates of intimate partner violence in both groups: 76% of youth who owned guns and 64% of those who didn’t reported violence with their romantic partner.

Those who had owned guns were also slightly more likely to have an aggressive or vengeful attitude, which is important “because health behavior models, which are key to many violence prevention efforts, suggest the first step to decreasing future aggression would be to modify aggressive attitudes.”

Unsurprisingly, those who owned guns were more likely to have been previous victims of gun violence (21% compared to 15%), to have been previously threatened by a gun (56% compared to 33%), to have pulled a gun in a fight (22% compared to 1%), or to have used the gun in a fight with someone they were dating (6% compared to 1%). However, one interesting finding was that only 3% of the youth in the whole study were involved in a gang, which included 9% of those who owned guns and 1% of those who didn’t.

The authors noted that their findings reveal how a gun owned reportedly for “defensive” purposes can also end up being used for non-defensive purposes. “Taken together, these findings demonstrate that even if the main reason youth reported that they obtained a gun was for protection, they are often both carrying and using the weapon,” the authors wrote. “In combination with high rates of substance use reported before the altercation, and higher rates of substance use seen in youth with firearms, this is particularly concerning for inadvertently increasing the risk of a firearm moving from a protective device to impulsive use and lethal outcomes.”

In his editorial, Dr. Sege pointed out the frustrating reality that great strides have been made in children’s public health when it comes to decreasing kids’ exposure to cigarette smoke, reducing lead poisoning in children, reducing kids’ car accident deaths and increasing efforts to address childhood obesity — yet “our failure to develop a public health response to gun deaths stands out as a unique exception.”

Dr. Sege notes one major reason for this lack of progress relates to the strangled research on gun injuries: only about $102,997 of the CDC’s $6.5 billion budget of the past three years has been devoted to firearm injury prevention. Insufficient funding has a predictable effect: “According to a study commissioned by Mayors Against Gun Violence, the volume of academic research on firearms violence has dropped by 60% since 1996, now accounting for only 30 articles per million academic publications,” Dr. Sege notes.

The Obama administration has pledged $10 million for the CDC to conduct further firearm injury research, but in the current funding climate it remains to be seen whether the funds are actually restored. If they are, the subsequent research and increasing awareness of gun violence as a major public health concern will hopefully push sensible, evidence-based firearm-related policies higher on legislative agendas.