America’s Exceptional Gun Culture

Four reminders about just how entrenched guns are in American society.

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Though the issue has been largely on the political backburner for the last four years, last week’s tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut has already prompted a new push for gun control laws by the Obama administration and congressional Democrats. The president suggested in his speech in Newtown on Sunday that he would use "whatever power this office holds" to prevent similar events from happening in the future, and White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Tuesday that the White House would consider supporting congressional proposals for "common sense gun control measures like the assault weapons ban." (Even the National Rifle Association has pledged to make "meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.")

Such a push is likely to meet stiff resistance from Second Amendment advocates. But even if it passed, the United States would still be a major outlier when it comes to gun ownership and culture. As the following facts and figures from around the world make clear, when it comes to the right to bear arms, the Land of the Free is in a league of its own

The stockpile of civilian-owned guns in the United States dwarfs all other countries

According to the 2007 Small Arms Survey — the best, most recent study of the number of guns available in the world — civilians in the United States own roughly 270 million small arms, which is more than the next 17 countries combined (the runner-up on the list is India, with 46 million firearms. The rate of ownership in the United States — 90 firearms per 100 people — is also the world’s highest (again the runner-up, Yemen, is a distant second with 60 firearms per 100 people). The report notes that there are around 650 million civilian-owned firearms in the entire world, which means more than 40 percent of these are in the United States, and that about 4.5 million out of the roughly 8 million new firearms manufactured annually are purchased in the United States. Keep in mind that the United States represents less than five percent of the world’s population.

"Children in other industrialized nations are not dying from guns"

Gun violence is killing and injuring American children at an astoundingly high rate. In the United States, only car crashes and cancer claim the lives of more children between the ages of 5 and 14 than firearms, according to a 2002 study that appeared in the Journal of TraumaInjury, Infection, and Critical Care. "Children in other industrialized nations are not dying from guns," the authors wrote. "Compared with children 5-14 years old in other industrialized nations, the firearm-related homicide rate in the United States is 17 times higher, the firearm-related suicide rate 10 times higher, and the unintentional firearm-related death rate 9 times higher. Overall, before a child in the United States reaches 15 years of age, he or she is 5 times more likely than a child in the rest of the industrialized world to be murdered, 2 times as likely to commit suicide and 12 times more likely to die a firearm-related death."

The investigators also found a clear link between elevated levels of guns and child mortality rates across U.S. states, suggesting that more guns lead to more child deaths not only across international borders but also across the United States. Critically, the authors concluded that children living in states with large numbers of guns were not more likely to be victims of violence or suicide that did not involve firearms. Instead, the presence of guns makes possible a kind of violence that few young people could inflict on themselves or one another otherwise.

The United States is the gun-related murder capital of the developed world

In no other developed country do as many people die in gun-related homicides than in the United States. According to statistics compiled by the United Nations, 3.2 out of 100,000 Americans were killed by guns in 2010. As a frame of reference, consider that Japan, a country with one of the world’s most notorious mafias, the yakuza, has virtually eliminated gun-related homicides.

Of all the countries in the world, Honduras has the highest gun-related homicide rate, with 68.4 deaths for every 100,000 people. But Honduras, like its fellow Latin American countries Colombia (27.1 gun-related deaths for every 100,000 people) and Mexico (10 per 100,000 people), has been engaged in a brutal drug war against well-funded and well-armed cartels and gangs. These factors are not at play in the United States, which is vastly richer and has a significantly more effective state apparatus.

The United States is nearly alone in enshrining gun rights in its Constitution (sort of)

The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, in full, reads: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." Over time, this amendment has been interpreted as guaranteeing individuals the right to possess a wide variety of firearms and, in many cases, to be able to carry those guns concealed on one’s person or openly in a hip holster. U.S. courts have repeatedly upheld that interpretation, most recently in the 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller. In a 5-4 ruling, the justices struck down Washington, D.C.’s ban on handguns and rejected the notion that the Second Amendment permits individual gun ownership only for those participating in a "well regulated militia."

It is important to note that critics of the Heller ruling argue that it applies a distorted reading of the Second Amendment that deliberately removes the text from the context of its drafting. Many historians claim that the amendment was drafted in response to British efforts to disarm unhappy colonists, and that the maintenance of private arms was seen as an integral part of preserving the ability to muster a militia. In this reading, the Second Amendment does not protect the individual right to bear arms.

The Heller ruling places the United States within a decidedly small club of nations — alongside Guatemala, Haiti, and Mexico — that guarantee the right to bear arms in their constitutions. According to the United Nations, these countries also experience relatively high rates of firearm-related homicides. While data is unavailable for Haiti, the United States and Mexico both saw around 10,000 gun deaths in 2010, while Guatemala, a significantly smaller country with only 15 million people, witnessed 5,000 gun deaths. If easy access to guns is supposed to guarantee safety and reduce gun violence, the experiences of these countries simply don’t support that theory.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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