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Nothing perplexes the rest of the world so much as our stubbornly lax gun laws and our refusal to address the gun deaths epidemic. It seems that nothing — no matter how horrific — will lead to tighter restrictions on guns. Twenty first-graders gunned down at school in Connecticut? A lone gunman killing 58 people and wounding 869 in 10 minutes at a concert in Las Vegas? Seventeen students and staff murdered during classes in Florida?
And now, after two mass shootings Saturday that killed 31 people, the response is the same as before: thoughts and prayers. A day or two in an all-too-familiar news cycle. And at the end, nothing changes.
By contrast, when a gunman shot and killed 17 people at the Dunblane Primary School in Scotland in 1996, the British public demanded action. The government swiftly introduced sweeping gun control legislation. There has only been one mass shooting since.
In Britain, there are now about 0.06 violent gun deaths per 100,000 residents. By contrast, there are roughly 4.43 violent gun deaths per 100,000 residents in the United States. In other words, even after accounting for population differences, the gun homicide rate in the United States is around 73 times higher than the same figure for Britain. And partly because guns are much more effective weapons to kill, the overall intentional homicide rate in the United States is about 4.5 times higher than Britain’s homicide rate.
Republicans on Fox News over the weekend trotted out the same tired excuses: video games are to blame, they said. President Trump claimed it was all about mental health. Both explanations are absurd. After adjusting for population, video game revenues between the United States and Britain are roughly equal. And even though video game revenues are substantially higher per capita in Japan than in the United States, there are roughly 111 Americans killed in gun homicides for every Japanese homicide victim even after adjusting for population. Mental health and substance abuse disorders are slightly higher in the United States than in Britain and Japan, but not dramatically so, and certainly not 73 or 111 times higher.
There is, however, one variable that is dramatically different between the United States and these countries. There are an estimated 393 million civilian-owned guns in the United States. That translates to 1.2 guns for every man, woman, child and baby in America. It’s the highest rate of gun ownership in the world — and it’s not even close. Yemen, in second place, has about 1 gun for every 2 people. In Britain, there is roughly 1 gun for every 20 people and in Japan, it’s 1 gun for every 334 people.
The United States, home to around 4 percent of the world’s population, accounts for nearly half the civilian-owned guns in the world.
But it isn’t just the number of guns; it’s also what kind of guns and ammunition are legal and how you buy them. The shooter in Dayton, Ohio, who killed nine people in less than a minute, legally ordered his AR-15-style assault rifle online. He also bought a “double drum” magazine, allowing him to fire 100 rounds in the span of a matter of seconds without reloading. In most other developed countries, such semiautomatic assault-style weapons and ammunition magazines are banned. There are also several more hurdles to clear before buying a gun in every other developed country compared to the United States.
And yet, despite the relentless body counts piling up in movie theaters, food festivals, Walmarts, schools, synagogues, churches, offices, hospitals, bars and nightclubs, the Republican-controlled Senate refuses to even vote on a common-sense measure: requiring universal background checks before all gun purchases, without any loopholes. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is blocking a vote on that bill, even though 92 percent of Americans support that reform, including 89 percent of Republicans.
Will that measure prevent every gun death in the United States? Clearly not. But that reform, along with others — such as reintroducing the ban on assault-style weapons, banning large-capacity magazines such as the one used in Dayton, and requiring gun safety training — would go a long way in reducing deaths. We should also consider requiring licenses from those who wish to own a firearm as well as some form of reference system (such as the character references required in Canada or some form of mental health evaluation as is used in Germany, Austria, India, Brazil, Israel and Japan). A recent international study that examined the entire body of research on gun legislation found convincing evidence that gun safety legislation reduces gun-related deaths.
America has a gun deaths epidemic. If you add up all the U.S. soldiers who have died in every war in our nation’s history — from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War to World War II and the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — that number is still lower than the number of civilians who have died in gun-related incidents in the United States in the past 50 years.
Every other rich country on the planet has figured out how to reduce gun violence. It’s time we learned from them.
Brian Klaas is an assistant professor of global politics at University College London, where he focuses on democracy, authoritarianism, and American politics and foreign policy. He is the co-author of "How to Rig an Election" and the author of "The Despot's Apprentice" and "The Despot's Accomplice." Follow