The aftermath of the Aurora, Colorado shootings has been thick with calls to avoid "politicizing" the tragedy. That is code, essentially, for "don't talk about reforming our gun control laws."
Let's be clear: This is a form of politicization. When political actors construct a political argument that threatens political consequences if other political actors pursue a certain political outcome, that is, almost by definition, a politicization of the issue. It's just a form of politicization favoring those who prefer the status quo to stricter gun control laws.
That said, it's important to be clear about what Aurora is: A tragedy that may or may not tell us anything useful about the general trends in guns and violence in the United States. And so this post is about those trends, some of which may surprise you.
1. America is an unusually violent country. But we're not as violent as we used to be.
Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke University, made this graph of "deaths due to assault" in the United States and other developed countries. We are a clear outlier.
As Healy writes, "The most striking features of the data are (1) how much more violent the U.S. is than other OECD countries (except possibly Estonia and Mexico, not shown here), and (2) the degree of change—and recently, decline—there has been in the U.S. time series considered by itself."
2. The South is the most violent region in the United States.
In a subsequent post, Healy drilled further into the numbers and looked at deaths due to assault in different regions of the country. Just as the United States is a clear outlier in the international context, the South is a clear outlier in the national context:
3. Gun ownership in the United States is declining overall.
"For all the attention given to America’s culture of guns, ownership of firearms is at or near all-time lows," writes political scientist Patrick Egan. The decline is most evident on the General Social Survey, though it also shows up on polling from Gallup, as you can see on this graph:
The bottom line, Egan writes, is that "long-term trends suggest that we are in fact currently experiencing a waning culture of guns and violence in the United States. "
4. More guns tend to mean more homicide.
The Harvard Injury Control Research Center assessed the literature on guns and homicide and found that there's substantial evidence that indicates more guns means more murders. This holds true whether you're looking at different countries or different state., Citations here.
5. States with stricter gun control laws have fewer deaths from gun-related violence.
Last year, economist Richard Florida dove deep into the correlations between gun deaths and other kinds of social indicators. Some of what he found was, perhaps, unexpected: Higher populations, more stress, more immigrants, and more mental illness were not correlated with more deaths from gun violence. But one thing he found was, perhaps, perfectly predictable: States with tighter gun control laws appear to have fewer gun-related deaths. The disclaimer here is that correlation is not causation. But correlations can be suggestive:
"The map overlays the map of firearm deaths above with gun control restrictions by state," explains Florida. "It highlights states which have one of three gun control restrictions in place - assault weapons' bans, trigger locks, or safe storage requirements. Firearm deaths are significantly lower in states with stricter gun control legislation. Though the sample sizes are small, we find substantial negative correlations between firearm deaths and states that ban assault weapons (-.45), require trigger locks (-.42), and mandate safe storage requirements for guns (-.48)."
6. Gun control is not politically popular.
Since 1990, Gallup has been asking Americans whether they think gun control laws should be stricter. The answer, increasingly, is that they don't. "The percentage in favor of making the laws governing the sale of firearms 'more strict' fell from 78% in 1990 to 62% in 1995, and 51% in 2007," reports Gallup. "In the most recent reading, Gallup in 2010 found 44% in favor of stricter laws. In fact, in 2009 and again last year, the slight majority said gun laws should either remain the same or be made less strict."