Gun control numbers tell it all. When the world looks at the United States, it sees a land of exceptions: a time-tested if fragile and noisy democracy, a crusader in foreign policy, and an exporter of beloved music and film. But there is one quirk that consistently puzzles America’s fans and critics alike. Why, they ask, does it experience so many mass shootings?
Perhaps, some speculate, it’s because American society is unusually violent, or its racial divisions have frayed the bonds of society. Or, perhaps, its citizens lack proper mental care under a health care system that draws frequent derision abroad.
These explanations share one thing in common: Though seemingly sensible, all have been debunked by comparative research with shootings elsewhere in the world. An ever-growing body of research consistently reaches the same conclusion.
The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.
Americans make up about 4.4 percent of the global population but own 42 percent of the world’s guns. From 1966 to 2012, 31% of the gunmen in mass shootings worldwide were American, according to a 2015 study by Adam Lankford, a professor at the University of Alabama. Adjusted for population, only Yemen has a higher rate of mass shootings among countries with more than 10 million people. It is interesting to note that Yemen has the world’s second-highest rate of gun ownership, after the United States. Worldwide, Mr. Lankford found, a country’s rate of gun ownership correlated with the odds it would experience a mass shooting.
This relationship held even when he excluded the United States, indicating that it could not be explained by some other factor particular to his home country. And it held when he controlled for homicide rates, suggesting that mass shootings were better explained by a society’s access to guns than by its baseline level of violence.
If mental health made the difference, then data would show that Americans have more mental health problems than do people in other countries with fewer mass shootings. But the mental health care spending rate in the United States, the number of mental health professionals per capita and the rate of severe mental disorders are all in line with those of other wealthy countries. In addition, a 2015 study estimated that only 4 percent of American gun deaths could be attributed to mental health issues.
Americans sometimes see their gun violence as an expression of deeper problems with crime. But the United States is not actually more prone to crime than other developed countries, according to a landmark 1999 study by Franklin E. Zimring and Gordon Hawkins of the University of California, Berkeley. Rather, they found, in data that has since been repeatedly confirmed, that American crime is simply more lethal. A New Yorker is just as likely to be robbed as a Londoner, for instance, but the New Yorker is 54 times more likely to be killed in the process. They concluded that the discrepancy, like so many other anomalies of American violence, came down to guns.
In 2013, American gun-related deaths included 21,175 suicides, 11,208 homicides and 505 deaths caused by an accidental discharge. That same year in Japan, a country with one-third America’s population, guns were involved in only 13 deaths. This means an American is about 300 times more likely to die by gun homicide or accident than a Japanese person. America’s gun ownership rate is 150 times as high as Japan’s.
The United States is one of only three countries in the world, along with Mexico and Guatemala, that begin with the assumption that people have an inherent right to own guns. In the rest of the world you have to earn the right to own a gun.
The main reason American regulation of gun ownership is so weak may be the fact that the trade-offs are simply given a different weight in the United States than they are anywhere else.
After Britain had a mass shooting in 1987, the country instituted strict gun control laws. So did Australia after a 1996 shooting. But the United States has repeatedly faced the same problem, and determined that relatively unregulated gun ownership is worth the cost to society. That choice, more than any statistic or regulation, is what most sets the United States apart.
“In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate,” Dan Hodges, a British journalist, wrote in a post on Twitter two years ago, referring to the 2012 attack that killed 20 young students at an elementary school in Connecticut. “Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.”
I have to ask if this is the legacy we wish to leave out children?