The recent debate over increased restrictions on firearm ownership has raised a number of questions. Most of us have made (or at least encountered) several arguments over the proposed changes to firearms regulations, and everyone seems to have opinions on whether having guns available to the public increases or decreases the frequency of violent crime. Activists on both sides of the issue will acknowledge that guns make killing easier, compared to other weapons used at an interpersonal range (including blades, blunt instruments, hands and feet, etc.), but the tension skyrockets as soon as someone expresses an opinion on the implications of that fact.
Although research shows that a gun in the household increases the likelihood that a resident of that household will die in a gun homicide, there are also a small percentage of cases (compared to yearly estimations of violent crime rates) in which would-be victims use guns in self-defense. I have observed during my own research that statistics linking violent crime rates and increased gun ownership are all over the place. Pundits on both sides of the issue have no trouble finding numbers that support their claims.
The question at the center of the gun control debate is whether or not there is something unique about guns, which makes them a greater hazard to innocent people than other weapons. Specifically, does the availability of a gun contribute to the likelihood that someone will get injured or killed, by accident or intent, more so than the availability of a knife, baseball bat, cudgel, sword, or any other relatively close-range weapon? While this is an important inquiry, and has received a considerable amount of media and research attention, I believe that if we want to get to the core of the issue, we need to get even more specific and ask something that is often glossed over. We need to ask if carrying a gun, by itself increases the likelihood that an individual with violent tendencies will commit a violent crime, more so than carrying another interpersonal-range weapon. In other words, we know that “guns don’t kill people, people do,” (for all that argument is worth), but how much does a gun influence the decision to kill?
Of course, this is an extremely loaded question. Many gun law opponents refuse to give it a moment’s consideration, most likely because they believe that asking it insinuates that carrying a gun, (or wanting to) inherently makes a person more violent, which is not only offensive, but also false. Regardless, the question requires close examination before anyone can develop an effective approach to gun law. The purpose of this post is to consolidate the evidence that killing with a gun requires less aggression and less psychological instability than killing with a knife or another interpersonal-range weapon. If true, this would mean that a potentially violent person is more likely to attempt or cause a violent death if they have access to a gun. The National Rifle Association (NRA) is so concerned about empirical research into this question that it has taken measures to prevent the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from researching gun violence. However, relevant evidence still exists. Let’s take a closer look at it.
Guns Make Killing Easier
The most obvious way in which guns are different from other weapons commonly used at a similar range is that, physically, they make killing very easy and efficient. They only require aiming and pull a trigger, which requires less effort (and significantly less risk of bodily harm) than any other comparable act of physical violence. If this essay were discussing any other topic than killing, it would seem obvious to assume that making an action easier will increase the likelihood that it will occur, and therefore its frequency. For example, the less security a valuable item has, the more likely a thief is to steal it, regardless of that thief’s commitment to following through with the theft. The easier a test is, the more likely a student is to pass it, regardless of that student’s commitment to learning. The more intuitive a puzzle is, the more likely a child is to solve it, regardless of that child’s intelligence. The easier an outdoor trashcan is to access, the more likely a pedestrian is to avoid littering.
And so on. The examples are endless. So why do we assume that a weapon that makes killing significantly easier and less risky than other weapons won’t result in more death, even in the hands of someone who isn’t as committed to killing as some other murderers? I believe the reason for this inconsistency is that the idea of deadly violence is steeped in mysticism, and many people believe that killing is a matter of good versus evil instead of a bell curve of violent tendencies throughout the population. Examining cultural notions of good and evil and how they skew our perceptions of violence is a topic that warrants its own essay. Since it’s beyond the scope of this one, I’ll move on.
Guns Make Killing Less Psychologically Traumatic
In addition to dramatically decreasing the physical effort and physical risk required to commit most murders, guns make killing more psychologically palatable. Let’s try a thought experiment to illustrate this point: Imagine that you needed to kill someone, either in self-defense, defense of a loved one, on a battlefield, or whatever other circumstances would be necessary for you to contemplate killing another human being. Would you rather wrestle the person to the ground and gouge their eyes out, stab them with a bayonet, impale them on a pike, or shoot them with a gun from a minimum of 10 feet away? If you’re like me (and most other people), you would probably hope that you had a gun available. If it were absolutely necessary to kill this person, the gun option seems the least visceral, the least nauseating, and by all accounts the least horrendous, even though the end result of causing another human being’s death doesn’t change.
The reason for this is that our natural resistance to committing homicide decreases with greater distance, both psychological and physical, between killer and victim. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman expands on this principle in On Killing. According to Grossman’s simple diagram illustrating this argument (shown below), killing with a pistol or rifle presents the least psychological resistance to killing than any other “close range” weapon. The far left of the diagram shows the closest possible proximity, “sexual range,” which would be required for the first option in our thought experiment above, presenting the most psychological resistance.
Of course, we all know from crime dramas and pop psychology that some humans don’t experience the same natural resistance to killing that the rest of us do. Some people have antisocial personality disorder, sometimes known as psychopathy, which is rare in its most extreme forms. However, most criminals do not fit the criteria for APD, so whether or not Grossman’s theory applies to those diagnosed is beyond the scope of this post.
Guns and Impulsive Murder
Another important note about the unique nature of guns is that they not only make killing easier, they make it faster. In other words, guns make instantaneous death a more likely outcome of violence. The below graphic from the Washington Examiner illustrates the overwhelming majority of murders in 2010 that were committed with guns as opposed to other weapons. I have argued that guns make killing easier, more efficient, and less risky than other close-range weapons do, both psychologically and physically, which is a likely reason for the prevalence of guns as a murder weapon. Another plausible factor is that victims of gun violence are more likely to die of their wounds than victims of violence that involves other weapons, whether murder was intended or not.
The decision to kill, just like any other human decision, is subject to impulse. Previous research indicates that most violent crime is not premeditated. In fact, it has been estimated that between 60 and 90 percent of violent crimes are committed impulsively. This contradicts the argument posed by some gun control opponents that choosing a gun instead of another close-range weapon merely reflects a violent criminal’s desire to kill. Since more violent crimes are impulsive than premeditated (which seems unsurprising if you believe in the bell curve of violent tendencies rather than the forces of good and evil), then most violent perpetrators do not “choose” their weapons at all. They merely attack with whatever is accessible, both intellectually and spatially, which is more likely to result in death if they have access to a gun.
If most violence is spur-of-the-moment, and most murder weapons are guns, then it’s likely that guns contribute to deaths that result from impulsive decisions more often than other comparable close-range weapons. Suicide is also frequenly a form of impulsive killing. According to research by Miller, Matthew, Hemenway, and David (2008), about 70 percent of suicide victims make the decision to kill themselves within an hour of the act. Furthermore, an overwhelming 90 percent of people who survive a suicide attempt do not die in a subsequent attempt, and instead go on to die of an unrelated cause. I have already argued that using a gun is easier, quicker, more appealing, and more efficient than other close-range weapons, and that gun wound victims are more likely to die of their injuries. Therefore, the evidence is strong that access to guns increases the risk of death for individuals with suicidal tendencies. This could explain why previous estimates have found that more than 50 percent of completed suicides are committed with guns in the Unites States.
Some gun law opponents argue that access to guns only increases the risk of suicide by guns, not the overall risk of suicide. However, this study from 1999 showed that suicide was the leading cause of death among a sample of recent firearm purchasers. Another study, a literature review by Miller & Hemenway, showed that the rate of suicide is higher among people who live in homes with loaded or easily accessible firearms. While the latter review does not examine the possibility that the availability of guns may affect the rate of attempted suicide, it does look at rates of successful suicides.
Guns and Accidental Death
If you accept the arguments presented so far, it seems intuitive why guns would cause more accidental death than any other close-range weapon. Although yearly deaths by accidental gun discharge are a popular topic in scientific literature, very little data is available for comparing accidental gun deaths with accidents involving blades, clubs, fists, or other close-range weapons. However, it is worth noting that guns are the only close-range weapon to make it into the top ten causes of accidental death for any age group (10 to 14 in 2010, 2007, and 2005, as well as 5 to 9 in 2007), according to this data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Although the purpose of this essay is to compare guns with other short-range weapons, I would like to bring up a popular rebuttal to the citation of yearly accidental gun deaths in the United States. Gun law opponents often compare statistics on gun accidents with the much greater prevalence of accidental deaths from more mundane risks, such as dying in an automobile accident or drowning, which are examples of national leading causes of accidental death by injury. Why don’t we regulate water and automobiles, too? They ask.
First of all, automobiles are already more tightly regulated than guns. Secondly, although automobile and drowning accidents cause more deaths per year than firearm accidents, things such as cars, water, and certain potentially toxic household substances are necessary for our society’s way of life. For better or for worse, we depend on these things, and they are useful more often than they are deadly. We do not depend on handguns or other firearms for any routine, practical purpose. Given their relative lack of utility compared to other potentially dangerous items, calling for more restriction on them than, for example, water, is reasonable.
Although the topic of gun violence is receiving copious amounts of media attention and focus in political discourse, an alarmingly small portion of the discussion even scrapes the surface of the psychological and physical factors that set guns apart from other interpersonal-range weapons. Even most media that advocates stricter gun laws glosses over the logic behind the focus on guns and what makes them more dangerous than other weapons. For a debate that centers on the role of firearms in accidents and violence, we desperately need a heightened focus in this area, since much of it is unintuitive and poorly understood.
The consolidated evidence in this essay shows that guns do require different regulatory treatment than other comparable weapons. The physical ease and efficiency required to kill with a gun, combined with its relative psychological accessibility, indicates a strong possibility that the availability of guns, more so than other weapons, can increase the likelihood and frequency of violent crime.
By increasing restrictions and regulations on guns, stricter gun laws could reduce the likelihood that individuals with violent or unstable tendencies will commit murder, as well as cut down on gun accidents. However, the current gun law proposals have a few flaws that cause me to doubt their potential to make a substantial impact on gun violence. They would probably be more effective –or at least better reasoned– with a stronger focus on handgun regulation, since most assaults are impassioned, one-on-one altercations. Another flaw lies in their hard stance on assault weapons, which is an easy target for critics who observe how few homicides are committed with rifles. Cracking down on assault weapons is unlikely to deter any of the isolated homicides that only require one bullet, especially when these individual deaths are more often the permanent result of a fleeting impulse than a calculated plot. We need to reframe the current gun control debate in terms that make more room for the core issues of whether or not guns are unique among other short-range weapons in their capacity to increase the likelihood of violence. That is, any violence, not just gun violence. Only then can this nation’s gun policies approach sustainability and balance.
Some Ending Remarks
This author does not dislike guns. In fact, like many United States residents, I have fond memories of learning hunter’s safety from my father and accompanying him to a local shooting range. I remember the swell of pride and sense of self-efficacy I felt the first time I hit the center of a paper target with a .22 caliber rifle, and the weighty sense of responsibility I felt the first time I fired a .44 caliber handgun. I do not seek to deprive my fellow citizens of these experiences, unless they must come with a burden of a higher rate of violence and a higher rate of death following violent assaults. I believe a happy medium exists that will allow us to use guns for recreation without them posing a disproportionate level of danger to their owners and the people around them. However, striking such a balance will require a paradigm shift in how we approach guns and gun violence.