Guns in America

By | Updated Feb 3, 2017 6:33 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 33,000 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

The pro-gun side got a boost in 2017 with an ally, Donald Trump, in the White House and restrictions-averse Republicans controlling both houses of Congress. Congressional Republicans in February began the process of rescinding a rule made by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, aimed at preventing people with serious mental-health problems from buying guns. Obama issued the executive order in 2016 as part of a series aimed at reducing gun violence. Notably, the orders expanded the definition of gun sellers who must conduct background checks on potential purchasers. A Congressional bill to more thoroughly expand background checks was defeated in a momentous vote in 2013, after a massacre the year before at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Obama’s orders were seen by gun-control advocates as a weak alternative to such legislation. Even so, they are unlikely to survive a rollback campaign by Republicans. Gun rules are largely determined by the states. In recent years, states led by Democrats have expanded bans on assault weapons. 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 also declined. 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 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 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.
  • Mother Jones calculates gun violence costs the U.S. $229 billion a year.

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