In the US, there is quite an ongoing debate regarding gun ownership and gun control. This is important enough that many US citizens vote for candidates based in part on their stand in regard to gun control. It is no accident that so few people who supported more gun control were elected in the midterm elections. However, there is confusion over the numbers used by both gun control advocates and gun rights advocates.
There is little doubt that gun-related violent crime has been dropping in the US for the more than 30 years, though gun control laws are laxer now than they were 30 years ago. The CDC and FBI both report this trend.
However, in a lengthy debate between pro-gun and anti-gun sides, the pro side will often or usually say that there is an increase in the number of people who own guns, while the anti-gun group says that gun ownership is down. Both sides can’t be right, can they?
Actually, they are. The number of people who legally own guns in the US keeps on increasing, according to the FBI and CDC. The number of guns that are legally owned is also increasing, by a much faster rate. These are two different things, though. If a household has one gun and buys two more, there is a tremendous increase in the number of guns owned by the household without necessarily showing that more people are owning them.
While there is a great increase in the number of people who own guns legally in the US, as well as a greater increase in the number of guns that are legally owned, the percentage of the American population that owns a gun has actually dropped a little. How is that possible?
This is a huge point of confusion, but it is really simple to understand. The population of the US is growing faster than the number of new gun owners. In 1988, 30 years ago, the population of the US was about 244.5 million people. In 2018, the population was about 329 million. That is an increase of around 84,500,000 people. In order for gun ownership percentages to remain the same, the same percentage of those new people would need to have become gun owners.
In 1988, 39.8% of households reported that they owned at least one gun. In order for the percentage of households with a gun to remain the same, there would need to be 33,631,000 new gun owners in the past 30 years. Although the increase in people owning guns has increased, it hasn’t increased that much, so the percentage of people owning guns has appeared to drop. That doesn’t even count the number of new people in the US over the last 30 years who can’t legally own a gun.
In addition to this, admitting to owning a gun is voluntary in most places in the US. In the past decade, particularly, law-abiding gun owners have been demonized by the press and others. It isn’t at all surprising that a large number of people simply don’t want to admit to owning guns. This means that the number of people who own guns is likely to be much greater than the number the FBI and CDC have had reported to them.
Another number that can be confusing is in regard to the number of crimes that are prevented by legal gun owners. Official indications are that between 500,000 and 3 million crimes are prevented every year by legal gun owners. There is a huge difference between a half-million and 3 million, so why is the number so ambiguous?
It is simply because most of those crimes are never reported. There is no requirement or need to report it unless someone is actually shot. In the vast majority of crimes that are prevented by a legal gun owner, no shots are fired at all. This means that the CDC and FBI can only estimate the number and to be anywhere close to accurate, there must be a wide variation and margin of error.
In order to understand the numbers and the statistics, it is necessary to understand the context and what the numbers are actually showing. This is also the reason that it is quite misleading to say that 30,000 people die from gunshots in the US every year. Two-thirds of those are suicides and the people wanting to take their own lives will and do find another way if a gun isn’t available. Of the 10,000 that are not suicides, most are gang related, drug related, or people killed during the commission of a crime. The actual number of homicides from a gunshot in the US, not related to gang crime, suicide, drug crime, or during the commission of another violent crime is roughly 700 per year.
That is a lot of people, but it means that a person who is law abiding has a 1 in 470,000 chance of being shot and killed. That is lower than in most other countries, regardless of their gun laws. Putting it in perspective in another way, over 55,000 people die of overdose each year in the US and over 35,000 die from falls every year in the US. The chances of a person dying from an overdose or from falls are between 50 and 78 times higher than being shot and killed. This usually isn’t mentioned in the debate.
Also seldom mentioned; 98% of all mass shootings (three or more victims) in the past 10 years have occurred in places were guns of any sort were forbidden. Obviously, laws don’t make a difference in regard to gun-related shootings. Rather, stricter laws make it more likely that someone will get shot since the people can’t protect themselves and are easy targets who don’t shoot back.
Anyway, the numbers that both sides of the debate often throw out there are usually correct. They simply show very different things.