Most Britons view America's love of guns as, at best, tragically misguided and, at worst, criminally negligent. As we see it, there's an obvious connection between easy access to guns and high murder rates, and the solution is equally obvious: ditch the guns. That's long been my assumption too, despite my libertarian leanings.
Except I've started to think that things aren't so simple. The more I learn about the facts behind the gun debate, the more I'm starting to wonder if it's we in Britain who are getting the wrong end of the stick. The first problem is that ditching the guns is pretty much impossible, practically speaking. There are 300 million guns in circulation in the US and no good ideas about how to dent that number. Gun amnesties and buybacks have been tried without much success.
The number of guns in circulation may rise if there was any serious attempt at reining in gun rights – as gun purchases do whenever this gets discussed. Many gun owners would be unwilling to hand in their weapons even under threat of prosecution, preferring to hide them away. No proposal to ban guns is serious if it does not reckon with a world where hundreds of millions of guns are still in circulation, but now only held by people who are willing to break the law.
The other impracticality is a political one: the Second Amendment has been interpreted by successive Supreme Courts as providing an expansive defence of gun rights. This is a little confusing to non-lawyers like me (as well as plenty of real lawyers), because the text refers to the necessity of "a well regulated militia". But my impression doesn't matter. The court's rulings cannot be overturned by anything but a constitutional change, which is inconceivable, or a gradual shift in the make-up and rulings of the Supreme Court itself.
That's why the debate in America is far from where most Britons think it should be – it is simply not realistic, practically or politically, to expect that guns can be banned any time soon, and so the debate in America is over much more fine questions: how long should you have to wait between buying a gun and receiving it? What sort of background checks should would-be gun owners have to go through? Are concealed carry laws a boon to criminals or to their potential victims? What is the right balance between the freedom to own a gun and the freedom not to be threatened with one? These are questions to which there are no easy answers.
Suppose the practical issues did not really apply, though. Then it's a shoo-in – if we could somehow pass British-level gun laws, we should. Well, maybe not.
Mass shootings of civilians are the most appalling aspect of easy access to guns in the US. And they seem to be becoming increasingly common. But they should not be the focus of the gun debate: they account for less than 1% of homicides in the US and, as Eugene Volokh, professor of law at UCLA, points out, mass shooters (who usually plan their attacks well in advance) are the least likely to have their access to guns restricted by tighter gun laws. Just as importantly, though, quite a few mass shooters have been stopped by gun owners before killing more people, though these are rarely reported abroad.
What about conventional murders? It's true that, on average, states with tighter gun laws have lower gun crime rates. But this measure is too simplistic. Before we compare Missouri and California, or Vermont and Maryland, we have to factor in the other differences between these states. To illustrate: Vermont actually has very loose gun laws and a very low murder rate; Maryland has very tight laws and a very high murder rate – but is also home to some extremely deprived cities, including Baltimore, setting of TV series The Wire. We need to compare like with like.
We also need to remember that it's total murders that matter, not just gun murders – if cutting gun murder rates just raises knife murder rates, there's no benefit.
And researchers who have done these things, comparing cities across different states to see how gun laws affect those cities, have found there really isn't much benefit to tight gun laws at all. A 1993 meta-study, looking at all the studies already conducted, found that generally gun control laws don't affect gun prevalence rates, and most gun control laws have no impact on violence rates overall.
So what accounts for America's brutal murder rate? In this regard, the US is a true outlier in the developed world, because in other countries there is little relationship between high levels of gun ownership and high murder rates.
Some European countries such as Norway, Germany and Finland have ownership rates of between 30,000 and 39,000 guns per 100,000 people, well below America's rate of 112,600 guns per 100,000, but without anywhere near the same murder rates as America. Other countries like Russia and Poland have very low gun ownership rates but very high murder rates – indeed Russia has only 4,000 guns per 100,000 people, 28 times lower than the US, but a murder rate of nine per 100,000, nearly twice as high as the US.
Between US states, while there is a correlation between gun ownership rates and gun murders, there is also a correlation between gun ownership and non-gun murders too. That latter fact suggests the causation may run backwards – high murder rates drive people to buy more guns. And there is no relationship at all between the strictness of gun control laws and murder rates. We don't know exactly why America is so violent for a developed country, but it just doesn't seem to be guns – urban poverty and social instability seem to cause violence more than gun laws or gun ownership rates.
Intriguingly, one economic historian has argued that the decline of violence in Europe between 1200AD and the present day is most closely linked to the rise in firearm ownership. When new technologies made guns more effective or cheaper, there were sharp falls in the homicide rate. As guns spread, "the physically strong could no longer feel confident of domination over the weak. ... The handgun was the ultimate equalizer".
Put together, this all makes me think the reason for America's high levels of violence is much less clear than I used to assume. Actually, the argument against guns that persuades me the most is that higher gun ownership seems to be a risk factor for suicide, though an as yet unclear one.
Would I want handguns in Britain? No, probably not. If I could push a button to make all the guns in America disappear, I probably would. It's not obvious to me that the gun control measures being put forward by the Obama administration are a bad idea, but neither is it obvious that they're a good idea. There are people on both sides of the debate here who recognise that these are not easy questions.
In this respect, at least, it is the Americans who have the more mature attitude towards the gun debate. Britons who think the solution is obvious, as I once did, just haven't been paying attention.