Data and morality support the need for gun control

The United States already has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world. There are about 89 guns per 100 citizens, and in 2011, 34 percent of adults owned a gun and 47 percent of adults live with a gun in the house. The United States also ranks eleventh worldwide in total firearm-related deaths, with not a single country ahead of us categorized as “developed” by the United Nations. Given this data, how is there any reasonable expectation that giving even more guns to Americans will somehow lower the rate of firearm-related deaths?

The reason that there is a debate over this issue in the first place is because we all recognize that America has a problem: lots of people die from guns. We disagree on how best to solve this problem because the data we have is mixed, confusing, and ultimately unclear. We cannot pinpoint why America has such a culture of violence; does it stem from our past, violent video games and movies, some combination of factors, or something we haven’t even considered? Given a complete lack of compelling evidence for any action, it seems unwise to jump to the conclusion that we need more of what’s causing the problem in the first place.

The catchphrase supporting this policy seems to be that “the best way of stopping a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” This is not supported by evidence. We have no idea how many times a year Americans actually defend themselves with guns; estimates seem to suggest anywhere from 25,000 times to 250,000 times. In fact, some studies suggest that we defend ourselves 2.5 million times a year, although the consensus on that study, run by Gary Klick, is that his methodology resulted in a gross overestimate, and should be closer to 250,000 times per year. It is estimated that, of these, about a fifth is made up of police officers defending themselves (at least between 1987 and 1990). However, we know that in 2009, 66.9 percent of homicides were committed with a gun. We know that two thirds of all suicides in the country are caused by guns. So why are some of us so eager to hand out more guns when we have no idea how that will affect our gun-violence problem?

While the data certainly does not support increasing gun ownership, the morals of doing so also concern me. Martin Luther King Jr. has an excellent quote that can be applied directly to the issue of guns; I am quoting in full because I believe that to take only an excerpt would not do it justice:

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Honestly, we don’t know whether giving everyone guns would solve the problem of gun violence. But even if it did, is that really the best we can do? This country claims to be a moral compass for the world, but the best way we can answer violence is with violence? This country claims to have some of the brightest minds on the planet, and the best we can do is give our citizens sticks to beat off the other citizens with sticks? This country spends more on defense than the next 19 nations combined, but we can’t convince our citizens not to kill each other? Must we truly resort to such a band-aid approach, such a brute-force solution? Why can’t this country, with all of its wealth and brilliance, move forward in an effort to find and address the roots of this problem? Why don’t we fix the disease, instead of just attempting to mask the symptoms?

Most political issues evoke my passion for one side or the other. It drives me crazy that we’re not doing enough for education, we’re ignoring the poor, and that Wall Street gets away with its white-collar crimes. Yet, on most issues, both sides have at least some value in their position. I really do believe, perhaps naively, that the vast majority of politicians and citizens honestly do want to make this country a better place; they just disagree on how to do it. But when I hear people tell me that the way to fix gun violence is to hand out guns to everyone, it just makes me sad. It makes me sad because I’m hearing from that person that they’ve given up on finding a real solution. They’re telling me that they don’t believe that we can figure out how to fix what appears to be a cultural problem. They’re telling me that, even in the absence of evidence, they’re willing to throw violence and fear at a problem that is, quintessentially, one of violence and fear. As a people, I have to believe that we are better than that.

Dean about 11 years ago

Right, we should apply the same limits on the other Rights as a litmus test. We can use the limits imposed on gun owners to make public lists of registered voters, journalists, and force religious groups to be fingerprinted before exercising freedom of religion. After all, we need to fix these problems with new laws instead of asking moral and social questions about ourselves.

John about 11 years ago

While this title asserts "data and morality" supporting gun control, I dispute the conclusions on both.

First, we note that the US has higher rates of gun deaths than other developed nations. This is true - however, this ignores the fact that more than half of these are suicides. It is likely that more guns means more gun suicides. However, there is no logical connection between gun ownership and total suicide - one need only to look at Japan, with virtually no gun ownership yet double our suicide rate, to see that. Focusing on gun deaths, rather than total deaths (suicide or crime) is politically convenient, but irrelevant.

For defensive gun use - it may be that the Klick study highballs the number, but not as much as you claim. You've neglected the '94 study conducted by the DOJ, which settled on 1.5 million uses of guns for self-defense per year. As this was used by the Clinton administration during the push for the '94 Assault Weapons Ban (a law which had no effect on crime), I would argue that this is a good estimate (a study by a group pursuing a gun ban can hardly be said to overestimate).

Next, we turn to the morality, with a quote from MLK. It is true that MLK argued for nonviolence; however, it is also the case that he sought a pistol permit following threats made against his family. This is not inconsistent - while MLK advocated peace, he had no intention of being a sacrificial lamb for the cause. Notably, King's application was denied by the local sheriff illustrating the historical aim to disarm the poor and disenfranchised. Indeed, the first gun-control laws in the US sought to disarm freed blacks after the Civil War; following that, the largest gun law of the 20th century (the '34 National Firearms Act) tacked on a $200 tax on many firearms. While this seems small today, at the time it was an increase of 100 in gun price - pricing many out of gun ownership. Effectively, such ideas are for the 2nd amendment what poll taxes are for voting rights.

We close with an idealistic, but intensely naive appeal to morality. True, the MIT community may consider itself "better than that." That does not change the fact that there are, and always will be, those who will stoop to violence. As for "diseases and symptoms," crime has always been driven by poverty. The US has significantly higher rates of poverty and wealth inequality than the developed nations we are usually compared to - gun violence is the symptom, not the cause.