Opinion

A statistical look at guns

Posted June 22

We are all aware of the deadliest mass shooting in American history. In Orlando, Florida, 49 people were killed and 51 more injured. It is time to take a new look at the facts related to guns in America.

One of America's treasured rights is that of gun ownership. It is safeguarded in the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which reads, in part, “… the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” But why did this right come to be?

The situation, as we know, was very different at the time the Constitution was written. Then, America's army was not the mightiest on the planet. Therefore, it is understandable that people would be authorized to own weapons to protect the country from potential invaders as well as for self-defense.

Today, the U.S. has the strongest military in the world. Military spending is close to $600 billion a year. The closest rival is China, which spends less than $200 billion. Additionally, the U.S. has the most advanced legal and law-enforcement institutions on earth. While changes to the Constitution are not expected, it is reasonable to ask: is it still necessary to hold so many weapons either for self-defense or to defend America from a foreign foe? I don’t think so.

Currently, most would acknowledge that there are many firearms in the country. There is no official gun-ownership database. But there were an estimated 294 million firearms in 2007, according to the report “Gun Control Legislation,” written by the Congressional Research Service. Furthermore, The Washington Post updated this figure using statistics from the Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and estimated as many as 357 million guns in 2013, for a population of 317 million. What are the implications? Do we feel safer with more guns in circulation?

The Harvard Injury Control Research Center found that the more guns there are in circulation, the more homicides there are. Furthermore, economist Richard Florida found that states with tighter gun control have fewer gun related deaths, as reported by The Washington Post.

According to the FBI, 44,077 were killed by firearms from 2009 through 2013. In addition, the number of mass shootings and their fatalities is dangerously increasing. A Wired Magazine article shows that the number of mass shootings more than tripled and the number of fatalities in mass shootings increased four-fold in 2015 with respect to 2014. Additionally, The Huffington Post reports that out of 207 mass shootings in 2015, only one was committed by a Muslim. The Wired Magazine piece shows data from the Kaiser Family Foundation supporting tighter gun regulation. In essence the data show that the fewer guns in a region, the fewer firearm-related deaths per 100,000 people.

The range of weapons people can buy is very broad. People can obtain high-caliber sniper rifles, grenade launchers and flame-throwers. These are military weapons, not weapons for personal defense. Background checks, now almost cursory, could be more comprehensive. That one measure could help ensure that mentally ill people and those on terrorist watch lists are restricted from buying firearms.

A rational solution would be to recognize a citizen's right to keep and bear arms and balance it with the part of the Declaration of Independence that recognizes the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Having a right to bear arms has to be measured against the rights of those who worry about their happiness. Many of us are so concerned about all the guns in America that it is very difficult to be happy.

John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development. Mario Alejandro Mercado Mendoza, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.

John Hoffmire teaches at SaÏd Business School at the University of Oxford.

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