The U.S. of Armament

  • As of 2009, Americans owned enough guns to distribute one to every citizen -- and then some, according to the National Institute of Justice [sources: U.S. News; Velasco]. (That's 310 million firearms, in case you're wondering.)
  • A 2011 Gallup poll found that 47 percent of American homes had at least one gun, and 62 percent of those homes had more than one [source: Velasco].
  • Of the 12,664 murders committed in the United States in 2011, 49 percent involved handguns and more than 67 percent involved firearms overall [source: FBI].
  • All told, America is the most heavily armed country in the world, with the highest number of gun-related homicides among developed nations and some of the most relaxed gun laws [source: Walsh].

Violent Crimes: No Guns, No Problem

The fight for more stringent gun control laws derives in part from the idea that more guns mean more violence. As it turns out, though, in the United States and the rest of the developed world, total murder and suicide rates, from all causes, do not increase with rates of gun ownership -- or drop under tougher gun laws [sources: Killias, van Kesteren and Rindlisbacher; Liptak].

The effect of gun laws on gun-related violence is fuzzier and far more controversial but, in general, more guns mean more gun-related violence [sources: Killias, van Kesteren and Rindlisbacher; Liptak; Luo]. We'll examine this further below.

First, let's look at the relationship between gun laws and violence in general.

The former Soviet Union's extremely stringent gun controls, successfully implemented and enforced by a police state, did not keep the nation, and successor states like Russia, from posting murder rates from 1965-1999 that far outstripped the rest of the developed world [sources: Kates and Mauser; Kessler; Pridemore; Pridemore]. The killers in question did not obtain illegal firearms -- they simply employed other weapons [source: Kleck].

In the 1960s and early 1970s, murders committed by Soviet citizens -- again, almost entirely without guns -- equaled or surpassed the lives taken violently in the gun-saturated United States. By the early 1990s, the murder rate in Russia trebled the American rate, which had by then leveled off, then dropped significantly (more on that later) [sources: Kates and Mauser; Pridemore; Pridemore].

On the other hand, Norway, Finland, Germany, France and Denmark, all countries with heavy gun ownership, posted low murder rates in the early 2000s compared to "gun-light" developed nations. In 2002, for example, Germany's murder rate was one-ninth that of Luxembourg, where the law prohibits civilian ownership of handguns and gun ownership is rare [source: Kates and Mauser].

Statistics within countries paint a similar picture: Areas of higher gun ownership rates correlate with areas of lower rates of violent crime, and areas with strict gun laws correlate with areas high in violent crime [source: Malcolm].

Does this mean that guns prevent crime? Not necessarily. After all, the most violent areas are also the most likely to pass stringent gun laws. It's a chicken-and-egg problem: Which came first, the violent crime or the gun laws? There's no simple answer. It does appear that high gun-ownership density does not imply high rates of violent crime, and that stringent gun controls do not reduce murder rates across the board [sources: Kates and Mauser; Liptak; Luo]. However, the data involved in these assessments are often mismatched and tricky to compare.