Do countries with stricter gun laws really have less crime or fewer homicides?

By: Patrick J. Kiger & Nicholas Gerbis

Spoking bullets falling on ground
Tragic events spark fear and outrage, drive up gun sales and, conversely, inspire calls for expanded (or better-enforced) gun control. Yuchito Chino/Getty Images

On Feb. 15, 2018, a shooter armed with a semiautomatic rifle walked onto the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and opened fire, killing 17 people while students barricaded themselves inside classrooms and hid inside closets in a desperate effort to protect themselves. Police eventually captured a 19-year-old former student, Nikolas Cruz, who had recently been expelled from school for disciplinary reasons [source: Rozsa, et al].

For a nation that has seen a string of mass shootings over the past two decades, it was yet another collective trauma. "I'm kind of surprised it happened here, but I'm not really shocked," one Parkland student told the Washington Post. "School shootings happen all the time, and then the news just forgets about them."


What was even more shocking to some was the ease with which Cruz, who reportedly had a history of emotional problems and menacing behavior, had been able to obtain weapons. CNN, citing a law enforcement source, reported that Cruz had acquired 10 rifles in the year or so prior to the attack [sources: McLaughlin and Park, Fausset and Kovaleski].

And once again, as they have so many times in the last, gun control advocates called for stricter laws to prevent such tragedies. "I want everybody to know we've been here before, and it's horrifying to think of the lives that are lost every day to gun violence while we sit here in Congress," proclaimed Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, who the previous year had introduced a proposal to bank military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Tragic events spark fear and outrage, drive up gun sales and, conversely, inspire calls for expanded (or better-enforced) gun control [source: Ingram]. This has been the pattern for the past half-century, since Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968 following the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Brady Act, which requires background checks by licensed dealers (but does not apply to gun shows), arose from the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan [sources: ATF; Hennessey and Mascaro; The New York Times]. The act is named for James Brady, Reagan's press secretary who also was injured in the attempt and went on to become a gun control advocate.

The possibility of legal reform remains unclear, and the composition and effectiveness of such laws remains hotly debated.

One proposed gun law reform involves banning assault weapons such as the popular AR-15, the semi-automatic rifle used in numerous mass shootings, including the 2012 attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which took the lives of 20 young children and six teachers, and the slaughter of 59 people by a gunman who fired on a concert from a hotel room window in Las Vegas in October 2017 [source: Blankstein, et al., Calabrese and Siemaszko]. Such a ban was passed by Congress in 1994 and stayed in place for a decade, before it was allowed to lapse in 2004. Attempts to revive the measure have failed, due to both divergent views and the difficulty in codifying a workable and non-exploitable definition of "assault weapon" [sources: Haas; Kucinich; Lawrence; New York Times].

But after the 1994 law was passed, public support for gun control receded. In 1991, a Gallup poll found that 78 percent of Americans favored stricter gun laws, but by 2011, the year before Sandy Hook, just 44 percent of Americans supported it. But since then, perhaps driven by repeated instances of mass killings in recent years, it's started to rise again, so that by the beginning of 2018, 60 percent again were in favor of stricter laws [source: Gallup] A poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in the wake of the Parkland mass shooting found strong support for various gun control measures. Sixty-seven percent of Americans favored revival of the assault weapons ban, and 97 percent favored universal background checks on gun purchasers. Currently, people can avoid such screening if they buy from private owners or at gun shows [sources: Quinnipiac, Cook].

In the U.S., the gun control debate comprises strongly held views about constitutional law, the rights of the individual, the role of the state and the best way to keep society safe. But it also encompasses an important practical question: Do countries with stricter gun laws experience less crime or fewer homicides?

The answer is anything but simple.