10 Big Questions in the U.S. Gun Control Debate

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 
san jose shooting
Family members of Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) light rail yard shooting victim Paul Megia react during a vigil at San Jose City Hall on May 27, 2021. Hundreds attended a vigil for the nine people killed when a VTA employee opened fire at the VTA light rail yard during a shift change on Wednesday morning. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In May 2021, a disgruntled employee at a public transit rail yard in San Jose, California, opened fire on co-workers, firing 39 rounds that killed eight of them and wounding a ninth who later died, before taking his own life in front of law enforcement officers who had rushed to the scene. The mass killer had three 9-millimeter semi-automatic handguns with him and 11 ammunition magazines on his belt. Later, authorities found 12 more firearms and 25,000 rounds of ammunition at the suspect's home [sources: Fernando, Hays and Hauck; Hanna and Vera ].

The horrific slaughter was yet another shock to a nation that in recent decades has been traumatized again and again by mass shootings, from the killing of 20 elementary school students and six adults by a 20-year-old gunman in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, to the massacre of 58 spectators at a country music concert in Las Vegas by a 64-year-old sniper who rained fire down on them from the 32nd floor of a resort hotel [sources: Candiotti and Aarthun; Hutchinson, et al.].


From 1999 to 2021, more than 2,000 people were killed in mass shootings, according to an analysis by Reuters [source: Canipe and Hartman]. But mass shootings are just part of the larger pattern of firearm violence. In 2020, despite the pandemic, nearly 20,000 people were killed in homicides and 24,000 died in suicides involving guns [source: Thebault and Rindler].That unceasing carnage has led many Americans to call for stricter gun laws.

"We need to treat gun violence as a public health issue, " Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was killed in a 2018 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, explained in a 2021 interview [source: Allen].

But gun rights advocates say such laws would violate Americans' constitutional right to bear arms. They also argue that citizens need weaponry to defend against criminals. "The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun, " National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre said in 2012 [source: CBS DC].

Others even say that gun rights are essential to stave off the possibility of government tyranny.

"The Second Amendment is about maintaining, within the citizenry, the ability to maintain an armed rebellion against the government if that becomes necessary, " Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., told an audience a political rally in May 2021 [source: Chamberlain].

So which side is right? That's for you to decide. But to help you make an informed decision, here are answers to 10 big questions in the U.S. gun control debate.

10: How Many Guns Are in the U.S.?

gun control debate
People look at thousands of handguns as hundreds of dealers sell, show and buy guns at The Nation's Gun Show at the Dulles Expo Center in Metropolitan Washington, D.C. in October 2015. Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images

The U.S. has a lot of guns — so many, in fact, that there's more than one firearm for every person who lives in the country. According to the Geneva, Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey, in 2017 there were an estimated 393 million guns in the U.S., including 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns [source: Karp]. This already huge privately held arsenal is growing at a very fast rate. In 2020 alone, Americans purchased nearly 40 million firearms, according to FBI data [source: McIntyre].

That may lead you to the mistaken impression that everyone is packing heat. In truth, however, the majority of Americans still are unarmed. A 2020 Gallup Poll found that only 32 percent of Americans personally owned a gun, though 44 percent lived in households in which someone possessed a firearm. Firearm owners were most likely to be male, white, Republicans or politically conservative, live in the South and have a household income of over $100,000. In contrast, only 19 percent of women owned guns, and low percentages of nonwhite Americans, political moderates and liberals, people in the Eastern U.S. and those earning less than $40,000 owned firearms [source: Saad].


But gun purchases — and gun manufacturing — are both at all-time highs. So, if more guns are being sold, more people must be owning guns, right? Wrong. It appears most of the new gun purchases are by existing gun owners. In fact, a relatively small number of heavily armed people own most of the country's guns. A groundbreaking study published in 2017 by the Russell Sage Foundation found that half of America's gun stock (at the time, approximately 130 million guns) was owned by approximately 14 percent of gun owners [source: Azrael, et al.].

9: What Does the Second Amendment Say?

Second Amendment activist
Second Amendment activist Joseph Gabriele of Littleton, Colorado gathers with other activists in support of gun ownership Jan. 9, 2013 at the Colorado State Capitol in Denver, Colorado. Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states the following: "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." But what that means is the subject of intense debate. Pro-gun partisans argue that the Constitution's framers guaranteed peoples' right to possess and carry just about any sort of firearm. Gun control advocates say it was intended to allow states to maintain the equivalent of today's National Guard units [source: Krouse].

But as Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes once noted, "The Constitution is what the judges say it is" [source: Columbia University]. And so far, probably to both sides' frustration, the courts have never fully defined the Second Amendment and its implications. Instead, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued a series of rulings that mostly have upheld the government's authority to impose restrictions upon weapons.


For example, in the 1937 case U.S. v. Miller, a court upheld a federal statute requiring licensing of sawed-off shotguns, saying that some types of weaponry weren't needed by a militia and thus weren't constitutionally protected. (Gun rights advocates replied that this type of weapon had been used by militia before.) More recently, in the 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller, the court found that citizens did have a right to possess handguns at home for self-defense. But the justices said the government still could impose other limits — such as banning criminals and those with mental illness from owning guns, regulating gun sales and barring guns from schools and other places [source: Krouse].

8: Is the U.S. Gun Homicide Rate Really That High?

dead policeman Honduras
Forensic personnel examine the corpse of a police officer murdered presumably by gangsters to steal his handgun, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras on Dec. 5, 2012. ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images

In 2019, guns were used in 13,927 homicides in the U.S. — in nearly 74 percent of murders that year [source: FBI]. Whether that rate seems high to you depends upon your perspective. According to a global database maintained by the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the U.S. ranks 32nd in deaths from gun violence worldwide, with 3.96 killings per 100,000 people [source: Aizenman].

But many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean had vastly higher rates. El Salvador's gun homicide rate was 36.78 per 100,000 — more than nine times the U.S. rate. Venezuela (33.27), Guatemala (29.06), Colombia (26.36), Brazil (21.93), Bahamas (21.52) and Mexico (16.41) all had proportionately much bigger problems. The Philippines (8.05) and South Africa (5.28) also outdid the U.S., according to the same report.


But those places tend to be developing countries where law and order is weak, or places with political unrest. Compared to other industrialized democracies, the U.S. gun homicide rate is through the roof. The U.K., for example, had just 0.04 gun killings per 100,000 in 2019, and Japan and South Korea had only 0.02. Canada had 0.47. In other words, the U.S. death rate from gun violence was eight times as high as that of Canada and 100 times that of the U.K. [source: Aizenman].

So here's another question: Would the homicide rate in the U.S. be lower if there were fewer guns available? A comparison with England and Wales suggests that it might be. Those parts of the U.K. actually have higher rates of some violent crimes than the U.S. The English-Welsh assault rate was 925.4 per 100,000 population in 2018, compared to just 246.84 in the U.S., and the robbery rate of 131.227 per 100,000 in 2017 was 33 percent higher than the U.S. rate. But the U.S. has a lot more killing — its homicide rate in 2017 was more than quadruple the English-Welsh homicide rate of 1.2 per 100,000 [source: UNODC]. As the American Psychological Association concluded in a 2013 report on gun violence, "The use of a gun greatly increases the odds that violence will lead to a fatality."

7: Are There Countries With as Many Guns as the U.S. but With Less Crime?

finland shooting
Candles were lit in the evening by the memorial next to the Kauhajoki vocational school in Kauhajoki, Finland on Sept. 23, 2009 for those killed in the school shooting a year earlier. VESA MOILANEN/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

No, because there isn't another country in the world with as many guns as the U.S. The U.S. comprises 4 percent of the world's population, but owns about 40 percent of the world's civilian firearms. The rate of about 121 guns per 100 people is tops in the world, followed by the politically unstable Yemen, at 53 guns per 100 people [source: Small Arms Survey].

So, let's reframe the question. Are there countries with relatively high gun-ownership rates — and low crime rates? Yes: Finland, which has 32 guns per 100 people, and Canada, which has 34.7 guns per 100 people. (Finland ranks fourth in the world for the rate of private gun ownership.) Finland had just 9 gun homicides in 2016, a rate of 0.20 per 100,000 people. Canada, with 223 gun killings in 2016, had a slightly higher rate of 0.62 per 100,000 [source: Gunpolicy.org].


But both those countries have stricter gun control laws than the U.S. In Finland, a nation where most use guns for hunting rather than protection, citizens must obtain gun licenses, which must be renewed every five years. They also must state the reason they wish to have a gun — and self-defense is not a valid reason [source: Finnish Police].

Police deny or revoke permission if an applicant is convicted of a crime — or shows any sort of behavior that authorities think might indicate that he or she wouldn't be safe owning a gun. Large-capacity magazines aren't permitted, and weapons must be stored in locked cabinets and unloaded if taken outside the home [source: Ministry of the Interior].

But even so, Finland suffered mass shootings at schools in 2007 and 2008, in which gunmen killed 18 people. Since then, Finland has tightened up its gun laws, although it experienced two other mass shootings in 2009 and 2016. Still, Finland's totality of roughly 26 deaths between 2000 and 2019 is a drop in the bucket compared with the thousands of deaths in the U.S. from mass shootings [source: Australian Associated Press].

6: Could Technological Advances Make Gun Control Impossible?

3D printed gun
A 3D-printed gun figure is displayed during the 3D Prints Design Show at Javits Center, in New York, April 16, 2015. Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In recent years, the development of 3D-printing, in which a printer can be used to build a solid object, has the potential to greatly complicate attempts to regulate firearms. The earliest 3D-printed guns were crude single-shot devices. But as Slate writer Ari Schneider reported in 2021, the technology has come a long way in a short time, and it's now possible to print semi-automatic rifles and pistols that don't have serial numbers or registrations, bypassing background checks. Recently, for example, plans were released for a "100 percent homemade" semi-automatic rifle that is durable enough to shoot thousands of 9 mm rounds. Most of the rifle can be 3D-printed, while the rest can be fabricated from parts available in hardware stores.

3D-printed firearms not only would be easy to make at home, and easy to hide from authorities, but potentially could be far cheaper than weapons manufactured in arms factories and sold by dealers. In just a short time, plans for the 3D-printed rifle were viewed more than 44,000 times on the original website to which the files were uploaded, according to Schneider's article.


Currently, making your own 3D gun is legal under Federal law, which permits the unlicensed manufacturing of firearms, as long as at least some of the parts are metal, according to a February 2021 article in The Trace, an online publication that focuses on gun issues. A few states have moved to clamp down on them, including New Jersey, which requires anyone who wants to use a 3D printer to make a gun to obtain a federal gun-manufacturing license. New Mexico and Virginia are considering similar restrictions.

Law enforcement officials worry about the possibility of violent extremists using 3D printers to fabricate weapons without metal components, which would enable them to be smuggled inside places where guns are prohibited, such as government buildings and airports. So far, though, even plastic guns still would need to use bullets fashioned from metal, which could be spotted [source: Barton and Brownlee]. Additionally, Design News reported in 2019 on development of a new scanning device with the potential to spot concealed weapons regardless of their composition.

5: How Often Do Gun Owners Actually Prevent Crimes?

gun control debate
Maria Rodriguez stands outside Pulse nightclub Dec. 11, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. After the shooting there she began encouraging members of the gay community to take up arms after recent hate crimes. Francisco Hidalgo/BarcroftImages/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

People opposed to gun control often have argued that they need firepower to protect themselves against criminals. Take this example from January 2013 when a Georgia woman shot a crowbar-wielding intruder who broke into her home and confronted her and her two young children [source: CBS News]. A number of armed American citizens have also used their firearms to stop or limit mass killings, including Stephen Willeford, the armed citizen who intervened to confront and pursue a gunman who attacked First Baptist Church of Sutherland Spring, Texas in 2017 [source: CNN].

Gun control opponents say that a vast number of crimes are prevented by armed citizens, who either shoot an assailant — an event that happened 326 times in 2010, according to a 2012 Wall Street Journal state-by-state analysis of crime statistics — or more often, chase the would-be criminal away by brandishing a weapon [source: Palazzolo and Barry].


There is some social science to back up that thesis. Perhaps the most often-cited evidence is a 1995 study by Northwestern University School of Law researchers Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz. Based upon a random telephone survey of 5,000 Americans, they concluded that there were between 2.1 and 2.5 million defensive gun uses each year. This works out to about 1 percent use of a gun for defensive purposes [source: Kleck and Gertz].

But critics questioned whether Kleck's and Gertz's findings were reliable. Harvard public health researcher David Hemenway published a paper refuting this and pointing out that "since only 42 percent of U.S. households own firearms and victims in two-thirds of the occupied households were asleep, the 2.5 million figure requires us to believe burglary victims use their guns in self-defense more than 100 percent of the time" [source: Hemenway]. Another mid-1990s study, based upon a Justice Department survey of nearly 60,000 households, came up with a much smaller estimate of about 21,500 defensive gun uses annually [source: Committee on Law and Justice].

Even if the low-end estimates are closer to the truth, this still could mean that tens of thousands of crimes are prevented by gun owners annually. But a 2009 University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine study found that people with a gun were 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those who were unarmed.

4: How Often Are People Killed by Their Own Guns?

baby casket, mourners
Mourners look upon the casket containing the body of 19-month-old Suzie Marie Pena who was shot to death by police as her father held her while shooting at SWAT officers during a standoff in the Los Angeles community of Watts. David McNew/Getty Images

This is the point that gun control proponents often cite to counter arguments that guns deter crime. People who have guns in their households, they argue, actually may be at greater risk of being hurt or killed by a bullet — possibly one fired by an angry spouse or by a child playing with a gun that's been left out and loaded.

Again, there's some social science to support this. A 2003 study published in the journal Injury Prevention found that people in families where someone purchased a gun actually faced an elevated risk of homicide, suicide and accidental death [source: Grassel et al]. Another study published in 2011 in the American Journal of Public Health found that 43 percent — neatly half — of all homes with guns and kids also had one unlocked firearm.


One big risk is that having a gun within easy reach can escalate an argument or fight into a homicide. A 1992 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that victims whose family members used a gun in an assault were 12 times more likely to die than when attackers used other weapons such as knives, or their bare hands [source: Saltzman et al].

However, an article that appeared in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy pointed out that most of the "acquaintance homicides" involved, for instance, drug dealers shooting at each other. "Approximately 90 percent of adult murderers have adult records, with an average adult criminal career ... of six or more years, including four major adult felony arrests," said the authors [source: Kates and Mauser].

Most Americans who die from gun violence in their own homes actually inflict it upon themselves: More than 47,000 people commit suicide every year in the United States and in 2019, more than half used a firearm [source: ASFP].

3: Did the Federal Ban on Assault Weapons Affect Crime?

gun control debate
A sign calling for a ban on assault type weapons is held at a Los Angeles vigil after the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting on June 13, 2016, where a gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 others. David McNew/Getty Images

In 1994, Congress passed a 10-year ban on the manufacture and sale of new assault weapons, which the law defined as semi-automatic rifles and handguns with certain military-style features — such as folding rifle stocks and threaded barrels for attaching silencers — that didn't have any value to hunters or self-defense. The law also banned magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds but exempted weapons manufactured before 1994. The law was allowed to expire in 2004, and how effective it was at preventing crime remains a subject of intense controversy, in part because there wasn't a systematic effort to gather data about its impacts.

A 2004 study by University of Pennsylvania researchers for the Department of Justice found that from 1995 to 2003, gun crimes involving assault weapons that were banned by the law declined in six U.S. cities by between 17 percent and 72 percent. But some of that progress was negated, the researchers found, because even though criminals couldn't buy new assault weapons, they still could easily outfit non-banned weapons with old large-capacity magazines from before the ban, which were plentiful and easily obtained [source: Koper].


Additionally, manufacturers were able to get around the ban by redesigning weapons and making a few changes to remove the military-style features. The Colt AR-15 that the shooter used to kill moviegoers in the Aurora cinema would have been outlawed under the 1994 ban. Yet he could have used a very similar Colt Match Target rifle that would not have fallen under the ban [source: Plumer].

After winning election in 2020 on a platform that included gun control, President Joe Biden has pushed Congress to revive the assault weapons ban, and to make high-capacity magazines illegal as well [source: White House].

2: Do States With Strict Gun Control Laws Have Less Gun Violence?

125 weapons confiscated
Some of the 125 weapons confiscated during what the federal authorities say was the largest gang takedown in U. S. history. Scores of alleged gang members and associates were arrested on federal racketeering and drug-trafficking charges in 2009. David McNew/Getty Images

Critics of gun control often point to places such as the District of Columbia, which has a high rate of gun crimes despite strict gun control laws. But gun control advocates say that states' efforts at gun control are undermined, to a degree, by lax laws in neighboring states. Everytown For Gun Safety, an organization lobbying for stricter gun legislation, points out that nearly 30 percent of guns recovered from crime scenes were first sold in a different state. And a 2009 study by Johns Hopkins University researchers found that cities in states with little regulation of gun dealers had guns passing into criminals' hands at two to four times the rate of cities in states with strict laws [source: ScienceDaily].

Social scientist Richard Florida, who has analyzed crime and demographic data, has found a strong correlation between lower firearm deaths and tighter gun restrictions, such as bans on assault weapons and requirements for trigger locks and safe storage of guns. He says that gun violence is less likely to occur in states that have gun control laws. Interestingly, he found no correlation between states' unemployment rates or drug use and gun violence, but he did find that states with high poverty, low numbers of college grads and high numbers of working-class jobs also had more gun violence [source: Florida].


1: Has American Public Opinion Shifted on Gun Control?

gun control debate
Students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School holding a sign that says "remember these people." Their school was shot up by a gunman on Feb. 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida and 17 people were killed. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In the early 1990s, Gallup polling showed that 78 percent of Americans favored tighter gun control laws. But that support declined dramatically over the next two decades, and by the mid-to-late 2000s, support dipped to just 44 percent, with nearly as many Americans (43 percent) saying that laws already were strict enough. But in the wake of the Newtown massacre, a December 2012 Gallup poll found a sharp rebound in support, with 58 percent favoring tougher gun statutes, compared to just 34 percent who said they wanted laws to remain the same [source: Saad]. Since then, support for gun control has fluctuated, often rising in the wake of shootings. Gallup's most recent poll on this issue in November 2020 found that 57 percent of Americans supported stricter gun control [source: Brenan].

Other recent polls on gun control vary. A Pew Research Center poll released in April 2021 found a narrower majority — 53 percent — supported stricter laws, while a March 2021 Morning Consult-Politico tracking poll found that 64 percent of American voters generally supported more gun control, versus 28 percent who said they were opposed. [sources: Bowden, Pew Research Center].

But when polls drill down further, they often find that specific gun control measures have even broader support. In the Morning Consult-Politico poll, for example, 83 percent of voters who supported background checks on all weapons purchases and statutes preventing people identified as mentally unstable from owning guns at all. And 76 percent supported banning anyone on a federal watchlist — such as "do not fly" lists — from owning guns, while 73 percent wanted a three-day federal waiting period before a gun could be taken home from a store. Seventy percent backed creation of a national database on gun sales [source: Bowden].

Similarly, in the Pew poll, Americans strongly backed restrictions on the type of weaponry Americans should be able to buy. Sixty-four percent favored banning magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition, and 63 percent favored banning assault weapons such as the military-style rifles that often have been used in mass killings [source: Pew Research Center].

But Gallup data contains another important but often overlooked point. Though the number of Americans who want stricter gun control has gone up and down (and now up again), the overwhelming majority of Americans over the past 20 years have supported laws that restrict firearms. In a Gallup Poll from October 2017, only 4 percent of those polled said they oppose background checks for all gun purchases [source: Brenan].

However, that same 2017 poll found that a 71 percent were opposed to a ban on handguns for anyone but police or other authorized personnel. Pollsters speculate this could reflect Americans' wish to keep the right of self-defense in the wake of high-profile gun violence.

Gun Control Debate FAQs

How many guns are there in the U.S.?
In 2017, the Small Arms Survey out of Switzerland estimated that there were 857 million civilian-held firearms globally, with 393 million of those in the United States.
What does the U.S. Constitution say about gun control?
The Second Amendment reads: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” What that means exactly is subject to intense debate. Pro-gun partisans argue that the Constitution's framers guaranteed peoples' right to possess and carry any sort of firearm. Gun control advocates, however, say it was intended to allow states to maintain the equivalent of today's National Guard units
Did the federal ban on assault weapons affect crime?
A 2004 study by University of Pennsylvania researchers for the Department of Justice found that from 1995 to 2003, gun crimes involving assault weapons that were banned by the law declined in six U.S. cities between 17 percent and 72 percent. But the researchers also found that even though criminals couldn't buy new assault weapons, they still could easily outfit non-banned weapons with old large-capacity magazines which were easy to get.
What's a semi-automatic gun?
A semi-automatic firearm has a mechanism that automates most of the process of shooting.
Is it illegal to not lock up your guns?
There are some states within the U.S. that require owners of firearms to lock up their guns in a secure place when not in use. Every state has their own policies regarding locking firearms. While some are loose, others are more strict in their approach to locking firearms.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Big Questions in the U.S. Gun Control Debate

I grew up in western Pennsylvania, where the movie "The Deer Hunter" was set, and where a lot of my neighbors were avid hunters. So the idea of law-abiding people owning guns was never something I questioned. But except for my toy pistols, we didn't have any guns in our home, because my father, who wasn't a hunter, didn't want them around. He'd been a combat medic in the U.S. Army during World War II, and he had a huge, scary scar on his left bicep where a German machine gun bullet hit him on a battlefield in 1945. He'd had to bind up his own arm in a battlefield tourniquet, which enabled him to escape having it amputated. I still have a vivid picture in my mind of what a bullet can do to a person's body. I think that's given me a real-world perspective on the gun issue that a lot of debaters, who tend to get caught up in legal and constitutional abstractions, often seem to lack.

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