Gun violence in the United States is associated with the majority of homicides and over half the suicides. It is a significant public concern, especially in urban areas and in conjunction with youth activity and gang violence. Gun violence is not new in the United States, with the assassinations of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, and of Presidents James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy. High profile gun violence incidents, such as the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and, more recently, the Columbine High School massacre, the Beltway sniper attacks, and the Virginia Tech massacre, have also fueled debate over gun policies.
Many suffer non-fatal gunshot wounds, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimating 52,447 deliberate and 23,237 accidental non-fatal gunshot injuries in the United States during 2000. The majority of gun-related deaths in the United States are suicides, with firearms used in 16,907 suicides in the United States during 2004. Legal policies at the Federal, state, and local levels have attempted to address gun violence through a variety of methods, including restricting firearms purchasing by youths and other "at-risk" populations, setting waiting periods for firearm purchases, establishing gun "buy-back" programs, targeted law enforcement and policing strategies, stiff sentencing of gun law violators, education programs for parents and children, and community-outreach programs. Research has shown mixed results, finding some policies such as gun "buy-back" programs are ineffective, while Boston's Operation Ceasefire (a gang violence abatement strategy) has been effective as an intervention strategy. Gun policy in the United States is also highly influenced by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits infringement of "the right of the People to keep and bear arms." Gun rights advocates generally encourage a strict preservation of the right protected by the Second Amendment.
While people during the 19th century were concerned about violent crime, it often took the form of riots and other forms of disorder in cities. Gun violence, however, sometimes played a role in these riots (see Haymarket riot). Homicide rates in cities such as Philadelphia were significantly lower than in modern times.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, homicide rates surged in cities across the United States (see graphs at right). Handgun homicides accounted for nearly all of the overall increase in the homicide rate, from 1985 to 1993, while homicide rates involving other weapons declined during that time frame. The rising trend in homicide rates during the 1980s and early 1990s was most pronounced among youths and Hispanic and African American males in the United States, with the injury and death rates tripling for black males aged 13 through 17 and doubling for black males aged 18 through 24. The rise in crack cocaine use in cities across the United States is often cited as a factor for increased gun violence among youths during this time period.
Crime rates in the United States are similar to those of other developed countries. Nonetheless, many developing countries have significantly higher rates of homicide and in some cases, firearm usage in homicides, including Mexico, Brazil, Thailand, Guatemala, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Colombia, Estonia, and Russia.
Prevalence of homicide and violent crime is greatest in urban areas of the United States. In metropolitan areas, the homicide rate in 2005 was 6.1 per 100,000 compared with 3.5 in non-metropolitan counties. In U.S. cities with populations greater than 250,000, the mean homicide rate was 12.1 per 100,000. Rates of gun-related homicides are greatest in southern and western states.
Homicide rates among 18- to 24-year-olds have declined since 1993, but remain higher than they were prior to the 1980s. In 2005, the 17 through 24 age group remains significantly overrepresented in violent crime statistics, particularly homicides involving firearms. In 2005, 17- through 19-year olds were 4.3% of the overall population of the United States. This same age group accounted for 11.2% of those killed by firearm homicides. This age group also accounted for 10.6% of all homicide offenses. The 20- through 24-year-old age group accounted for 7.1% of the population, while accounting for 22.5% of those killed by firearm homicides. The 20 through 24 age group also accounted for 17.7% of all homicide offenses. Those under age 17 are not overrepresented in homicide statistics. In 2005, 13- through 16-year-olds accounted for 6% of the overall population of the United States, but only accounted for 3.6% of firearm homicide victims, and 2.7% of overall homicide offenses.
People with a criminal record are also more likely to die as homicide victims. Between 1990 and 1994, 75% of all homicide victims age 21 and younger in the city of Boston had a prior criminal record. In Philadelphia, the percentage of those killed in gun homicides that had prior criminal records increased from 73% in 1985 to 93% in 1996. In Richmond, Virginia, the risk of gunshot injury is 22 times higher for those males involved with crime.
In 2005, 75% of the 10,100 homicides committed using firearms in the United States were committed using handguns, compared to 4% with rifles, 5% with shotguns, and the rest with a type of firearm not specified. Due to the lethal potential that a gun brings to a situation, the likelihood that a death will result is significantly increased when either the victim or the attacker has a gun. The mortality rate for gunshot wounds to the heart is 84%, compared to 30% for people who sustain stab wounds to the heart.
The findings of the McDowall's study for the American Journal of Public Health contrast with the findings of a 1993 study by Gary Kleck, who finds that as many as 2.45 million crimes are thwarted each year in the United States, and in most cases, the potential victim never fires a shot in these cases where firearms are used constructively for self-protection. The results of the Kleck studies have been cited many times in scholarly and popular media.
McDowell cites methodological issues with the Kleck studies, claiming that Kleck used a very small sample size and did not confine self-defense to attempted victimizations where physical attacks had already commenced. The former criticism, however, is inaccurate — Kleck's survey with Marc Gertz in fact used the largest sample size of any survey that ever asked respondents about defensive gun use — 4,977 cases, far more than is typical in national surveys. A study of gun use in the 1990s, by David Hemenway at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, found that criminal use of guns is far more common than self-defense use of guns. By the Kleck study, however, most successful preventions of victimizations are accomplished without a shot being fired, which are not counted as a self-defense firearm usage by either the Hemenway or McDowell studies.
Gun control proponents often cite the relatively high number of homicides committed with firearms as reason to support stricter gun control laws. Firearm laws are a subject of great debate in the United States, with firearms also widely used for recreational purposes, and for personal protection. Gun rights advocates cite the use of firearms for self-protection and to deter violent crime as reasons why more guns can reduce crime. Gun rights advocates also say criminals are the least likely to obey firearms laws, and so limiting access to guns by law-abiding people makes them more vulnerable to armed criminals.
Criminologist Philip J. Cook argues for public policy goals of keeping guns out of violent encounters, and recommends approaches that limit the availability of guns to high-risk groups and the accessibility of guns in volatile situations. Cook suggests measures such as background checks for gun purchasers; banning small, easily-concealed handguns; intensive enforcement of illegal gun carrying; and tougher sentences imposed on those convicted of using a gun in a crime.
U.S. policy aims to maintain the right of legitimate users to own most types of firearms, while restricting access to firearms by those individuals in high risk groups. Gun dealers in the United States are prohibited from selling handguns to those under the age of 21, and long guns to those under the age of 18. There are also restrictions on selling guns to out-of-state residents.
Assuming access to guns, the top ten types of guns involved in crime in the U.S. show a definite trend in favoring handguns over long guns. The top ten guns used in crime, as reported by the ATF in 1993, included the Smith & Wesson .38 Special and .357 revolvers; Raven Arms .25 caliber, Davis P-380 .380 caliber, Ruger .22 caliber, Lorcin L-380 .380 caliber, and Smith & Wesson semi-automatic handguns; Mossberg and Remington 12 gauge shotguns; and the Tec DC-9. An earlier 1985 study of 1,800 incarcerated felons showed that criminals prefer revolvers and other non-semi-automatic firearms over semi-automatic firearms. In Pittsburgh, a change in preferences towards pistols occurred in the early 1990s, coinciding with the arrival of crack cocaine and rise of violent youth gangs. Background checks in California, during 1998 to 2000, resulted in 1% of sales being initially denied. The types of guns most often denied included semiautomatic pistols with short barrels and of medium caliber.
Among juveniles (for example, minors under the age of 16, 17, or 18, depending on legal jurisdiction) serving in correctional facilities, 86% owned a gun at some point, with 66% acquiring their first gun by age 14. There is also a tendency for juvenile offenders to own many firearms, with 65% owning three or more. Juveniles most often acquire guns from family, friends, drug dealers, and street contacts. Inner-city youths cite "self-protection from enemies" as the top reason for carrying a gun. In Rochester, New York, 22% of young males have carried an illegal gun, though most for only a short period of time. There is little overlap between legal gun ownership and illegal gun carrying among youths.
Policy that is targeted at the supply side of the firearms market is based on limited research, with this an active area of ongoing research. One important consideration is that only 60-70% of firearms sales in the United States are transacted through federally licensed firearm dealers, with the remainder taking place in the "secondary market." Most sales to youths and convicted felons take place in the "secondary market," in which previously-owned firearms are transferred by unlicensed individuals. Access to "secondary markets" is generally less convenient and involves such risks as the gun perhaps having been used previously in a homicide. The sale of firearms at gun shows exploits the legality of unlicensed private sales of firearms from their owner's private collection, which some view as a loophole in the law. Unlicensed private sellers are permitted by law to sell privately-owned guns at gun shows, or at private locations, in 24 states (as of 1998). Regulations that limit the number of handgun sales in the primary, regulated market to one handgun a month per customer have been shown to be effective at reducing illegal gun trafficking by reducing the supply into the "secondary market. Taxes on firearms and ammunition purchases are another means for government to influence the primary market.
Federally licensed firearm dealers in the primary (new and used gun) market are regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). Firearm manufacturers are required to put serial numbers on all new firearms. This allows the ATF to trace guns involved in crimes back to their last Federal Firearms License (FFL) reported change of ownership transaction, although not past the first private sale involving any particular gun. A report by the ATF released in 1999, found that 0.4% of federally-licensed dealers sold half of the guns used criminally in 1996 and 1997. This is sometimes done through "straw purchases." State laws, such as those in Virginia and California, that restrict the number of gun purchases in a month may help stem such "straw purchases." An estimated 500,000 guns are also stolen each year, allowing them to get into the hands of prohibited users. During the ATF's Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative (YCGII), which involved expanded tracing of firearms recovered by law enforcement agencies, only 18% of guns used criminally that were recovered in 1998 were in possession of the original owner. Guns recovered by police during criminal investigations often have been previously sold by legitimate retail sales outlets to legal owners and then diverted to criminal use over elapsed times ranging from just a few months to just a few years, which makes them relatively new compared with firearms in general circulation.
In the aftermath of the Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations, the Gun Control Act of 1968 was enacted. This Act regulated gun commerce, restricting mail order sales, and allowing shipments only to licensed firearm dealers. The Act also prohibited felons, those under indictment, fugitives, illegal aliens, drug users, those dishonorably discharged from the military, and those in mental institutions from owning guns. The law also restricted importation of Saturday night specials and other types of guns, and limited the sale of automatic weapons and semi-automatic weapons conversion kits.
The Firearm Owners Protection Act, also known as the McClure-Volkmer Act, was passed in 1986. It changed some restrictions in the 1968 Act, allowing federally-licensed gun dealers, as well as individual unlicensed private sellers, to sell at gun shows, while continuing to require licensed gun dealers to require background checks. The 1986 Act also restricted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms from conducting repetitive inspections, reduced the amount of recordkeeping required of gun dealers, raised the burden of proof for convicting gun law violators, and changed restrictions on convicted felons from owning firearms.
In the years following the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, people buying guns were required to show identification and sign a statement affirming that they were not in any of the prohibited categories. Many states enacted background check laws that went beyond the federal requirements. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act passed by Congress in 1993 imposed a waiting period before the purchase of a handgun, allowing a background check. The Brady Act also required the establishment of a national system to provide instant criminal background checks, with checks to be done by firearms dealers. The Brady Act only applied to people who bought guns from licensed dealers, whereas most felons buy guns from a black market. Restrictions, such as waiting periods, are opposed by many, who argue that they impose costs and inconveniences on legitimate gun purchasers, such as hunters.
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, enacted in 1994, included the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, and was a response to public concern over mass shootings. This provision prohibited the manufacture and importation of some semiautomatic firearms that exhibitied military style features such as a folding stock, pistol grip and flash suppressor, as well as magazines holding more than ten rounds. A grandfather clause was included that allowed firearms manufactured before 1994 to remain legal. A short-term evaluation by University of Pennsylvania criminologists, Christopher S. Koper and Jeffrey A. Roth, did not find any clear impact of this legislation on gun violence. However, Koper and Roth cite the grandfather clause and the infrequent use of these weapons in crimes as factors limiting the effectiveness of the ban, making it difficult to discern an effect. Given the short study time period of the evaluation, the National Academy of Sciences also advised caution in drawing any conclusions. In September 2004, the assault weapon ban expired, with its sunset clause.
The Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban, 'the Lautenberg Amendment' , prohibited anyone previously convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence from owning a firearm. It also banned shipment, transport, ownership and use of guns or ammunition by individuals convicted of misdemeanor or felony domestic violence. This law also outlawed the sale or gift of a firearm or ammunition to such a person. It was passed in 1996, and became effective in 1997. Some opponents believe that the law conflicts with the right to keep and bear arms protected by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, and this law has modified the Second Amendment to a revocable privilege from a fundamental protection. Opponents of this law tend to describe the law by the name "the Lautenberg Amendment." The law applies to everyone, including police officers and military personnel, and can cause difficulties by prohibiting active duty military and police from carrying guns, due to prior civilian misdemeanor convictions.
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, police and National Guard units in New Orleans confiscated firearms from private citizens in an attempt to prevent violence. In reaction, Congress passed the Disaster Recovery Personal Protection Act of 2006 in the form of an amendment to Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2007. Section 706 of the Act prohibits federal employees and those receiving federal funds from confiscating legally-possessed firearms during a disaster.
The result was laws that permitted persons to carry firearms openly, known as open carry, often without any permit required, in 22 states by 1998. Laws that permitted persons to carry concealed handguns, sometimes termed a concealed handgun license, CHL, or concealed pistol license, CPL in some jurisdictions instead of CCW'', existed in 34 states in the United States by 2004. Since then, the number of states with CCW laws has increased; as of late 2006, 48 states have some form of CCW laws on the books.
Economist John Lott has argued that right-to-carry laws create a perception that more potential crime victims might be carrying firearms, and thus serve as a deterrent against crime. Lott's study has been criticized for not adequately controlling for other factors, including other state laws also enacted, such as Florida's laws requiring background checks and waiting period for handgun buyers. When Lott's data was re-analyzed by some researchers, the only statistically significant effect of concealed-carry laws found was an increase in assaults, with similar findings by Jens Ludwig. Since concealed-carry permits are only given to adults, Philip J. Cook suggests that analysis should focus on the relationship with adult and not juvenile gun incident rates. He finds a small, positive effect of concealed-carry laws on adult homicide rates, but states the effect is not statistically significant. The National Academy of Science has found no evidence that shows right-to-carry laws have an impact, either way, on rates of violent crime. NAS suggests that new analytical approaches and datasets at the county or local level are needed to evaluate adequately the impact of right-to-carry laws.
New York City is also known for its strict gun control laws. Despite local laws, guns are often trafficked into cities from other parts of the United States, particularly the southern states. Results from the ATF's Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative indicate that the percentage of imported guns involved in crimes is tied to the stringency of local firearm laws.
The goal of gun safety programs, usually administered by local firearms dealers and shooting clubs, is to teach older children and adolescents how to handle firearms safely. There has been no systematic evaluation of the effect of these programs on children. For adults, no positive effect on gun storage practices has been found as a result of these programs. Also, researchers have found that gun safety programs for children may likely increase a child's interest in obtaining and using guns, which they cannot be expected to use safely all the time, even with training.
Another approach taken is gun avoidance at the immediate level, such as when encountering a firearm at a neighbor's home. The Eddie Eagle Gun Safety Program, administered by the National Rifle Association (NRA), is geared towards younger children from pre-kindergarten to sixth grade, and teaches kids that real guns are not toys by emphasizing a "just say no" approach. The Eddie Eagle program is based on training children in a four-step action to take when they see a firearm: (1) Stop! (2) Don't touch! (3) Leave the area. (4) Go tell an adult. Materials, such as coloring books and posters, back the lessons up and provide the repetition necessary in any child-education program.
Some gun control advocacy groups have developed their own programs, such as Straight Talk about Risks (STAR), administered by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and Hands without Guns, run by the Joshua Horwitz Educational Fund to End Handgun Violence.
Project Exile, conducted in Richmond, Virginia during the 1990s, was a coordinated effort involving federal, state, and local officials that targeted gun violence. The strategy entailed prosecution of gun violations in Federal courts, where sentencing guidelines were tougher. Project Exile also involved outreach and education efforts through media campaigns, getting the message out about the crackdown. Project Exile was evaluated and shown to be effective, however researchers also point out that Richmond might have experienced declining homicide trends anyway during the evaluation period, owing to overall national trends.