The Big Picture
Gun control and drug policy are two areas where overwhelming empirical evidence shows that liberal policies on these issues would profoundly increase public welfare, and that conservative policies on these issues are deeply misguided and do profound harm without providing meaningful benefits to society.
The misguided status quo policies in the United States on these issues are also among the most important reasons that U.S. life expectancies are lower than in other developed countries. While the raw numbers of deaths caused by these policies is not extremely high relative to diseases that cause deaths, because they results in deaths of much younger people on average than other leading causes of death, their impact on U.S. life expectancies is outsized.
Weak gun control laws are a root cause of about 75-80% of the homicides and more than half of all suicides in the United States.
Insufficiently strong gun control laws cause about 30,000 more deaths per year in the United States than it would have if strong gun control laws were in place.
These preventable deaths take a particularly strong toll on people who are more than one year old and are not yet elderly, who otherwise tend not to die of "natural causes" and are the leading cause of death for children in the United States. These deaths disproportionately kill men and racial and ethnic minorities in the United States, especially black adolescent boys, and young black men. Deaths due to weak gun control laws also disproportionately kill young white men in the South and in rural America.
This is also the reason that the United States leads the world in its number of mass shootings. And, the evidence is overwhelming that widespread gun ownership does not meaningfully mitigate mass shootings that do occur, and does not prevent mass shootings. Instead, it makes them more common.
The criminal justice system does not deter mass shootings. They continue to occur, even though it is widely known that almost every mass shooter (98% of whom are men): (1) commits suicide, (2) dies in the act as law enforcement tries to shop him or arrest him, (3) is convicted of multiple murders and remains in prison for life (or in very rare cases is executed a decade or more later), or (4) is declared insane or incompetent and is involuntarily committed and never walks free again. Almost no mass shooters escape death shortly after or maximal criminal justice system punishments. The clearance rates for these cases is almost perfect. Because of this fact, the only way to reduce the number of mass shootings is to prevent them, and stricter gun control laws are well proven to greatly reduce mass shootings.
Consideration of homicides and suicides alone fails to consider the way that the pervasive threat of armed crime triggers excessive uses of force by law enforcement and the militarization of law enforcement, sometimes resulting in unjustified law enforcement killings, in legally unjustified killings by civilians claiming to be acting in self-defense, in justified law enforcement and self-defense killings that could have been prevented if guns were less widely available, and in riots causing mass property damage, injuries, and sometimes deaths. These circumstances claim hundreds of lives each year and also lead to hundreds of law enforcement deaths of each year.
Of course, this doesn't even begin to consider the harms associated with gun involved crimes such as non-fatal shootings, extortion, robberies, burglaries, and rapes that are committed with firearms. The rates at which these aggravated crimes would be committed would be significantly reduced if strict gun control were in place, although comparative crime rate studies suggest that the reductions would not be nearly as great as the reductions in the rates of homicides.
The evidence is also overwhelming that the widespread availability of armed self-defense does not significantly prevent crimes from taking place, or mitigate the harm associated with crimes. Instead, gun ownership increases the rate at which gun owners and non-gun owners alike are victims of crimes and commit suicide. Armed self-defense and armed defense of others does succeed, at least partially, in a tiny number of cases, but the benefits of armed self-defense in the rare cases where it is used are profoundly overwhelmed by the harms that widespread gun availability facilitates, even to people who are generally law abiding when they buy firearms who purchase them in good faith solely for the purpose of defending themselves, their homes, and their families.
Widely available firearms, by making crimes more serious, also drives mass incarceration in the United States, by turning people who otherwise would have committed less serious crimes into people who commit serious violent crimes. People serving long sentences for violent crimes make up a large share of all prison inmates and would make up a significantly smaller share of prison inmates in a world with strict gun control.
Weak gun control laws in the United States and the prohibition rather than regulation of controlled substances in the United States are also a leading cause of homicides and other gun crimes in Canada, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Strong gun control laws in the United States would save tens of thousands of lives each year elsewhere in the Americas.
The facts that countries with strict gun control laws like the U.K. and Japan have healthy democratic systems, that guns and threats of violence are increasingly being used to thwart the democratic process, and the results of comparative and historical studies of the impact of armed populations on tyranny and the democratic process, all soundly demonstrate that the political theory underlying the Second Amendment is profoundly incorrect as an empirical matter.
Unequivocal evidence clearly shows that the United States, and the Western Hemisphere more generally, would be profoundly better off if the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution were repealed, and the United States then adopted strict national gun control laws along the lines of those current in place in the United Kingdom and Japan.
In short, the Second Amendment is a suicide pact.
A policy towards illegal drugs and unauthorized use of prescription drugs that deals with drugs as a public health problem, rather than treating this as primarily a criminal justice problem would also greatly reduce ever rising number of drug overdose deaths in the United States. It would also profoundly reduce organized crime and gang activity and greatly reduce property crimes committed to fund illegal drug purchases. In the year 2021, 106,699 people in the United States died of drug overdoes (mostly of opiates), and this would be profoundly reduced if the United States instead took a public health approach to the problem. Perhaps 90% of these deaths could be prevented with better drug policies. This has been convincingly demonstrated in places that have shifted fully or partially from a war on drugs criminal justice approach to a public health approach to the problem of substance abuse such as France, Switzerland, and Portugal, and in places that have legalized recreational marijuana. The illegal drug trade that U.S. controlled substance laws facilitate also fuels organized crime worldwide, often making it a powerful rival to the civilian governments of the countries where it is present.
This post addresses many, but not all of the claims above, others of which have been addressed in previous posts at this blog.
Gun Control Laws Compared
The U.S. has the most lax gun control law in the world other than Ethiopia and Yemen (Switzerland is lax, but not as lax as the U.S., Yemen and Ethiopia are also more lax than they seems as Yemen is in the middle of a civil war and Ethiopia is the midst of a lower grade military insurgency).
The U.K. and Japan have the most strict gun control laws in the world, with Japan's regulation of guns being more strict and more effectively enforced, in part because the borders of the U.K. are more open to countries with less strict gun control laws. Japan also might tightly regulates bladed weapons than the U.K. does.
Homicide Rates Compared
How does this affect homicide rates in the respective countries?
The lion's share of the difference in homicide rates between the U.S., U.K., and Japan can be attributed to gun control.
Total Homicide Rates Per 100,000 people:
* U.S. 4.7 (74% involving guns)
* U.K. 1.17 (5% involving guns, i.e. 35 gun homicides per year).
* Japan 1.02 (less than 1% involving guns, i.e. 9 gun deaths including suicides and accidents per year).
Gun Homicide Rate Per 100,000 people:
* U.S. 3.48 (about 58 times as great as the U.K.)
* U.K.: 0.06 (more than 6 times more than Japan)
* Japan: less than 0.01 (more than 348 times less than the U.S.)
The U.S. would have about 11,300 fewer gun homicides per year if it had the U.K. gun homicide rate instead of its own.
More generally (involving slightly different rates due to age adjustments and data from different years):
Non-Gun Homicide Rates Per 100,000 people:
* U.S. 1.22 (21% more than Japan and 10% more than the U.K.)
* U.K. 1.11 (10% more than Japan)
* Japan 1.01
The U.S. would have about 363 fewer non-gun homicides per year (about one less homicide per day, nationwide) if it had the U.K. non-gun homicide rate rather than its own non-gun homicide rate.
Some of the difference in the non-gun homicide rate between the U.S. and the U.K. and Japan (but probably less than 10%), may reflect the inferior health care system of the U.S., which unlike the U.K. and Japan is not universal causing people who need emergency medical care to avoid hospitals.
Some of the difference in the non-gun homicide rate between the U.K. and Japan (but probably not more than 10%) may reflect stricter controls on bladed weapons in Japan than in the U.K.
The fact that the population of Japan is older than the populations of the U.K. and the U.S. may account for some of the difference.
Another factor may be greater economic inequality and higher poverty rates in the U.K. Economic inequality and poverty are higher in the U.S. than either the U.K. or Japan.
But, all other factors explaining the differences in homicide rates between these countries pale in comparison to gun control.
Mass Shootings Compared
Unsurprisingly, the U.S. also (almost) leads the world in mass shootings:
Mass shootings are a fairly modest share of all murders committed with guns in the United States (about 2.6%):
The Gun Violence Archive, an online database of gun violence incidents in the U.S., defines mass shootings as incidents in which four or more people are shot, even if no one was killed (again excluding the shooters). Using this definition, 513 people died in these incidents in 2020.
But mass shootings have a disproportionate impact on our public sense of security, because they are comparatively random and unpredictable.
There are no mass shooting in Japan, which has a population of about 125 million people.
The U.S. has:
about twenty-five times as many mass shootings per capita as the U.K.,
about twelve times as many as Italy,
about eight times as many as Australia,
about five times as many as Germany,
about three times as many as Canada,
about two and three-quarters times as many as Austria,
about two and two-thirds times as many as the Netherlands,
about two and a half times as many as France,
one and three-quarters times as many as Belgium,
about one point six times as many as the Czech Republic, and
33% more the Switzerland.
Finland actually has 80% more mass shootings per capita than the U.S., in part due to random variation in a very small number over a twenty-one year period in a country with a small population (and probably involves fewer victims per capita than the U.S.).
Per capita rates are also problematic and not as statistically significant in countries with only one mass shooting during a twenty-one year period when the country has a small population, where random chance at a given rate and "rounding error" type issues come into play.
Stricter gun control would also greatly reduce firearm suicides without corresponding increases in suicides from other causes.
According to the Pew Center:
In 2020, 54% of all gun-related deaths in the U.S. were suicides (24,292), while 43% were murders (19,384), according to the CDC. The remaining gun deaths that year were unintentional (535), involved law enforcement (611) or had undetermined circumstances (400). . . .
Nearly eight-in-ten (79%) U.S. murders in 2020 – 19,384 out of 24,576 – involved a firearm. That marked the highest percentage since at least 1968, the earliest year for which the CDC has online records. A little over half (53%) of all suicides in 2020 – 24,292 out of 45,979 – involved a gun, a percentage that has generally remained stable in recent years.
As noted by the Kaiser Family Foundation:
Variation in state-level suicide rates is largely driven by rates of suicide by firearm.
Suicides involving firearms vary from the lowest rate of 1.8 per 100,000 in New Jersey and Massachusetts to a high of 20.9 per 100,000 in Wyoming, representing an absolute difference of 19.1.
In contrast, the rate of suicide by other means is more stable across states, ranging from a low of 4.6 in Mississippi to a high of 11.4 in South Dakota, representing an absolute difference of 6.8. . . .
More than twice as many suicides by firearm occur in states with the fewest gun laws, relative to states with the most laws. . . .
Taking a look at suicide deaths starting from the date of a handgun purchase and comparing them to people who did not purchase handguns, another study found that people who purchased handguns were more likely to die from suicide by firearm than those who did not–with men 8 times more likely and women 35 times more likely compared to non-owners.
Non-firearm suicides rates are relatively stable across states suggesting that other types of suicides are not more likely in areas where guns are harder to access.
A study by the Harvard School of Public Health of all 50 U.S. states reveals a powerful link between rates of firearm ownership and suicides. Based on a survey of American households conducted in 2002, HSPH Assistant Professor of Health Policy and Management Matthew Miller, Research Associate Deborah Azrael, and colleagues at the School’s Injury Control Research Center (ICRC), found that in states where guns were prevalent—as in Wyoming, where 63 percent of households reported owning guns—rates of suicide were higher. The inverse was also true: where gun ownership was less common, suicide rates were also lower.
Stricter gun control laws in the U.S. would also significantly reduce homicide rates in Canada, the Caribbean, and Latin America, where a very significant share of all gun homicides are committed with guns smuggled into those countries illegally from the United States, where guns are easy to obtain.
For example, according to a July 2022 article, in "Ontario, Canada's most populous province . . . when handguns involved in crimes were traced in 2021, they were overwhelmingly - 85% of the time - found to have come from the United States. . . . 70% of all traced guns used in crimes in Ontario came from the United States, while so far this year the U.S. share has risen to 73%, according to the data from the Ontario police's Firearms Analysis and Tracing Enforcement (FATE) program."
A significant share of homicides in Latin America are also attributable to the trade in illegal drugs involving drug cartels and other forms of organized crime from Latin American to meet U.S. demand, which would be greatly reduced if those drugs were legalized but regulated in the United States.
Taking a global view, the six countries with the highest age-adjusted rates of firearm homicides are:
- El Salvador
Research has found high levels of homicides in these countries are associated with drug cartels, the illegal trade in firearms from the US, and firearms flowing to civilians after conflicts end, as summarized in the Global Burden of Disease study.
Thus, stricter gun control in the United States and more enlightened controlled substances laws in the United States would greatly reduce homicides almost everywhere in the Americas.
As an aside, the linked Global Burden of Disease study concludes that the drug trade and smuggled firearms from the U.S. have a much smaller impact on suicide rates in Latin America than these factors do on homicide rates there.
There is good reason to think that this is also true in Canada.