Do Countries With Stricter Gun Laws Really Have Fewer Homicides?

By: Patrick J. Kiger & Nicholas Gerbis  | 
Robb Elementary School shooting
A memorial was erected at the Robb Elementary School on May 26, 2022, following the mass shooting there, in Uvalde, Texas. Nineteen students and 2 adults were killed, with the gunman fatally shot by law enforcement. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

On the morning of May 24, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas, an 18-year-old gunman named Salvador Ramos shot his grandmother in the face, and then sent a text message to a 15-year-old girl in Germany whom he'd met on the internet. "Ima go shoot up a elementary school rn," he reportedly wrote. Then Ramos took his grandmother's truck and drove to nearby Robb Elementary School. After crashing the truck into a railing nearby, he continued on foot to the school and walked inside, carrying a semi-automatic military-style rifle that he'd recently purchased, and began shooting. By the time the slaughter had stopped, 19 children and two teachers were dead. So was the teenage gunman, who had been shot to death by a tactical team [sources: Hernandez et al.; Bogel-Burroughs; Levinson et al.].

For a nation that has seen a string of mass shootings over the past two decades, it was yet another collective trauma. What was even more shocking to some was the ease with which Ramos, a teenager whose behavior reportedly had grown increasingly troubling and violent, had been able to legally obtain weapons The day after Ramos turned 18, he went into a local store and purchased a semi-automatic rifle, and in the several days that followed, he purchased 1,657 rounds of ammunition and a second semi-automatic rifle [sources: Klemko, Foster-Frau and Boburg; O'Kane].

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And once again, as they have so many times in the past, gun control advocates called for stricter laws to prevent such tragedies. "We have to act," President Joe Biden, a longtime advocate of gun control, said in a TV address on the evening after the Uvalde mass shooting [source: Whitehouse.gov].

Tragic events spark fear and outrage, drive up gun sales and, conversely, inspire calls for expanded (or better-enforced) gun control. 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 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, Connecticut, 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, though some Republicans are now saying they are open to banning AR-15s in light of the Uvalde school shootings.

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 regulation of the sale of guns, but by 2011, the year before Sandy Hook, just 44 percent of Americans supported tougher laws. Since then, support for tougher regulation has risen and fallen, perhaps driven by repeated instances of mass killings, and settled at 52 percent in 2021 [source: Gallup].

Other pollsters have seen similar fluctuation. A poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in the wake of the Parkland mass school 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.) An April 2021 Q poll, however, found that support for an assault weapons ban had declined to 52 percent, and support for universal background checks had dropped to 89 percent [sources: Quinnipiac, Cook, Quinnipiac].

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.

Violent Crime and Guns

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: Moyer; 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: Liptak; Luo]. We'll examine this further below.

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First, let's look at the relationship between gun laws and violence in general. It is possible to have a violent society without guns. Prime evidence of that is the former Soviet Union and its successor states such as Russia, which despite stringent gun control laws, posted murder rates from 1965-1999 that far outstripped the rest of the developed world [sources: Kates and Mauser; Kessler; Pridemore]. The killers in question did not obtain illegal firearms — they simply employed other weapons [source: Kleck].

On the other hand, Norway, Finland, Germany, France and Denmark, all countries with heavy gun ownership, have a history of low murder rates. According to a 2014 United Nations report, Germany's murder rate of 0.8 killings per 100,000 inhabitants was identical to Luxembourg, where the law prohibits civilian ownership of handguns and gun ownership is rare [source: UNODOC, Kates and Mauser].

The U.S., though, in many ways is a special case. Not only does it have more guns than any other nation on the planet, but it also has far more gun deaths than any other developed nation — six times the homicide rate of neighboring Canada, more than seven times as many as Sweden, and 16 times as many as Germany [source: Lopez].

Within the U.S., the picture isn't as uniform, because in addition to federal regulation, states across the U.S. have their own varying laws on firearms. Opponents of gun control often point to the city of Chicago, which had 797 homicides and 3,561 shooting incidents in 2021, despite Illinois' relatively tough gun laws, as proof that gun control doesn't work [source: NBC Chicago].

But studies suggest that stricter state gun laws do make a difference. In a study published in the May 13, 2013, issue of JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers concluded that states with the most firearm legislation have the lowest rates of firearm-associated deaths, as well as the lowest rates of both murders and suicides with guns. The quarter of states with the strictest laws had 6.64 fewer deaths per 100,000 inhabitants than the quarter with the least regulation [source: Fleegler et al.].

A 2013 U.N. study came to a similar finding. "While the specific relationship between firearm availability and homicide is complex, it appears that a vicious circle connects firearm availability and higher homicide levels," it concluded.

A 2019 study led by Boston University researchers found that states that went beyond the federal standards and imposed universal background checks had a nearly 15 percent lower rate of homicides than states that allowed loopholes for private gun sales. Additionally, tightening restrictions to ban gun purchases by people convicted of misdemeanors involving violence — as opposed to more serious felonies that would cause a rejection by the federal standard — had an even bigger 18 percent drop in the homicide rate. The researchers, however, cautioned that additional studies would be required to determine if the declines were caused by the stricter laws [source: BU].

In some societies, "gun ownership is associated with traditional values of respect and responsibility," whereas in others, "gun availability largely empowers the criminally minded and unstable, adding to the violence and chaos," wrote criminology professor Peter Squires in The Conversation. "High levels of social cohesion, low crime rates and internationally high levels of trust and confidence in police and social institutions do appear to reduce levels of gun homicide." This could explain why the experiences of a country like Norway and a country like the U.S. (both with high rates of gun ownership) are so different.

Causation, Conflation and Consternation

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

One of the reasons gun debates are so difficult to settle, aside from the strong feelings involved, is that the data involved in researching connections between gun laws, gun ownership, gun crime and non-gun crime are frequently mixed, murky, misrecorded and difficult to compare.

In the U.S., crime rates have dropped significantly since the early 1990s and continued to decline through the 2010s, even as gun sales increased, leading some opponents of gun control to argue that more guns actually help to deter crime [source: Bell]. But other analysts argue that other factors — such as the aging of the U.S. population — account for the drop [source: Lind and Lopez].

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Still others point to the significant uptick in American prison populations and executions during this period, or to the larger police forces and improved crime-fighting tactics, the flagging crack-cocaine trade, the booming economy, even the legalization of abortion in the early 1970s, which prevented many births to poor single mothers as reasons for declining crime rates [sources: Lott and Mustard; Donohue and Levitt].

Even with a spike in homicide in 2020 and 2021 during the pandemic, the rate of killings per 100,000 residents in major cities is still much lower than it was in the early 1990s, according to a 2022 study by the Council on Criminal Justice [source: Counciloncj.org]. Meanwhile, Americans continued to buy more and more guns. A study published in Annals of Internal Medicine in late 2021 found that between January 2019 and April 2021, 7.5 million people — 2.9 percent of the U.S. adults who hadn't previously purchased firearms — became gun owners [source: Helmore].

The point is, the "more guns = more violence" argument and the "gun ownership = decreased crime" argument both sidestep the complicating socioeconomic, cultural and psychological factors affecting violent crime. Economic disparities within countries, along with periods of economic downturn, drive up crime and homicides, and violent crimes occurs four times more often in countries with wide income gaps. While economic prosperity tends to decrease violent crime, crime itself can depress community development, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and violence [source: UNODC].

An analysis of crime statistics from 2015 to 2019 by Giffords, a gun safety group founded by former Congress member and shooting survivor Gabrielle Giffords, found that Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Missouri — states that got an F grade from Giffords for the laxness of their lax gun control laws — had significantly higher gun death and gun homicide rates than California, whose gun regulation was given an A by the organization. But Maryland, a state that also rated an A for its strict laws, ranked fifth among gun homicides [source: Woolfolk and Brown].

Violent crime arises from more complicated causes than guns, yet there is no question that guns are associated with a particularly brutal brand of crime. Removing guns from the equation might not stop violence altogether, but might it prevent another Newtown?

The Unique Problem of Guns

The only clear message in this complex issue is that violent crime overall does not increase with the availability of guns, but gun-related violence does [sources: Kates and Mauser; Liptak; Luo].

Some opponents of gun control, including NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre, say, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun" [source: Lichtblau and Rich]. But at least one study has shown that defensive gun use succeeds only rarely, and that gun owners are 4.5 times more likely to be shot during an assault [source: Branas et al.].

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It's hard to say how many mass shootings might have been prevented with tighter gun control laws, but it's clear that existing ones have loopholes and have failed to prevent such attacks. Like Ramos, some other mass shooters have managed to slip through federal background checks, because they had no official history of mental health problems. In other instances, red flag laws, designed to take guns out of the hands of people who might pose a danger to others or themselves, weren't utilized by authorities [sources: Procupecz et al.; Sisak].

But work by University of Massachusetts researcher Louis Klarevas suggests that revival of the federal assault weapons ban might reduce the number of mass killings. For his 2016 book "Rampage Nation," Klarevas gathered data on every mass shooting incident in which six or more people were killed between 1966 and 2016. He found that compared to the 10-year period before the 1994 ban took effect, the number of such massacres dropped by 37 percent, and the number of fatalities decreased by 43 percent. But after the ban expired in 2004, the number of mass killing incidents increased by a startling 183 percent, and fatalities jumped by 239 percent [source: Ingraham].

But to really limit mass shootings, some say that it also will be necessary to find effective ways to identify and treat the mentally ill, and to limit their access to sensitive areas and weapons. Proponents of closer screening have complained that states aren't always diligent in submitting mental health records to the federal background check database, despite a 2007 federal law requiring it. They can point to the example of Jared Lee Loughner, who killed six people and wounded 18 others, including then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-AZ, in 2011.

Though Loughner was suspended from a community college because of mental health problems, he still managed to pass a federal background check and purchase a weapon. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun control group, estimated at the time that millions of mental health records were missing [source: Feldmann]. Preventing violent acts like this will require understanding and defusing the pathology that drives these killers — a feat far easier said than done.

Originally Published: Jan 28, 2013

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