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U.S. Gun Violence and Gun Policy: A Generational Challenge

The U.S. compares unfavorably to virtually every other industrialized nation with respect to gun violence and domestic mass shootings. Many countries enjoy a high degree of personal freedom while tolerating many fewer guns in circulation (in absolute terms and per capita), and the number of guns in circulation correlates strongly with gun violence. Here are some comparative statistics from the Council on Foreign Relations:

Excerpt from CFR on Comparative Gun Violence

Excerpt 2 from CFR on Comparative Gun Violence

Read CFR's full article here.

Megyn Kelly sums up much of the frustration around this issue and some of the significant impediments to a quick legislative fix. I strongly recommend taking a moment for this short clip:

(Kelly does cite an apparently inflated statistic on school shootings. See WaPo's Fact Check)

Easier and Harder than We Think

It is constitutionally easier to regulate guns than many guns rights proponents believe, but harder to do well than many gun control proponents believe.

There is a popular misconception that the Second Amendment is a significant barrier to more restrictive gun policy. In DC v. Heller (2008), the U.S. Supreme Court's most definitive statement on the Second Amendment, the Court left considerable (if somewhat vague) latitude for the regulation of firearms under the Second Amendment.

United States Supreme Court

The Court was somewhat split on whether the Second Amendment really extends beyond the historical context in which it was written--in which informal state-based militias were a substantial aspect of the American security apparatus. The majority opinion concluded that there is an antecedent right to bear arms that inheres in each individual and that it encompasses a right to home self-defense. The dissenting (minority) opinion refused to concede that point. Both sides agreed, however, that reasonable restrictions in the name of public safety were permissible. The majority opinion mostly drew the line at outright bans on commonly-used home defensive weapons, but was careful to say that other types of restrictions might be acceptable.

Heller Decision Excerpt

States and localities continue to experiment with gun regulations and the Court has lately declined to take up challenges to them.


There is some logic (and apparent constitutional latitude) for banning military-style weapons. AR-15's, available commercially in semi-automatic, can be deadlier upon impact than many conventional weapons. But most of the shootings that have prompted this debate do not change substantially if the shooter had been limited to ordinary semi-automatic pistols. The AR-15 is accurate at extended range (300-500 meters), but most mass shootings don't rely on accuracy at such range--they are fundamentally about firing indiscriminately into crowds at so close a range that precision does not make a difference. AR-15's tend to have higher capacity magazines and are relatively easy to reload, but these weapons are also more cumbersome in close-quarters situations than if the shooter carried several smaller firearms with similar total capacity. Mass shooters seem to favor military-style weapons more for psychological reasons than any decisive advantage they lend in the contexts in which they are most often used. I say this as a caution to those who believe banning this one type of firearm would dramatically alter the situation we now face.

Similar caution is in order regarding restrictive regulations in general. Regulations at state/local scale are likely to be less effective because motivated persons can easily go outside of restrictive jurisdictions (the smaller the jurisdiction, the easier--think Chicago). But even if we regulate at the national level, we would still have the problem of the number of guns in circulation (credible estimates put this number around 300 million)--leaving it perhaps too easy for motivated criminals to obtain firearms and too prohibitive for law-abiding citizens to match them. We are not Australia--we have so many more people and weapons, plus an entrenched gun culture that would be deeply resentful of intrusive methods of confiscation. This is a real challenge going forward. It may take a generational effort to address it, but

(1) that is no excuse not to begin, and

(2) we get nowhere by pretending the issue is simpler than it is.

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