The recent mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 people dead, has renewed debate around America’s epidemic of gun violence. Anti-gun campaigners and prominent Democrat lawmakers have called for a greater regulation of so called “assault” weapons such as the semi-automatic AR-15 used by the Parkland shooter. Others, including President Donald Trump, have suggested arming teachers to counter the tide of school massacres. While both of these arguments sound like simple solutions, neither of them come close to addressing the grim reality of the country’s relationship with firearms.
The United States has the world’s highest gun homicide rate amongst high-income countries, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with over 11,000 murders or manslaughters attributed to firearms in 2014. Crucially, however, only a tiny minority of these killings take place during mass shootings.
According to FBI data, Americans are far more likely to be murdered with a handgun than the semi-automatic rifles which have formed the focus of recent debate, with handguns being used in around two-thirds of all firearm murders in 2016. Meanwhile, handguns are far cheaper and more easily accessible than their larger cousins, available for as little as $200, and few American policymakers would dare suggest this be curtailed. Nevertheless, the reality is that regulations against “assault” weapons and rifles would do little to dent America’s increasing rate of firearms murders.
These figures also ignore the fact that the vast majority of gun deaths in the United States – almost two thirds – are the result of suicide. Of the 33,594 people who were killed by firearms in 2014, 21,386 deaths were cases of suicide, according to CDC data. This represents around half of all recorded suicides in the United States, and it’s a rate which has risen consistently over the last few years.
Between 2007 and 2014, the rate of teenagers and children killing themselves with firearms increased by 60 per cent, according to evidence from CDC. Another study reported in the American Journal of Public Health concluded that the ballooning suicide rates were being driven by easy access to firearms, particularly in the more heavily armed rural areas where suicides were an average of 35 per cent higher.
Considering the weight of statistical evidence, it seems obvious that America doesn’t have a school shooting problem, or a rifle problem – it has a gun problem. Armed teachers would have done little to prevent the deaths of 58 people at a concert in Las Vegas last year, and a ban on assault weapons would not have saved the thousands of people murdered by handguns, nor the tens of thousands who took their own lives.
Anti-gun campaigners face a formidable challenge ahead, as the National Rifle Association wield all their political might (including a $3m lobbying budget) to oppose even the most forgiving firearms regulations. However, if any progress is to be made in reducing America’s plague of gun violence, the true scale of the problem must first be recognised.