Gun violence statistics for the U.S. reveal that the handgun is, by far, the type of firearm most used to kill someone. Handguns are used in about 70 percent of all gun homicides with rifles and shotguns used in 7 percent and unknown firearms in about 25 percent. There were approximately 7,150 handgun homicides in 2016.
The U.S. is awash in handguns. Their numbers have been steadily increasing from an estimated 65 million in 1994 to about 111 million in 2015, an increase of around 71 percent.
Why so many handguns? My best guess is that many people believe that handguns provide some self-protection and they are readily accessible. It also seems that for many people handguns are just another adult, albeit dangerous, toy.
The right of individual Americans to possess firearms for their personal use was established by the Supreme Court in 2008 when it ruled (5 to 4) in its District of Columbia v. Heller case that a Washington, D.C., handgun ban was unconstitutional.
It appears that the court made their decision in the Heller case based only on their interpretation of the original intent of the Second Amendment without any apparent regard for citizens’ safety. (It is ironic that the state militias, which the Second Amendment was written to support, do not even exist now.) I believe the court erred in their decision.
If it can be shown that handguns do not, in general, provide protection, then banning their private ownership is not a violation of the Second Amendment. It is simply recognition of the fact that constitutional “rights” are not absolute. No private citizen should have a constitutional right to own weaponry that is specifically designed for killing people and is used to cause many senseless deaths each year. Banning the private ownership of handguns is very much analogues to making it a crime to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. They are both common sense limitations on certain constitutional rights.
The U.S. government has not conducted any thorough studies of gun violence for many years, apparently because the National Rifle Association vigorously opposes such legitimate government activities and the members of Congress usually support the NRA agenda. This is unfortunate because well-executed studies of gun violence could provide the kind of data that the Supreme Court would need to properly include safety issues in their deliberations of the legality of any future gun control laws.
Until our government decides to get serious about gun violence in the U.S., a simple look at homicide statistics in two very similar countries, the U.S. and Canada, can give us some appreciation for the danger handguns pose in our society.
In 2017, the U.S. and Canada had about 121 and 35 guns per 100 residents, respectively. The U.S. homicide rate in 2016 was 5.35 per 100,000 population while Canada’s was 1.7 per 100,000 population. To me, these homicide statistics clearly show that there is no overall personal protection associated with gun ownership. Since handguns account for approximately 70 percent of the gun homicides in the U.S., their elimination could bring our homicide rate down to a rate closer to other liberal democracies.
An often-overlooked danger associated with firearms in America is self-inflicted death. Each year gun suicides account for at least twice as many deaths as gun homicides.
Firearms are a particularly lethal method of self-harm. The fatality rate using a firearm to commit suicide is about 85 percent, while the fatality rate using other means is less than 5 percent. A surprising, but encouraging phenomena, is that the vast majority of people who survive a suicide attempt do not go on to die by suicide. This strongly implies to me that the demographic of American households whose only firearms are handguns would see a significant reduction in their suicide rate if handguns were banned.
Eliminating the private ownership of handguns in our country should reduce our homicide and suicide rates and save many lives each year. In the meantime, people need to ignore the NRA’s “stand-your-ground” and “only-a-good-guy-with-a-gun-can-stop-a-bad-guy-with-a gun“ nonsense and realize that during a hostile confrontation with another person, remaining non-aggressive and removing oneself from the situation is a much better way to remain safe than using a gun.
George Elliott of Bangor is an associate professor emeritus of electrical engineering technology at the University of Maine.