The guns of America
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While Congress dithers, American
mayors push for stricter gun laws
By Tony Favro, Senior Fellow
May 2021: Guns and gun violence are seemingly normal in American culture. More than 40,000 Americans die each year from gun violence. The average number of gun deaths has risen over the past 20 years, as federal regulations on gun ownership have eased and American buy and use more guns. The pandemic, recent police shootings of unarmed African-Americans, and a flurry of mass shootings have highlighted the racial, social, and economic inequalities in America.
There’s a sense that American don’t want to go back to normal about a lot of things, including gun violence. Mayors in the United States are using their rhetoric and concrete proposals to try to reframe the debate about gun violence while dealing with immediate policing issues related to the use of firearms and implementing long-term efforts to reduce crime.
For example, after eight people were killed in a mass shooting in Atlanta, Georgia in March 2021, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms used her annual State of the City Address to note that “mayors and leaders across the country are recognizing gun violence as a public health emergency.” She proposed to significantly increase resources devoted to the Atlanta Police Department, including the hire of 250 new police officers and a new police training facility, as well as increased investment in affordable housing, opportunities for youth, job creation, and other initiatives designed to reduce the potential for violence by strengthening the social safety net.
Mass shootings happen
in the US every day
Between 1 January and 25 April 2021, there were 159 mass shootings in the United States in which four or more people were shot, including 12 in which at least four people were shot dead (1).
Cities with mass shootings included Indianapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Yazoo City, Mississippi (population 11,000), and Aliceville, Alabama (population 2,500).
The US Congressional Research Service identifies a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more individuals, not including the shooter, are killed by a gun. According to this definition, there have been at least five mass shootings each year for the past five calendar years in the US.
The mass media often utilize a more expansive definition in which a shooter wounds or kills four or more individuals. Following these criteria, there are about two mass shootings per day in the United States.
Mass shootings are one very visible aspect of gun violence in the US. In 2020, there were over 19,380 gun homicides in the US. More than 24,000 people also died by suicide using guns (2).
An analysis of data on gun-related deaths in the US complied by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 612,310 Americans died from firearm injuries between 1999 and 2017, with nearly 20 percent of those deaths occurring in the last three years of the study periodwhat the lead author of the analysis calls “a worsening epidemic of firearm mortality” that can’t be attributed to random variation (3).
The analysis studied demographic and geographic differences in gun deaths. From 1999 to 2017, nearly all demographic groups saw increases in firearm death rates, but the level of increase varied across groups. For example, males had larger absolute increases than females. Hispanic whites were the only racial or ethnic group that saw reductions in mortality, while firearm mortality rates among both non-Hispanic whites and African Americans increased significantly. There were broad increases across age groups. Geographically, a majority of states had firearm trends that increased by more than 20%, with only a few states showing declines. Throughout the study period, suicide consistently accounted for about 60% of annual gun deaths, and homicides about 38%, with the rest categorized as “unintentional” deaths.
Reframing the gun
The authors of the analysis note that policymakers could use the detailed data to identify which subpopulations are most affected by gun deaths in their states and then seek to determine which interventions may be most appropriate.
For example, the authors note, suicide is the most common form of gun death in most states, and prevention efforts could be targeted to the highest-risk groups for suicide, such as older males and rural adults.
The authors of the study thus align with the thinking of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a bipartisan US coalition of 1,000 mayors and former mayors. A foundational principle of the coalition is to “collect [and analyze] data to better understand gun violence in our communities.”
Studies of gun violence sponsored by Mayors Against Illegal Guns and others find, for example, that restricting firearm access among domestic violence offenders and people convicted of violent crime can reduce domestic violence homicides, and that restricting children’s access to firearms can reduce both suicides and unintentional deaths (4).
Other important research on gun violence in the US looks at the impact of gun violence beyond deaths. Jennifer Carlson, author of Policing the Second Amendment: Guns, Law Enforcement and the Politics of Race, points out that over 40,000 people are killed by guns in the US every year. This means at least 40,000 families and communities are devastated by that loss, which adds up to many more individuals affected than the 40,000 people killed. In addition, there are the 80,000 to 100,000 people injured every year with guns in the US, as well as the innumerable people who fear gun violence even if they haven’t directly experienced it, what Carlson calls “anticipatory trauma” (5).
Trauma is a physical and mental health issue. Considering the impacts of trauma adds a new dimension to the polarized American debate of guns as objects of violence versus guns as objects of protection. Recent research on gun violence is beginning to paint a clear picture of gun violence as a health issue for individuals and society. As Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in her 2021 State of the City Address, “mayors and leaders across the country are recognizing gun violence as a public health emergency” (6).
The pandemic has heightened the awareness of the public health impacts of gun violence as well as the urgency to find solutions.
In 2020, the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted 39.7 million background checks for gun purchases, a 40% increase over 2019’s record totals. In the first quarter of 2021, the FBI set a new quarterly record, with 12.5 million firearm background checks. In 2020, there was also a record number of first-time gun buyers (7).
It appears that, for many Americans, guns may be a response to the crises of 2020 that continue into 2021, such as Covid, the resulting job and economic insecurity, racial unrest that touched virtually every American community, and the political polarization surrounding the presidential election.
According to Jennifer Carlson, “many of the people who turn to gun ownership do so precisely because they are hoping to protect themselves against trauma… If the social safety net that people thought was there is not there, guns basically become a tool of last resort“ (8).
Scientific research is building a large body of evidence-based data about what works to reduce gun violence and deaths in the US. The frustration of many mayors is that this knowledge is not always translated into laws, especially at the federal level where gun-control legislation is most effective.
Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington DC expressed her exasperation when she said, “Time and time again, our federal government has sat back and watched as Americans have been murdered on our streets, in schools, churches, offices, movie theaters, at bus stops and in shopping malls… The unfortunate reality is that nowhere in our nation feels safe from gun violence… We need more than thoughts and prayers from elected [federal] leaders - we need action” (9).
It has been official federal policy for decades to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. The United States had a Federal Assault Weapons Ban in effect from 1994 to 2004. The law placed a 10-round limitation on high-capacity magazines and applied nationwide.
During the decade of the ban, there were about three mass shootings every two years in the US in which at least four people were killed, resulting in a total of 89 deaths. In the past five calendar years, by contrast, there have been five or more such mass shootings each year with a total of 333 deaths, as the number and power of lethal weapons has increased (10).
Since the national law was allowed by Congress to expire, several cities and states have passed their own gun control legislation.
The city of Boulder, Colorado, enacted a law banning the sale, possession, and transfer of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. The law was challenged in court and struck down on 12 March 2021 because the local law was stricter than Colorado state law. Ten days later, on 22 March, a shooter killed 10 people in Boulder with an assault weapon purchased soon after the court decision.
Strict local gun control laws in Washington, DC are credited with preventing potential shootings during the US Capital riots in January 2021. Militias kept their guns at home rather than bring them to DC where they would come under the scrutiny of law enforcement (11).
California adopted gun safety measures, such as limiting handgun magazines to 10 rounds and requiring gun locking devices, and the state went from a persistently higher than average gun death toll to a rate substantially below that of the rest of the nation.
While California passed some of the most restrictive gun laws in the nation, other states loosened their regulations. In almost all cases, less gun regulation has led to more gun violence. For example, studies suggests that right-to-carry laws, which allow concealed weapons to be carried without a permit, increase gun violence.
The effectiveness of local and state legislation is limited since Americans can travel to a different city or state where laws are less restrictive to buy guns. Many US mayors are urging the US Congress to reinstate a federal assault weapons ban and require universal background checks.
Boulder, Colorado Mayor Sam Weaver, a proponent of banning assault weapons, asks pro-gun advocates to address a single question: “Why wouldn’t you want a future where we have fewer innocent people killed?” (12).
Two hundred and seventy-nine mayors in the US Conference of Mayors signed a letter urging Congress to pass federal gun safety legislation, including universal background checks (13).
If the US had rigorous background checks similar to those required in many European countries, virtually every mass shooter over the past two decades would have been identified as someone who should not have been allowed to possess a gun.
In March 2021, the US House of Representatives passed two bills that would expand background checks on firearm sales and sent the legislation to the Senate where approval is uncertain. These are the first significant gun control measures passed by the House since President Biden took office, after he promised during the presidential election campaign to enact legislation strengthening background checks.
In April, President Biden issued executive orders to reduce the use of certain devices used to increase the lethal power of guns, regulate the sale of guns without serial numbers, and restrict gun trafficking. His proposed federal budget also includes major investment in community violence intervention programs. These actions are important but limited in scope. In the US, Congress must pass gun control legislation.
In the absence of federal gun control legislation in recent years, states and cities have attempted to place restrictions on guns. State and local laws may be circumvented relatively easily, but they have contributed to a large body of evidence-based data about what works to reduce gun violence and deaths in the US.
Mayors and local police
The reality is that American mayors lead police departments in which police officers kill, and are killed, at far higher rates than their peers in other affluent nations (14).
About one-third of American households have guns, according to the General Social Survey (15).
Moreover, the US gun industry continuously upgrades the lethal capacity of many of the weapons it sells to civilians.
Police legitimately fear the prospect of facing an armed assailant. An FBI report on 160 active shooter incidents from 2000-2013 found that “Law enforcement suffered casualties in 21 (46.7%) of the 45 incidents where they engaged the shooter to end the threat. This resulted in 9 officers killed (4 of whom were ambushed in a shooting) and 28 wounded.” In other words, in about half of these cases, at least one officer who engaged the shooter was shot (16).
From 2010 through 2019, 528 US police officers were fatally shot in the line of duty (17)
Just as American criminals shoot faster and more lethally because of the dangers posed by an armed population, so do American police.
On-duty police officers in the US fatally shoot about 1,000 individuals each year (18).
Most shootings in the US are among civilians and do not involve police. Gun defense in confronting a criminal is a popular argument for gun ownership. However, in 99.2 percent of violent crimes in the US, the victims do not use a gun in self-defense (19).
The combination of the extraordinary number of guns owned by citizens and lax regulation poses a significant challenge for mayors and their police departments. It is in this context that Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta proposed improvements in the number and quality of police in her state of city address, similar to the current efforts of other mayors.
Citizens need protection from gun violence now, but US mayors increasingly realize they also need to play the long game to reduce crime.
Data on mass shootings, ordinary gun-related crime, gun suicides, and gun accidents are allowing a careful evaluation of the effectiveness of particular interventions. At the same time, related research, practical knowledge, and activism like Black Lives Matter are pointing to measures that could reduce crime in general, such as pre-school enrichment programs, guaranteed income programs, and increased daycare, as well as legalizing marijuana, facilitating family planning, and other initiatives.
The terms of the debate on gun control are shifting in the US. Mayors and others are realizing that many people buy a gun when they feel insecure, but this doesn’t always mean they support the broader political project espoused by pro-gun activists. In other words, while the need for national gun control measures and universal background checks is urgent, personal economic well-being and the avoidance of trauma are key security issues for people. Following the data and their local experiences, mayors are betting that strengthening the social safety net can diminish the allure of guns and gun ownership.
1. Gun Violence Archive Link
3. Goldstick, J., Zeoli, A., Mair, C., Cunningham, R. “US Firearm-Related Mortality: National, State, And Population Trends, 19992017”. Health Affairs, vol. 38, no. 10, October 2019 Link
Quote from “The Gun Epidemic is Getting Worse”, Futurity, posted by Kara Gavin, University of Michigan, 10 October 2019 (www.futurity.org/gun-deaths-statistics-2180632).
4. Mayors Against Illegal Guns Link
5. Carlson, J., Policing the Second Amendment: Guns, Law Enforcement and the Politics of Race. Princeton University Press, 2020.
Quote from “Fear Links 2020’s Crises and Booming Gun Business”, Futurity, posted by Lori Harwood, University of Arizona, 18 March 2021 Link
6. Bottoms, K., “2021 State of City Address”, City of Atlanta, 31 March 2021 (www.atlantaga.gov/Home/Components/News/News/13655/672).
7. Federal Bureau of Investigation, “NICS Firearm Checks: Month/Year” Link
8. “Fear Links 2020’s Crises and Booming Gun Business”, op. cit.
9. Bowser, M., “Mayor Bowser’s Statement Urging Congress to Answer the Call of Americans Nationwide by Passing Common-Sense Gun Control”, City of Washington, DC, 5 February 2019 Link
10. “How Can the United States Stop Mass Shootings?”, Futurity, posted by Sharon Driscoll, Stanford University, 30 March, 2021 Link
11. Donohue, J., “Open Carry Laws, Guns on Capitol Hill, and a Police Force Outgunned by Militias”, Stanford Law School, 19 January 2021 Link
12. Isikoff, M., “Boulder Mayor to Gun Owners: Banning Assault Weapons is Not Tyranny”, YahooNews, 25 March 2021 Link
13. US Conference of Mayors, “Senate Action Needed NOW on Gun Safety Legislation”, 8 August 2019 (https://www.usmayors.org/gun-violence).
14. Much of this section is from “How Can the United States Stop Mass Shootings?”, op. cit.
15. General Social Survey (https://gss.norc.org).
16. Federal Bureau of Investigation, “A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013,” Washington, DC, 2014 Link
17. National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, “Causes of Law Enforcement Deaths, 2010-2019” Link (https://nleomf.org/facts-figures/causes-of-law-enforcement-deaths).
18. “985 people have been shot and killed by police in the past year”, Washington Post, database update 28 March 2021 Link
19. “Fear Links 2020’s Crises and Booming Gun Business”, op. cit.
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