Everything You Know About the Gun Control Debate is Wrong


Every time there’s a mass shooting, or a noteworthy event that makes it into the mainstream media involving gun violence the response is almost visceral, but certain.

First, the “gun rights” advocates and their NRA pushers take to the editorial pages and the airwaves to head off any talk about gun control. Even the most rational and universally accepted reforms like a national background check, is vociferously decried as an attempt to “ban guns” because, you know, Obama! We get references to Hitler confiscating guns (he didn’t) and reference to tyranny and the unquestioned position that gun ownership is a requirement for freedom (it isn’t).

After all, gun rights advocates claim, if you make gun ownership illegal (almost nobody is advocating this) then only criminals will have guns. You are, essentially, creating millions of walking victims, unarmed, unable to defend themselves. If you want proof, just look at how many mass shootings take place in “gun free zones.” Criminals are targeting gun free zones because they know their victims will be unarmed. If we just let anybody carry a gun anywhere they wanted, the nation would be perfectly safe.

This last claim is the most recent, and one of the most successful I’ve seen in a long time. Claims makers have convinced a significant part of the population that there are roving bands of psychopaths trolling our cities looking for “Gun Free Zone” signs and saying, “Aha! Now’s my chance!” It doesn’t matter that the “more guns, safer society” mantra is bogus by virtue of any empirical evidence. It sounds right. People need their guns to protect them from the bad guys. The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

On the other end of the political spectrum we have the gun control advocates. Now I would make the claim that all of us are gun control advocates to greater or lesser extents, but that’s a post for another day. Gun control, according to this group, is necessary to keep guns out of the hands of the bad guys. We have to find a way to make sure that mentally unstable people are not able to get guns (which isn’t quite the problem that is made out to be) and those with criminal backgrounds can’t make use of loopholes to bypass the law.

So we continue to argue ad nauseum and make no progress in dealing with the underlying problems.

But what if the universal identification of the archetypal “bad guy” is simply not true? Shouldn’t that reshape the argument? Will it? Because it turns out that the so-called bad guys, the growing (they aren’t) numbers of armed sociopaths walking the streets waiting for someone to kill, just isn’t the problem. Yes, there are bad guys, some of whom have guns. There are mentally unstable people, a small minority of whom have guns, but it turns out that most of this country’s gun homicides are committed by much more boring people than that.

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report reveals that most of the perpetrators shooting others are simply people who are angry. The UCR has some expansive and valuable insights on this, but I’ve narrowed it down to just a few points of interest below.

[Note: This chart is updated from the original. The original included data from 2012. This is more recent, but the overall argument remains unchanged. Data from the FBI Unified Crime Report

Here I separated out the top circumstances underpinning gun homicides in the United States. At left in red is a comparison between gun homicides committed in the context of a felony and non-felonies. At right in blue is a breakdown of selected non-felony related homicides. I left out the categories that were not identified. The bar labelled “Arguments” is a combination of “Arguments over money or property” and “Other arguments.” (It’s certainly no surprise that a significant number of people are killed in the conduct of a robbery, narcotics or gang related activity. Surprisingly, the number of people killed as a result of an argument is much higher than all those killed during the commission of a felony. [Note: Italicized sentence is an update related to the updated chart]

Most gun homicides, in other words, are not committed by so-called “bad guys” or predators. They are committed by our next door neighbors in disputes about returning a borrowed hand tool, or someone’s dog relieving themselves on another’s lawn. Even something as interesting as homicides as a result of a love triangle rarely happens–only 63 cases in 2012. Most gun homicides, and homicides in general, for that matter, are committed by normal, every day people who get angry. Certainly there’s a combination of factors involved.

Well, this changes the discourse, or at the very least, it should. If the problem is bad guys, then the debate revolves around two possibilities–arming the good guys and disarming the bad guys. Unfortunately, the problem is just normal people who react in spontaneous and irrational ways as a response to anger. That is a bid more complex and doesn’t make for simple memes that can flow around social media.


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