Guns in America

By | Updated June 23, 2016 7:52 PM UTC

Each new mass shooting in the U.S. reignites debate over the country’s treatment of gun rights as virtually sacrosanct. Americans own more guns than anybody else on earth, even adjusted for population. (Yemenis are second.) Firearms are involved in the deaths of more than 30,000 people in the U.S. annually, about two-thirds of which are suicides. Guns are also integral to the story of the nation’s founding. The National Rifle Association, the dominant pro-gun group, has been on a decades-long winning streak convincing courts and lawmakers to loosen gun restrictions and to prevent the passage of new ones.

The Situation

Half a dozen proposals intended to keep terrorist suspects from buying guns failed to advance in the Senate the week after a shooter pledging allegiance to Islamic State killed 49 people in a gay bar in Orlando, Florida on June 12. Frustrated by congressional gridlock over gun laws, U.S. President Barack Obama issued a series of executive orders in January aimed at reducing gun violence. Notably, the orders expand the definition of gun sellers who must conduct background checks on potential purchasers. Gun-rights advocates have challenged Obama’s orders in court. A Congressional bill to expand background checks was defeated in a momentous vote in 2013, after a massacre the year before at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. States led by Democrats expanded bans on assault weapons, and the Supreme Court turned away appeals against the Connecticut and New York laws in June 2016. California created a new type of restraining order meant to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally unstable and Oregon closed a background-check loophole. But a majority of states weakened restrictions, and many now permit guns in more places, including schools, restaurants, churches and public buildings. Hidden guns are now allowed in all 50 states, and many states have expanded rights to use guns in self-defense. The U.S. has a higher per-capita rate of firearm homicides than any other industrialized nation. Harvard and Northeastern University researchers say mass shootings have been increasing in frequency since 2011.

The Background

The U.S. is one of three countries to include gun-ownership rights in its constitution. (Mexico and Guatemala are the others.) The right “of the people to keep and bear arms,” enshrined in the Second Amendment, was established in the 18th century to allow states to form militias to protect themselves against oppression by the federal government. Interpretation has evolved, and in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the amendment protected the gun rights of individuals, not just militias. Beyond the legalities, the gun is a cultural icon in the U.S. — a necessary instrument of soldiers in the Revolutionary War, frontiersmen conquering the Great Plains, cowboys roaming the Wild West. The number of guns in private hands is thought to have grown to as high as 310 million, even as recent surveys show that a record low of 32 percent of Americans own at least one of those firearms or live with someone who does, down from more than 50 percent in the late 1970s to early 1980s. Shootings in other countries also lead to debates over regulation. Switzerland, which combines a high gun ownership rate with a low homicide rate, began considering weapons-control measures in 2013 after mass shootings in consecutive months.

The Argument

The well-funded NRA and its allies argue that gun regulations only hurt law-abiding gun owners because criminals simply ignore them. They note that since Congress let a ban on assault weapons expire in 2004, violent crime in America has fallen significantly, while fatal and non-fatal shootings are also down slightly. Meanwhile gun-control advocates (some backed by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP) say limiting weapons will drive down gun-related crimes. Australia enacted strict gun ownership laws after a historic massacre that left 35 people dead in 1996; since, there have been zero mass shootings, and the firearms homicide and suicide rates have plummeted. An editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine said the level of gun violence in the U.S. amounts to a public health crisis; the left-leaning magazine Mother Jones calculated direct and indirect costs of $229 billion a year.

The Reference Shelf

  • Council on Foreign Relations report compares gun laws in the U.S. to those in other wealthy democracies.
  • Small Arms Survey compares rates of private gun ownership by country.
  • Data showing non-fatal gun-related crime falling from 1993 to 2011.
  • Report summarizing gun control laws in 18 industrialized countries and the European Union.

First published Oct. 2, 2013

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Esmé E Deprez in Los Angeles at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Lisa Beyer at