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Gun control really works — here’s the science to prove it

Gun control really works — here’s the science to prove it

  • After last week’s mass shooting at a Florida high school, many in the US are wondering what sort of gun-control measures could prevent more gun violence.
  • Despite some restrictions on gun research, scientists have sought to evaluate whether specific policies effectively reduce gun deaths.
  • Policies that seem to reduce rates of gun violence include stricter background checks, limiting access to dangerous weapons, and prohibiting domestic abusers from owning weapons.

There are close to as many guns in the US as there are people. There may be more, or there may be fewer, depending on which study you look at – there’s no exact count, since there isn’t a national database of gun purchases or firearm owners, and federal law does not require a prospective gun owner to get a license or permit.

That’s one of the many obstacles researchers come up against when trying to evaluate why so many people die from guns in the US.

But as the country tries to figure what – if anything – can be done in the wake of yet last week’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, it’s worth taking a look at the evidence we have on the effects of gun regulations.

Despite some congressional limitations on gun research, scientists have sought to evaluate the effects of gun-control legislation in the US and in other places around the world.

Here’s what the data shows.


Making it easier to carry concealed guns increases the number of gun homicides.

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A Glock handgun.
source
Thomson Reuters

States that have so-called right-to-carry laws require them to issue concealed-carry permits to anyone who is allowed to own guns and meets the necessary conditions.

Many people have argued that right-to-carry laws deter crime because there would be more armed people around to stop a shooter. Though that idea was supported by a controversial 1997 analysis, recent and more thorough analyses have found the opposite effect.

One recent study found that such laws increased the rate of firearm homicides by 9% when homicide rates were compared state-by-state. That could be because confrontations were more likely to escalate to a shooting, or because there were more guns around that could be stolen, or some other factor.


A spike in gun purchases after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School led to an increase in accidental gun deaths, especially among kids.

Research has found that when people are around more guns, they’re more likely to end up dying from accidental shootings.

After a 20-year-old man killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, calls for legislation aimed at limiting access to firearms resulted in what’s now become a predictable phenomenon after shootings: people bought lots of guns.

With more guns around in the following months, the rate of accidental deaths related to firearms rose sharply, especially among children, a recent study published in the journal Science found.

According to the researchers’ calculations, 40 adults and 20 children died as a result of those gun purchases.


Barring people convicted of domestic abuse from owning guns has a huge effect on the number of gun deaths.

The so-called Lautenberg amendment to the 1968 Gun Control Act disqualifies people with a misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence from buying or owning weapons.

Researchers found that gun murders of female intimate partners decreased by 17% as a result of the amendment.


Laws that call for longer sentences for gun crimes also seem to help a little.

Gun-robbery rates have gone down in states that have approved longer sentences for assault or robbery with a gun.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there were 30 “add-on” sentencing laws calling for additional prison time for people convicted of robbery or assault with a gun.

A 40-year-analysis found that gun-robbery rates dropped by about 5% in the years after the sentencing laws were enacted.


States with stricter gun-control laws that spend more money on education and mental-health care have fewer school shootings.

One recent study found that a smaller number of school shootings was linked with stricter background checks for weapon and ammunition purchases as well as more money spent on education and mental-health care.

Though school shootings are not the most common form of gun violence, a recent spike in these types of events in the US has prompted concern. There was an average of one school shooting a year from 1966 to 2008, but an average of one per week from 2013 to 2015, the study found.

The researchers said that based on available data, it was difficult to say which factor was most important in reducing shootings in schools.

However, mental-health treatment is unlikely to be solely responsible, as people with mental illness are more likely to be a victim of violence than a perpetrator. Though about 20% of Americans have some form of mental illness, people with a serious mental-health problem account for only about 3% of violent crime.


After Congress let a 1994 ban on assault weapons expire in 2004, gun massacre deaths skyrocketed.

source
via Wikimedia Commons

Arguments about the exact meaning of “assault weapon” obfuscate an important point: When people in the US were allowed to start buying military-style firearms with high-capacity magazines, the number of people dying in gun massacres, defined as shootings in which at least six people die, shot up.

The number of gun massacres and massacre deaths decreased by 37% and 43% after the 1994 ban on assault weapons went into effect, one researcher found. After it expired in 2004, they shot up by 183% and 239%.

There’s debate over the effectiveness of this legislation in reducing overall gun crime or firearm deaths, as most gun deaths in the US are suicides and most murders involve a handgun.

But most of the deadliest mass shootings in recent US history have one big thing in common: They involved a military-style weapon with a high-capacity magazine.


Reducing access to guns could reduce the number of suicides in the US.

source
Getty Images

Some gun-rights advocates argue that if you limit access to guns, people will just find other ways to kill themselves or others.

But data indicates that this “substitution hypothesis” is not correct.

More than 60% of gun deaths in the US are suicides, and research has found that people are most likely to try to kill themselves shortly after they decide to do so. People who attempt to do that with a gun as opposed to another method are much more likely to kill themselves.

Data from other countries supports restricting gun access, too. When the Israel Defense Forces stopped letting troops bring weapons home on the weekends, suicide rates dropped by 40%, one study found.

Historically, suicides dropped after the UK switched from coal-gas ovens – which used a gas that people inhaled to kill themselves – to another fuel. The country saw an increase in the use of other methods to attempt suicide, but it did not offset the drop in suicides by coal gas.


Weapons buyback programs have been successful in reducing mass shootings.

source
David Gray/Reuters

After at 1996 mass shooting left 35 people dead in Australia, the country said “enough.”

Leaders swiftly enacted gun-control legislation and set up a program for citizens to sell their weapons back to the government so they could be destroyed.

The initiative seems to have been successful; firearm suicides were found to have dropped by 65% and homicides by 59% over the next 10 years.

While Australia had seen 13 mass shootings – defined as five or more deaths – in the 18 years before the 1996 massacre, there have been none there since.

It’s possible that some of those declines were part of other trends. But either way, getting many guns off the streets and out of shops has been connected to big drops in gun deaths in Australia.


The US has a higher rate of gun violence than any other similarly wealthy country. Why not try to change that?

source
Whitney Curtis/Getty Images

The US has far more mass shootings than just about any country in the world. Of countries with at least 10 million people, there are more mass shootings per capita in only Yemen, which has the second-highest per-capita rate of gun ownership (the US has the highest).

Even other countries with lots of guns, like Switzerland, have far fewer firearm deaths.

In Switzerland, however, most people gain access to weapons because of military service that provides training; other prospective purchasers have to go through a multiweek background check. Authorities there also prohibit some citizens whom psychologists deem a potential risk from owning weapons.

The US is not inherently a more violent society. What sets the country apart is that it has a lot of guns that are still really easy to get. And the data that we have indicates that some gun-control measures – like banning some types of weapons, improving background checks, and putting more restrictions on weapon access – could help.

Analyzing that data and gathering more information could help leaders determine what sort of changes could help prevent another Parkland, Las Vegas, or Sandy Hook.

Or we could do nothing and wait for the same thing to happen again.

Half of the deadliest shootings in the US have happened in the last two years — here’s the full list

Half of the deadliest shootings in the US have happened in the last two years — here’s the full list

People are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a deadly shooting in Parkland, Florida on Feb 14, 2018.

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People are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a deadly shooting in Parkland, Florida on Feb 14, 2018.
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Joe Raedle/Getty Images
  • Mass shootings aren’t just becoming more frequent in America – they’re also becoming more deadly.
  • The high school shooting in Parkland, Florida on Wednesday was the 8th deadliest in modern US history.
  • Americans are 10 times more likely to die a violent death at the barrel of a gun than residents of any other rich, industrialized country.

It’s February, and Americans are already facing their 30th mass shooting of the year.

On Valentine’s Day, 17 people were gunned down and killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida by a 19-year-old former student armed with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, which he bought legally in that state.

Americans are now getting so used to hearing about carnage on school campuses, at music festivals, and during religious services, that they’re resigned to a cycle of thoughts, prayers, and inaction that has become the norm.

But mass shootings aren’t just becoming more common in the US. When they happen, they’re also killing more people than they used to. Take a look at how many of the deadliest mass shootings in the US have happened in the past two years:

deadliest mass shootings in the US

source
Business Insider

Four of the eight most fatal shootings in modern American history have happened since June 2016, less than two years ago.

The deadly 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, California, when 14 people were killed, doesn’t even make this list. The Columbine shooting, which gutted the nation’s collective conscience when 12 students and one teacher were murdered at the Colorado high school in 1999, would now be far down the current list of deadly American massacres.

The killings are becoming so predictable and so common that some politicians seem to have their stump speeches for such events prepped and ready.

“We are responsible for a level of mass atrocity that happens in this country with zero parallel, anywhere else,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy complained to his colleagues in an impromptu speech from the Senate floor on Wednesday.

That assertion is not just Murphy’s political opinion.

Over a lifetime, Americans are almost 50% more likely to die in a shooting than they are to get killed while riding in a car, truck, or van – a 1-in-315 chance of death by violent gun assault.

To put those numbers in perspective with the rest of the world, people in the US are at least ten times more likely to die at the barrel of a gun than anybody else living in a high-income, developed country.

How likely is gun violence to kill the average American? The odds may surprise you

How likely is gun violence to kill the average American? The odds may surprise you

source
Shutterstock
  • A gunman killed 12 people and injured 15 others on Wednesday at a bar and grill in Thousand Oaks, California.
  • Nearly 13,000 people in the US were murdered with firearms in 2015 (the latest available data), not including suicides.
  • Gun violence is a leading cause of death in the US, according to the CDC.
  • In March, the US government moved to weaken a decades-old restriction on federal research into guns.

On Wednesday night at 11:20 p.m., a gunman that authorities have identified as Ian David Long entered the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, California, and began shooting.

By early Thursday morning, the former US marine had killed 12 people, injured 15 others, and taken his own life.

The shooting is considered the 15th deadliest in recent US history, yet Long’s victims join a growing number of people killed by guns in the US.

Wednesday’s mass shooting follows the murder of 17 people at Stoneman Douglas High School in February and the killings of 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October.

This week’s attack also happened a little more than a year after the deadliest in America: the Las Vegas Strip shooting, which left 58 people dead and 850 others injured. By chance, dozens of people who had survived the Las Vegas attack were also present for this week’s shooting‘ and several of them were shot to death.

Read more: The NRA told doctors to ‘stay in their lane’ when it comes to gun deaths – and doctors are posting furious, devastating responses

Millions of people marched against gun violence this year, and Congress voted to loosen a restriction on the CDC’s research of gun violence, which has been in effect for about 22 years.

Below is some of the most recent data available on gun violence in the US (highlighted in red; suicides and accidents excluded), and how it compares to other causes of death over the lifetime of an average American.

Gun violence is a leading cause of death in America_BI Graphics

source
Skye Gould/Business Insider

According to this analysis, assaults by firearm kill about 13,000 people in the US each year, and this translates to a roughly 1-in-315 lifetime chance of death from gun violence. The risk of dying in a mass shooting is about 35 times lower than that, with a 1-in-11,125 lifetime chance of death.

The chance of dying from gun violence overall is about 50% greater than the lifetime risk of dying while riding inside a car, truck, or van (a category that excludes pedestrian, cyclist, and other deaths outside of a motor vehicle). It’s also more than 10 times as high as dying from any force of nature, such as a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, flood, or lightning strike.

These measures suggest Americans are more likely to die from gun violence than the combined risks of drowning, fire and smoke, stabbing, choking on food, airplane crashes, animal attacks, and natural disasters.

Where the data comes from

The chart above does not account for a person’s specific behaviors, age, sex, location, or other factors that could shift the results; it’s an average of the entire US population.

But it clearly shows that gun violence in the US is a leading cause of death, which is how the CDC describes firearm homicides in its National Vital Statistics Reports.

Most of the data comes from an October 2017 report by the National Safety Council and a November 2017 report by the National Center for Health Statistics on causes of death in the US, primarily those that occurred in 2015. (The NSC report uses 2014 data wherever newer data was unavailable.)

Mass shootings aren’t part of the data sets above, but the Gun Violence Archive project keeps a sourced tally, which we’ve independently counted. The organization considers any event where four or more victims were injured (regardless of death) to be a mass shooting.

In 2015, some 333 mass shootings left 367 people dead, according to their tally. The statistics rose in 2016 to 383 mass shootings that killed 456 people. In 2017, there were 346 mass shootings that led to 437 deaths, and so far this year, we’ve seen 307 mass shootings.

Foreign-born terrorism data comes from a Cato Institute terrorism report, and some natural-disaster data comes from Tulane University.

We calculated the lifetime odds of death by applying 2015 life expectancy and population numbers in the US, and our analysis assumes each cause of death won’t change drastically in the near future. (Mortality data from previous years suggests these rankings are relatively consistent, with the exception of skyrocketing accidental poisonings due to the opioid epidemic.)

You can view our full dataset and sourcing here.

A dearth of US gun-violence research

aiming gun american flag hand arms control regulation second amendment rights shutterstock_352729169

source
Shutterstock

Although gun violence is one of the leading causes of death in America, it is also one of the most poorly researched, according to a January 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“In relation to mortality rates, gun violence research was the least-researched cause of death and the second-least-funded cause of death after falls,” the study’s authors wrote.

The study ascribed this dearth of research to restrictions – namely an addition to a 1996 congressional appropriations bill called the Dickey Amendment, which stipulated “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

This is the rule that Congress recently voted to weaken with its new funding bill, which Trump signed in March. The new provision gives the CDC explicit permission to research the causes of gun violence, though it maintains a ban on “using appropriated funding to advocate or promote gun control.”

Research into gun violence is the most poorly funded relative to other causes of death.

caption
Research into gun violence is the most poorly funded relative to other causes of death.
source
Dr. David E. Stark, Dr. Nigam H. Shah/JAMA

The previous lack of clarity on researching gun violence has hindered many scientists from better understanding the problem.

“The fundamental, foundational work of documenting the full scale of the health consequences of firearms has not been done,” Sandro Galea, an epidemiologist and the dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, told Mother Jones in January 2017. “It’s the kind of project that we do all the time. It just hasn’t been done with firearms because there haven’t been resources.”

Although the Dickey amendment has been weakened, Republicans in Congress are reportedly uninterested in restoring $2.6 million in annual funding for CDC research into gun violence.

“[T]op GOP appropriators say they have no interest in funding new federal research into gun violence,” The Hill wrote in April.

The research that has been conducted by private institutions like the Harvard Injury Control Research Center show a clear connection between gun ownership, gun availability, homicides, and violent death.

A roundup of gun-control and gun-violence studies by Vox shows that Americans represent less than 5% of the world population but possess nearly 50% of the world’s civilian-owned guns. The data also reveals that police are about three times more likely to be killed in states with high gun ownership, countries with more guns see more gun deaths, and states with tighter gun control laws see fewer gun-related deaths.

This story has been revised and updated. It was originally published on February 15, 2018.

The odds that a gun will kill the average American may surprise you

The odds that a gun will kill the average American may surprise you

A man reacts at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue following a mass shooting.

caption
A man reacts at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue following a mass shooting.
source
Cathal McNaughton/Reuters
  • A gunman used an assault weapon to kill 11 people and wound six others in a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Saturday.
  • Police identified Robert Bowers as a suspect in what is reportedly the deadliest attack on Jewish people in US history.
  • Nearly 13,000 people in the US were murdered with firearms in 2015 (the latest available data), not including suicides.
  • In March, the US government moved to weaken a decades-old restriction on federal research into guns.

Eleven people are dead and six others wounded after Saturday’s mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Police arrested Robert Bowers as a suspect and charged him after he reportedly fired on officers who arrived at the scene. He was carrying an AR-15 assault rifle and several handguns, according to the FBI.

Minutes before the attack, Bowers wrote online, “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” in reference to a Jewish refugee-resettlement agency. The post was shared on Gab, a social media service that does not police hate speech and has now been taken offline. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in,” Bowers wrote.

The Anti-Defamation League described the shooting in a statement as possibly “the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States.”

The mass shooting is one of many that have happened in the US in 2018 – so far, almost 300 others have occurred since January 1, according to the Gun Violence Archive. In August, five Capital Gazette newspaper employees were shot to death by a gunman. In February, a gunman entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and killed 17 people using a legally purchased AR-15 assault rifle.

Millions of people marched against gun violence in the wake of February’s attack as Congress voted to loosen a restriction on the CDC’s research of gun violence, which has been in effect for about 22 years.

Below is some of the most recent data available on gun violence in the US (highlighted in red; suicides and accidents excluded), and how it compares to other causes of death over the lifetime of an average American.

Gun violence is a leading cause of death in America_BI Graphics

source
Skye Gould/Business Insider

According to this analysis, assaults by firearm kill about 13,000 people in the US each year, and this translates to a roughly 1-in-315 lifetime chance of death from gun violence. The risk of dying in a mass shooting is about 35 times lower than that, with a 1-in-11,125 lifetime chance of death.

The chance of dying from gun violence overall is about 50% greater than the lifetime risk of dying while riding inside a car, truck, or van (a category that excludes pedestrian, cyclist, and other deaths outside of a motor vehicle). It’s also more than 10 times as high as dying from any force of nature, such as a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, flood, or lightning strike.

These measures suggest Americans are more likely to die from gun violence than the combined risks of drowning, fire and smoke, stabbing, choking on food, airplane crashes, animal attacks, and natural disasters.

Where the data comes from

Men pray outside the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall before a service to honor and mourn the victims of Saturday's mass shooting at the Tree Of Life Synagogue.

caption
Men pray outside the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall before a service to honor and mourn the victims of Saturday’s mass shooting at the Tree Of Life Synagogue.
source
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

The chart above does not account for a person’s specific behaviors, age, sex, location, or other factors that could shift the results; it’s an average of the entire US population.

But it clearly shows that gun violence in the US is a leading cause of death, which is how the CDC describes firearm homicides in its National Vital Statistics Reports.

Most of the data comes from an October 2017 report by the National Safety Council and a November 2017 report by the National Center for Health Statistics on causes of death in the US, primarily those that occurred in 2015. (The NSC report uses 2014 data wherever newer data was unavailable.)

Mass shootings aren’t part of the data sets above, but the Gun Violence Archive project keeps a sourced tally, which we’ve independently counted. The organization considers any event where four or more victims were injured (regardless of death) to be a mass shooting.

In 2015, some 333 mass shootings left 367 people dead and 1,328 injured, according to their tally. The statistics rose in 2016 to 383 mass shootings, 456 deaths, and 1,537 injuries. In 2017, there were 346 mass shootings that led to 437 deaths and 1,802 injuries.

Foreign-born terrorism data comes from a Cato Institute terrorism report, and some natural-disaster data comes from Tulane University.

We calculated the lifetime odds of death by applying 2015 life expectancy and population numbers in the US, and our analysis assumes each cause of death won’t change drastically in the near future. (Mortality data from previous years suggests these rankings are relatively consistent, with the exception of skyrocketing accidental poisonings due to the opioid epidemic.)

You can view our full dataset and sourcing here.

A dearth of US gun-violence research

In 2017, there were 346 mass shootings in the US that led to 437 deaths and 1,802 injuries.

caption
In 2017, there were 346 mass shootings in the US that led to 437 deaths and 1,802 injuries.
source
Shutterstock

Although gun violence is one of the leading causes of death in America, it is also one of the most poorly researched, according to a January 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“In relation to mortality rates, gun violence research was the least-researched cause of death and the second-least-funded cause of death after falls,” the study’s authors wrote.

The study ascribed this dearth of research to restrictions – namely an addition to a 1996 congressional appropriations bill called the Dickey Amendment, which stipulated “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

This is the rule that Congress recently voted to weaken with its new funding bill, which Trump signed in March. The new provision gives the CDC explicit permission to research the causes of gun violence, though it maintains a ban on “using appropriated funding to advocate or promote gun control.”

Research into gun violence is the most poorly funded relative to other causes of death.

caption
Research into gun violence is the most poorly funded relative to other causes of death.
source
Dr. David E. Stark, Dr. Nigam H. Shah/JAMA

The previous lack of clarity on researching gun violence has hindered many scientists from better understanding the problem.

“The fundamental, foundational work of documenting the full scale of the health consequences of firearms has not been done,” Sandro Galea, an epidemiologist and the dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, told Mother Jones in January 2017. “It’s the kind of project that we do all the time. It just hasn’t been done with firearms because there haven’t been resources.”

Although the Dickey amendment has been weakened, a Republican-controlled Congress is reportedly uninterested in restoring $2.6 million in annual funding for CDC research into gun violence.

“[T]op GOP appropriators say they have no interest in funding new federal research into gun violence,” The Hill wrote in April.

The research that has been conducted by private institutions like the Harvard Injury Control Research Center show a clear connection between gun ownership, gun availability, homicides, and violent death.

A roundup of gun-control and gun-violence studies by Vox shows that Americans represent less than 5% of the world population but possess nearly 50% of the world’s civilian-owned guns. The data also reveals that police are about three times more likely to be killed in states with high gun ownership, countries with more guns see more gun deaths, and states with tighter gun control laws see fewer gun-related deaths.

Kelly McLaughlin contributed reporting to this post.

This story has been revised and updated. The original version was published on Feb. 15, 2018.

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