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Truths & Lies About the U.S. Gun Culture

Truth & Lies About America’s Gun Culture

Putting the Headlines into Perspective

Recently it feels as though almost every day there is a terrible incident involving guns in America. The media regularly discusses mass shooting incidents and gun crime, often with the aim of defending or criticizing gun ownership within the U.S.

For an outsider, it’s easy to become concerned about American gun culture and worry about whether the U.S. is a safe place to work and live.

While it’s true that America has a problem with mass shootings and tragedies involving guns, is it also true that this makes America an unsafe place to settle?

Let’s explore America’s gun culture in more depth to get a clearer picture.

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American Gun Ownership & Rates of Gun-Violence    

The rate of gun ownership in the U.S. is very high – Americans own 40% of all the guns in the world, more than the next 25 ranked gun ownership countries combined. Between 2006 and 2017 U.S. gun owners acquired 122 million guns. Americans now own around 393 million guns – compared to the population size of 326 million. This amount of guns represents 121 firearms per 100 civilians.

With this number of guns in possession of citizens, it’s no wonder that many of the statistics about gun-related violence are sobering.

Residents in the U.S. are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other developed countries. Compared to 22 other industrialized nations, the gun-related homicide rate is 25 times higher. The overall suicide rate in America is comparable to other countries, however, the rate of gun-related suicide is 8 times higher. Mass shootings left 437 people dead in 2017, with 2,239 sustaining a gunshot injury.

These numbers are of course tragic for all those who were involved in these incidents. And, as a result, it’s not unusual to hear the media and Americans calling for tighter gun control.

Gun control has become a hot political issue, particularly after mass shooting incidents involving younger people, such as Sandy Hook and the Parkland shootings. One of the organizations that have come in for the most criticism by those who are in favor of more gun control is the NRA.

Let’s take a closer look at the NRA and the politics of gun control, before putting the gun crime statistics into a wider context.

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The National Rifle Association   

The National Rifle Association (NRA) was founded in 1871 as a recreational group who wanted to promote rifle shooting on a scientific basis. However, by 1934 the NRA began to move toward political lobbying when it began to mail its members with regards to upcoming firearms bills. The NRA supported some gun control bills in 1934 and 1968, but by the 1970s had become more politically active and decided to start trying to influence policy regarding guns and gun ownership.

It formed a new arm called the Institute for Legislative Action and in 1977 formed its own Political Action Committee (PAC) to start giving funds to legislators. Although figures vary, it appears that the NRA has spent around $200 million on political activities since 1998. Officially it spends around $3 million per year on lobbying.

This might seem like a lot of money, but it is actually not as large as many other lobbying groups. The National Association of Realtors, for example, spent over $32.3 million on lobbying in 2016.

So, why is the NRA seen as being so powerful, when in reality they spend a fraction of the money many other lobbying groups do?

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Gun Control and Public Opinion   

One of the main reasons the NRA is powerful is because it speaks to a value held by many gun-owning Americans – that, based on the Second Amendment, U.S. citizens have the right to bear arms. The exact meaning of the amendment is hotly disputed in the gun debate; however, in 2008, the Supreme Court decided that Americans had a right to keep a gun in their homes for self-defense purposes.

There are also a small but vocal minority of Americans that believe that gun control will not prevent gun violence – rather it will leave law-abiding citizens who wish to protect themselves and their families with a gun exposed to those who acquire guns illegally.

When it comes to politics, the NRA is viewed as powerful because it is seen to have an influence on the decisions of politicians, who fear being targeted in elections. This view has some merit. When Hilary Clinton was battling Donald Trump for the presidency the NRA ran many adverts regarding guns and gun control. This translated to 1 in 8 ads in Ohio and 1 in 9 in North Carolina for example. In both states, Donald Trump won.

The high-profile of the NRA and the small minority of Americans who support gun-ownership without control, combined with the well-publicized incidents of mass shootings and other gun violence could lead to the impression that Americans are “in love” with guns and have no appetite for stricter regulation.

However, this is not true.

A vast majority of Americans, including gun owners, support background checks for gun buyers. 94% of gun owners agreed with the need for gun control, including 93% of Republicans (seen traditionally as being more in favor of gun ownership).

There are a small but vocal minority of people who don’t believe that tighter gun control would prevent incidents of gun violence such as seen in the Parkland or Las Vegas shootings. They have some evidence to support their assertion. In 2004, a ban on assault weapons (semiautomatic rifles) expired. Rather than increasing, the rate of gun homicides in the years after actually continued to drop. Between 1994 and 2014 the rate of gun-related homicides per 100,000 Americans dropped from 7 to 3.5.

Today, gun violence and gun control continue to be topics of hot debate amongst the general public and politicians. It is certainly an emotive topic. But wherever you come down on the gun debate – tighter control, a total ban or no controls at all, what’s the real context when it comes to gun violence in the U.S?

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Gun Violence in Context   

While the statistics and individual incidents of gun violence are disturbing, it’s important to put the numbers into context when considering the U.S. as a whole. It is true that you have more chance of being a victim of gun violence than in many other countries; however this needs to be understood in relation to the size of the U.S. and its population.

In America, you have a roughly 1 in 315 lifetime chance of dying by gun. It is high compared to other countries, but not an epidemic or a likely cause of death.

To put the risk into context – below are the leading causes of death in the U.S. during 2017 from the Center for Disease Control:

  • Heart disease: 635,260
  • Cancer: 598,038
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 161,374
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 154,596
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 142,142
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 116,103
  • Diabetes: 80,058
  • Influenza and pneumonia: 51,537
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 50,046
  • Intentional self-harm (suicide): 44,965

The last statistic is of note when it comes to guns. Nearly two-thirds of gun deaths are due to suicides. The U.S Department of Justice reports that around 60% of all adult firearm deaths are via suicide, which is 61% more deaths than by homicide.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that for many people who have never spent extended time in the U.S., it’s difficult to understand the sheer size and scope of the country. The U.S. comprises a massive stretch of land – over 3.8 million square miles, and has a population of over 325 million. Many areas are sparsely populated and others have bigger issues with gun violence due to individual cultural and social problems.

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What about my Children?  

One of the reasons the gun debate is so emotive in the U.S is because of the high-profile shooting incidents that have taken place in American schools, particularly since Columbine in the 1990s. It’s natural to be fearful for your children’s safety when you hear about these tragic incidents. However, it’s important to put this risk into context.

There are over 50 million children attending public schools in the U.S. and since the Columbine tragedy, approximately 200 have been killed in a school shooting incident. This means that statistically speaking the chances of a student being killed by a gun in school since 1999 is 1 in 614,000,000. Obviously, any death like this is one too many; however the risk of gun-related violence to your child attending school in America is minimal.

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So, is it safe?  

In a word, yes.

It would be naive to believe that there is no chance that you or someone you know will not be at risk from gun violence in the U.S. However, when put into context, your chances of experiences such an incident is extremely low.

It is true that America has a problem with mass shootings and gun violence. It is also true that these issues are not likely to be solved in the near future. The debate will continue, and it may take many more years before gun control is tightened further.

It is worth being aware of the risks of gun violence to you and your family; however they should not outweigh the benefits of the opportunities that the U.S. provides for a host of other health and social areas.

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