Here
and
Now

opinions

In gun debate, both sides have evidence to back them up

12 Comments
By Zach Lang and Jennifer Selin

Gun control is back in the U.S. political debate, in the wake of mass shootings in California, Boulder and Atlanta.

Democrats see stricter gun control as a step toward addressing the problem. In March 2021, as the House of Representatives passed two gun control bills, Speaker Nancy Pelosi claimed that the “solutions will save lives.”

Many Republicans disagree, arguing as Sen Ted Cruz has that proposed laws seeking to require background checks on all firearms sales and transfers and to ban assault weapons are “ridiculous theater” that fail to reduce mass shootings.

As two political scientists trained in data analysis, we set out to determine whether gun control legislation actually prevents mass shootings. We collected data on all mass shootings that occurred between February 1980 and February 2020. We then examined key information on the perpetrators, weapons used and laws in effect at the time of shooting.

Our research, which is yet to be published in an academic journal, suggests that there is statistical evidence to support both parties’ positions about gun control legislation.

While stricter gun control laws may make mass shootings slightly less common, our research suggests that the rhetoric of both parties may not tell the full story. Rather than federal gun control laws, policies that focus on violence prevention at the community or individual levels may be more effective at preventing mass shooting deaths.

Mass shootings in the past 40 years

We defined a mass shooting as a single incident in which a perpetrator with no connection to gang activity or organized crime shot and killed three or more people. This is similar to the definition Congress uses.

We found there were 112 of these events between 1980 and 2020; the number of mass shootings each year has increased over time. An overwhelming majority of mass shooters – 87% of them – obtained their firearms legally. Nearly all shooters – 93% – shot their victims in the same state where they obtained their weapons.

These facts suggest that existing gun laws and regulations governing gun purchases and firearms that cross state lines may not be working to reduce mass shootings. Our study did not address whether or how other forms of gun violence might be affected by those laws.

In fact, mass shootings tended to occur in states with stricter regulations. Of the states with the highest per capita rates of mass shootings, many – like Connecticut, Maryland and California – employ background checks and assault weapons bans.

By contrast, 18 states did not have a single mass shooting event over the entire 40-year period. Many of these states – like West Virginia, Wyoming and South Dakota – have high rates of gun ownership and relatively loose gun control laws.

But those data patterns don’t tell the full story of our analysis.

The effects of gun laws

Gun laws aren’t the only factors that affect where and when mass shootings occur. The number of police officers per capita, a community’s population density and crime rate, and other demographic characteristics such as unemployment rates and average income can also matter.

We used statistical methods to control for those factors, narrowing our analysis to find out whether various types of gun control laws affected the number of mass shootings or number of mass shooting deaths in each state each year.

Specifically, we examined the effects of four different types of gun control legislation: background checks; assault weapons bans; high-capacity magazine bans; and “extreme risk protection order” or “red flag laws” that let a court determine whether to confiscate the guns of someone deemed a threat to themselves or others.

We found that background check requirements, assault weapons bans and high-capacity magazine bans each reduce the number of mass shootings in the United States – but only by a small amount. For instance, enacting a statewide assault weapons ban decreases the number of mass shootings in the state by one shooting every six years. And none of the four types of gun control legislation correlate with fewer total mass shooting deaths.

And laws that remove an individual’s right to own firearms if that individual poses a risk to the community do not affect the number of mass shooting events.

Beyond gun control

Our analysis suggests that Americans who want to make mass shootings less frequent and less deadly may want to think beyond gun control legislation.

Statistically, mass shootings tend to occur in large, densely populated states with higher income and education levels per capita. While these states often respond to mass shootings by passing gun control legislation, it may be that alternative avenues are more successful.

For example, we find that increasing the number of police officers per capita decreases the number of mass shootings.

There is a wide variety of policy options designed to prevent mass shootings. The American Psychological Association suggests a comprehensive community approach that works to identify prevention strategies that bring public safety officials, schools, public health systems and faith-based groups together to reduce gun violence.

Aaron Stark, who says he was almost a mass shooter, explains that mass shootings can be an act of desperation resulting from frustration, stress and an individual’s perception that they lack power. This is in line with a new U.S. Secret Service report that suggests politicians may need to think beyond the accessibility of guns. Violence prevention strategies that focus on interpersonal and community relations may be more effective than gun control legislation.

Framing the debate

Many policy options involve value judgments stemming from beliefs about the U.S. Constitution and the power of government to regulate guns.

Among people who think that restricting gun access reduces mass shootings, people disagree over whether the country should prioritize the individual freedoms of gun owners or the safety and peace of mind of non-gun owners. These differing views can reflect different interpretations of the extent to which the Constitution protects the rights of individuals to keep and bear arms.

States have a role to play, too. Federal gun policy covers the entire nation. But our data indicates that attention to state and local factors can play an important role in preventing mass shootings.

In the end, gun control remains a debate about facts and context, complicated by a disagreement over constitutional values.

Zach Lang is a Harry S Truman School of Government and Public Affairs. Graduate Fellow, Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy, University of Missouri-Columbia. Jennifer L Selin is a Kinder Institute Assistant Professor of Constitutional Democracy in the University o**f Missouri’s Department of Political Science. **

The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.

© The Conversation

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

12 Comments
Login to comment

I don't understand the focus on only mass shootings. Wouldn't it be good to reduce the number of all shootings, including suicides?

7 ( +7 / -0 )

We defined a mass shooting as a single incident in which a perpetrator with no connection to gang activity or organized crime shot and killed three or more people. This is similar to the definition Congress uses.

Firstly, this is a very narrow definition of a mass shooting. Why would a shooting in which three people were killed be a mass shooting, but one in which two people were killed and one injured not be a mass shooting? Is the definition based on better hospitals? Poorer aim? Weapon caliber? Also, why is a person shooting up the outside of a club and killing three people not a mass shooting just because the shooter is a gang member?

(I believe Congress defines a mass shooting as "an event where someone selects four or more people and shoots them with firearms in an indiscriminate manner." Source: Wikipedia)

By contrast, 18 states did not have a single mass shooting event over the entire 40-year period. Many of these states – like West Virginia, Wyoming and South Dakota – have high rates of gun ownership and relatively loose gun control laws.

Probably an effect of their exclusive definition. A quick google search reveals that West Virginia had three mass shootings between 2013 and 2019, and Wyoming had one.

https://www.gvpedia.org

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Statistically, mass shootings tend to occur in large, densely populated states with higher income and education levels per capita.

Well, that makes the solution obvious, doesn't it? Reductions in income and education will solve the problem.

Strangely, statistics comparing the US with other countries are not taken into account.

I wonder if the authors are entirely unbiased. Could they themselves be gun owners? Could they be members of the NRA? That would be far more relevant than their university qualifications.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Even by their very restrictive definition they found 112 mass shootings. In the UK over the same period where there were strict gun control measures in place there were 3. One of those responsible for bringing in the very strict measures currently in place. All the other factors they purport are more causative are also to be found in places in the UK.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

"I don't understand the focus on only mass shootings. Wouldn't it be good to reduce the number of all shootings, including suicides?"

Yeah, and on socalled assault rifles because not many murders are done with rifles and not even all mass shootings. The recent ones in Atlanta and colorado used handguns.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

A very balanced article.

My country has some of the strictest gun laws (on paper) so that it is almost impossible for an average person to own a firearm. This has only led to a proliferation of illegal guns and a flourishing illegal gun manufacturing industry. Strict gun laws don't always work, and the places where they have worked have other factors like low population and efficient police and justice system to back up the gun legislation.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

EvilBuddha

My country has some of the strictest gun laws (on paper) so that it is almost impossible for an average person to own a firearm. This has only led to a proliferation of illegal guns and a flourishing illegal gun manufacturing industry. Strict gun laws don't always work, and the places where they have worked have other factors like low population and efficient police and justice system to back up the gun legislation.

Which country is that? I only ask because Japan has "some of the strictest gun laws" and there is no "proliferation of illegal guns and a flourishing illegal gun manufacturing industry".

2 ( +3 / -1 )

This has only led to a proliferation of illegal guns and a flourishing illegal gun manufacturing industry. 

And what are the results of that? Please back up your assertions with some data, otherwise they’re just empty statements. And, as 2020hindsights says, the name of your country would be helpful as well.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

"Which country is that? I only ask because Japan has "some of the strictest gun laws" and there is no "proliferation of illegal guns and a flourishing illegal gun manufacturing industry"

Obviously I am not talking about Japan.

"Please back up your assertions with some data, otherwise they’re just empty statements."

Oh I have data to back up my statements all right. My country has the second highest number of guns in the hands of civilians after the US in absolute terms, inspite of having some of the strictest gun laws. More than 90% of these guns are illegally manufactured and procured. Some parts of my country where gun culture thrives would resemble the Wild West where guns are used to settle disputes, usurp land, project power and win elections by indulging in 'booth capturing'.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

EvilBuddha,

I’m going to say India, then. I don’t disagree with what you say, I just wanted a reference point. We know from historical examples like Prohibition and the ‘War on Drugs’ that increased regulation of a thing often leads to increased crime surrounding it. There are still fewer gun deaths in India than the States, as far as I know. Am I wrong on that?

“According to the National Crime Records Bureau, gun-related deaths increased from 3,063 to 3,655 between 2010 and 2014. There were 10 times that number in 2013 in the United States.

“But only 14 percent of the victims in 2014 in India were killed by licensed guns. The rest were killed by illegal weapons, largely prevalent in the hinterlands.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/india-had-the-one-of-the-strictest-gun-laws-in-the-world-it-just-got-tighter/2016/08/01/affd9422-51da-11e6-b652-315ae5d4d4dd_story.html

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"There are still fewer gun deaths in India than the States, as far as I know. Am I wrong on that?"

Only if you go by the official figures. Most of the crime related figures in India (especially the rural parts) are fudged so no using comparing the 2 countries.

Most gun deaths in the US are suicides so leave that out.

Moreover, the blanket figures of gun deaths does not cover the rest of the crimes (like robbery, rapes, election related crimes and usurping of property) where guns are involved.

On the whole, an average American is safer than an average Indian, because US citizens can legally buy guns for defending themselves and their families.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Thanks, that's interesting, and great points. Even if you do remove America's gun suicides, though, there are still around 16,000 firearms related deaths per year. Last year it was almost 20,000.

Moreover, the blanket figures of gun deaths does not cover the rest of the crimes (like robbery, rapes, election related crimes and usurping of property) where guns are involved

Same goes for the US, for parts of that.

On the whole, an average American is safer than an average Indian, because US citizens can legally buy guns for defending themselves and their families.

That comes with quite the opportunity cost unfortunately. And, depending on your source, defensive gun use may not be as common as some would have you believe.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites