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There is hardly a more contentious issue in American society than the

ownership of firearms and various proposals for their control. To make

reasonable decisions about these matters, public authorities must take

account of conflicting constitutional claims and divided public opinion as

well as the facts about the relationship between firearms and violence. In

performing these tasks, policy makers must try to strike a reasonable balance

between the costs and the benefits of private firearm ownership.

The costs seem obvious. In 2000, over 48,000 victims suffered nonfatal

gunshot wounds (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2001) and

over 10,000 were murdered with a firearm (Federal Bureau of Investigation,

2001). Many more people, though not shot, are confronted by assailants

armed with a gun. Young people are especially affected by this, so

much so that firearm fatalities consistently rank among the leading causes

of death per capita for youth. In 2000, people ages 20 to 24 accounted for

almost one-fourth of all victims of homicides with a firearm (Federal Bureau

of Investigation, 2001). Moreover, there are more suicides than homicides

that are committed with firearms. And firearm-related accidents result

in many serious injuries.

These grim facts must be interpreted with caution. Firearms are involved

in homicides and suicides, but determining how many would have occurred

had no firearm been available is at best a difficult task. Between 1980 and

1984 there were more than three times as many nongun homicides per capita

in America than in England (Zimring and Hawkins, 1998). There were over

41,000 nongun homicides and over 63,000 gun homicides in the United

States during this period. New York City has had a homicide rate that is 8 to

15 times higher than London’s for at least the last 200 years, long before

either city could have had its rates affected by English gun control laws, the

advent of dangerous drugs, or the supposedly harmful effects of the mass

media (Monkkonen, 2001). Thus, the United States arguably has a high level

of violence and homicide independent of firearm availability. Nonetheless,

today homicides by a firearm occur in the United States at a rate that is more

than 63 times that of England, so firearms, though not the sole source of

violence, play a large role in it (Zimring and Hawkins, 1998).

The problem is the same with suicide. People often kill themselves with

firearms. There is some evidence that states with the highest rates of private

firearm ownership tend to be those with the highest proportion of suicides

committed with firearms (Azrael et al., 2004), and there are studies suggesting

that homes with firearms in them have more suicides than homes without firearms

(Hardy, 2002). However, it is difficult to determine how many people

would kill themselves by other means if no firearms were available.

Explaining a violent death is a difficult business. Personal temperament,

mental health, the availability of weapons, human motivation, law

enforcement policies, and accidental circumstances all play a role in leading

one person but not another to inflict serious violence. Furthermore, the

impact that a gun has on a situation depends critically on the nature of the

interaction taking place. A gun in the hand of a robber may have different

consequences than a gun in the hands of a potential robbery victim, a drug

dealer, or someone who is suicidal. The relationship between the individuals

may also be important in determining the impact of a gun. In a domestic

dispute, for instance, both parties might be well informed as to whether the

other person has a firearm. In a burglary or street robbery, the offender is

less likely to know whether the victim is armed.

In addition, the presence or threat of a gun may influence an interaction

along multiple dimensions. A firearm may increase or decrease the likelihood

that a potentially violent situation will arise. For instance, an offender

with a firearm may be more likely to attempt a robbery, but knowing the

victim has a firearm may lead the offender to forgo the crime. The presence

of a firearm may also affect the likelihood that an interaction ends in

violence or death. For example, it might be that the presence of a gun in a

robbery is associated with higher death rates, but lower injury rates.

The intent of the persons, the nature of their interaction and relationships,

the availability of firearms to them, and the level of law enforcement are critical

in explaining when and why firearm violence occurs. Without attention to this

complexity it becomes very difficult to understand the role that firearms play in

violence. Even if firearms are shown to be a cause of lethal violence, the

development of successful prevention programs remains a complex undertaking,

as such interventions would undoubtedly have to address the many factors

other than the firearm that are involved in any violent situation.

Many people derive benefits from firearm ownership. Some people

hunt or shoot at target ranges without ever inflicting harm on any human.

It is estimated that there are 13 million hunters in the United States (U.S.

Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, 2002) and more than

11,000 shooting tournaments sanctioned by the National Rifle Association

each year (National Rifle Association, 2002). Others have firearms because

they believe the weapons will help them defend themselves. Many people

carry their weapons on their person or in their cars. We do not know

accurately how often armed self-defense occurs or even how to precisely

define self-defense. The available data are believed to be unreliable, but

even the smallest of the estimates indicates that there may be hundreds of

defensive uses every day (Cook, 1991; Kleck and Gertz, 1995).