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Going off the rails with the Second Amendment: Its the assault weapons, stupid

What makes the United States such a violent country?

The incontrovertible conclusion about American violence is that we have far and away the highest number of mass killings in the world and those killings are taking place at the hands of attackers with assault weapons.
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Welcome to Part 5 of my series and about the Second Amendment and gun violence in the United States. In the previous four parts I explored the history, nature, legal realities and surrealities of the Second Amendment itself. You can go back and look at that here if you’d like.

The short story regarding the Second Amendment is that it was NOT meant to bestow the individual right to own a gun in the United States. The Second Amendment was about creating and maintaining State Militias and equipping them for the common defense. Primarily the Amendment was about reassuring slave states that Federal government wouldn’t interfere with their ability to suppress slave rebellions. Over the centuries the historical and legal realities of the Second Amendment have diverged. Contrary to the historical reality, the legal reality is that the Second Amendment currently guarantees some individual rights to own guns. However the exact nature of those rights and what kinds of guns they may apply to remains murky.

It’s important to understand the real nature of the second amendment because it may ultimately determine whether we succeed or fail to control gun violence in America. A broad ruling that gun restrictions are unconstitutional could put assault weapons in the hands of mass murderers for decades to come. We await the rulings of the future with our fingers crossed. In the meantime we turn our attention to the carnage assault weapons have unleashed upon us.

For decades Americans have debated the nature and causes of national crises from Watergate to welfare. One of the most enduring and vitriolic debates of recent decades has been the nature and causes of violence and gun violence. In the 1960s and 70s the U.S. started experiencing a number of crime waves and horrific individual acts of violence. Predictably this trend provoked battle after battle in an ongoing war of words concerning gun control. Recent episodes of savagery at the hands of gun wielding maniacs have stunned the nation yet again and triggered a fresh debate about gun control and violence. Unfortunately the nature and capacity of public discourse in the United States has degenerated to the point where simply recognizing the true nature of a national problem has become nearly impossible. What exactly is the nature and scope and of the gun problem in America? Are we just a violent nation that happens to have a lot of guns? Do the guns make us more violent than other societies? Unless we get a handle on the actual nature of the problem we cannot hope make any reasonable public policy that addresses it.

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Evaluating the level and nature of violence in the United States and comparing it to other countries or regions is actually a very complex proposition. There are a number of variables any statistical analysis must contend with, some are easily isolated and controlled for and others aren’t. The 2012 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime collects data on a yearly basis and reports it. However UNODC points out that things like intentional homicide rates can be complicated by a nations standards and even their health care systems. For instance an affluent country may have lower homicide rates simply because it has better emergency medical services that a poorer country. This can create the illusion based on homicide rates that one country is less violent than another simply because fewer people actually die as the result of homicide attempts. When evaluating violence and gun violence it’s important to compare apples and apples as best as we can, which means looking at studies that control for population and other variables, you can’t just look at raw numbers.

Is the United States a violent country?

Many Americans might be surprised to learn that the United States is not the most violent country in the world. According to data collected by the United Nations, the US Center for Disease Control, and the FBI, the United States is actually not a particularly violent country. Many Countries are far more violent, and many are less violent. A recent British study looking 34 comparable countries found that amongst six categories of violent crime (intentional homicide, rape, robbery, assault causing serious bodily harm, burglary, and vehicle theft) the United States does not rank number one in any category. In fact in the category of assault and car theft the United States Ranked behind 16 and 12 other countries respectively. In this particular study Scotland had he highest rates of assault… go figure. A larger United Nations study looking at intentional homicides found that the United States ranks 109 out of 193 (just about in the middle). The intentional homicide rate in the United States is 4.8 per 100,000. The dubious 1st prize go to Honduras with stunning rate of 91.6 per 100,00. The lowest Homicide rates belong to Manaco and Palau with 0 per 100,000. Are there even 100,000 people in Palau?

What do guns have to do with violent crime rates? It’s actually surprisingly difficult establish a connection between something like gun ownership rates and violent crime. The United State by far has the highest rate of guns per capita than any other country in the world. Its estimate that the United State has around 270 million guns in civilian hands, that’s 89 guns for every 100 people in the country. The Next closest countries are Serbia and Yemen with around 50 guns per 100.

gun ownership chart

Source: Wikipedia

However despite all of our guns we do not have the highest violence crime, homicide, or even homicide with gun rates. The United Kingdom with a gun ownership rate that’s a fraction of ours (.07 per 100) has by some measures a violent crime 400% higher than the United States at 2,034 per 100,000 vs. 466 per 100,000. If we narrow our examination down to actual homicides committed with guns no real pattern emerges. The United States has around 3 gun homicides per 100,000. It may not be surprising that the United Kingdom with a fraction of a fraction of the number of guns only has .07 gun homicides per 100,000. However Venezuela has 39 gun murders per 100,000 despite having a much lower rate of gun ownership (about 10 per 100) than the US, although not as low as the UK. You can find a really cool interactive version of this map here.

map of gun homicides

Source: Datablog

There are some technical problems associated with these comparisons but it seems clear that it’s hard to draw reliable statistical connections between the sheer number of guns in the United States and our violent crime or homicide rates. Granted our rates are higher than those in Europe but given the fact that we have almost 90 times the number of guns per capita it’s kind of amazing the rates aren’t much much higher. I’m not saying everything is peachy, it would be better if we had less violence and homicides no matter how low our levels are. It is somewhat encouraging to note that both our rate of gun ownership and violent have been decreasing in recent years. Nevertheless it’s not entirely clear that our violent crime rates would significantly drop unless we get rid of 99% of our guns, and even then the results would not be guaranteed. Brazil has one ninth our number of guns per capita yet 70% of their homicides are committed with guns and they have six times as many of those homicides. Welcome to the Olympics by the way. Some comparisons seem contradictory, Sweden has 30 times the number of guns compared to the UK but actually has a smaller rate of gun homicides.

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There are some studies that look at American cities and compare states within the US, but no real clear pattern emerges with dramatic results. The states with the most guns per capita are not the states with the highest gun homicide rates for instance.

Undoubtedly the number of guns floating around in a population tends to increase the amount of gun violence as a general rule although maybe not as dramatically as might be assumed; it’s a question of degree. While the United States may not have the highest violent crime rates, the sheer number of guns in the United States creates real problems. Any significant reduction in gun violence might require far more drastic measures than anyone is currently or has ever contemplated. In order to get down to European levels of homicide we might have to get more than 250 million guns out of American hands, good luck with that, and there’s no guarantee that it would work. It’s possible that even if we reduced gun ownership by 90% we could still have the same homicide rates in the United States. Note: there is absolutely no data anywhere that indicates that putting more guns in more hands will decrease gun violence or homicides. There isn’t a single country in the world that has more guns than the United States and lower homicide rates. If more guns in more hands with less regulations decreased gun violence Louisiana wouldn’t have the highest homicide rate in the country. We can say with a lot of confidence that more guns means more gun violence with a few exceptions, we just can’t reliably predict how much more violence. Conversely it’s difficult to predict how much gun violence would decrease along with decreases in gun ownership.

While the nature of over-all gun violence and its relationship to gun ownership is too complex to succumb to simple analysis, there is one body of data and information regarding American gun violence that is absolutely clear and unambiguous.

Assault weapons and mass shootings

If we redirect our attention from “guns” in general and gun violence in general towards a specific kind of gun and gun violence, the fog of complexity lifts and we are left with the sight of a clear and present danger.

The United States has far more mass shootings and fatalities from mass shooting than any other country in the world, and those shooting are primarily committed with assault weapons. Despite only having 4.5% of the world’s population more or less over the last 87 years, the United States accounts for 33% of all mass killings by a single individual. The US has had more children killed in school attacks than the rest of the world combined and accounts for 50% of the world’s workplace mass killings. The United States has had 75% of all the mass shootings in this hemisphere. No country or region has a higher rate of these attacks or killings than does the United States.

Although the records we’re referring to here go back to 1925 the era of mass attacks by individuals clearly began in the US in 1966 with University of Texas attack by Charles Whitman. Whitman killed 14 people on campus and two off campus while wounding 32. If we graph school shootings going all the back to 1764 (Using the School Shooting Wikepedia as our source of information) the pattern is unmistakable: (click on the image to see a larger version)

school shooting chart

As you can see from 1966 onward we entered an era of school shootings that increase in frequency after 1989. The number of fatalities and casualties also begins to increase in 1989. That event in 1764 was part of an Indian war, and the event in 1927 was actually a dynamite attack by a disgruntled school accountant. If we were to remove those the pattern would be even more striking.

So what happened in the early 1960s? What accounts for the high number of casualties and fatalities? Obviously this is a complex development but one element we can identify is the introduction of military style assault weapons into civilian population. Whitman climbed up into that clock tower on the University of Texas carrying a small arsenal of guns, two of which were military weapons (an M-1 carbine and a Luger pistol). Thereafter as the frequency and body count increase so does the presence of assault weapons. 71% of the attacks involving 5 or more fatalities involve assault weapons. After 2001 all but one attack involving 5 or more fatalities involves an assault weapon.

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What is an assault weapon? The definition I’m working with is as follows: An assault weapon is any 20th century weapon designed for military combat or derived from such a design. Most of the assault rifles for instance are derived from the WWII German MP44 or the American M-1 Garand. I also include clip fed semi-automatic pistols most of which descend from the 1911 Colt 45 that was designed as a military side arm.

Couldn’t these killings take place without these weapons? In most cases the answer is simply: “no”. While the original attack in 1966 didn’t rely heavily on assault weapons by the time we see that spike in late 80s attackers are relying on assault weapons to kill as many people as possible in a short time. Couldn’t attackers kill people with pencils and knives? Sure, and they could attack people with their thumbs as well, but they wouldn’t kill very many people.

We actually have data on this: Since 1995 there have been 21 attacks on schools in China. The total fatalities thus far amount to 59. The highest fatality count in any single attack was 12 and in 11 of the 21 attacks there were no fatalities at all. In the last two years alone there have been a series of attacks in China yielding 25 fatalities. How is it that one guy can walk into one school in the United States and kill more children in 20 minutes than multiple attackers over course of two years in China? The attackers in China are using everything from cans of gasoline to meat cleavers but what they DON’T have is assault weapons. Even attackers using hand grenades are killing fewer people than are American gunmen with assault weapons. Couldn’t attackers use different guns? Sure they could, look at the graph, prior to 1966 they WERE using different guns, shot guns, 22’s, revolvers… then in 1966 they start using assault weapons and you can see what happens.

Assault weapons are designed specifically for combat. They are designed to kill as many people as possible in as short a time as possible. Everything about assault weapons from the rate of fire, to the magazine size, to the rapid nature of reloading is designed for combat. No other type of gun, and few other weapons of any kind can perform with such lethal efficiency in the hands of a single attacker.

It maybe difficult to draw conclusions about American gun violence in general. Americans are certainly the most heavily armed people in the world but some countries are more violent and some countries less. Nevertheless the incontrovertible conclusion about American violence is that we have far and away the highest number of mass killings in the world and those killings are taking place at the hands of attackers with assault weapons. Without those weapons attackers would simply not be able kill as many people.

Next week in the final installment I’ll look what we can or should do about these weapons. We’ll talk a little more about the definition of assault weapons, and we’ll talk about some ways we might be able to decrease their numbers and control their circulation.

This post was written by Paul Udstrand and originally published on Thoughtful Bastards.

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