Discover more from The Garden of Forking Paths
It's the Guns.
America is the only rich democracy that features the routine mass slaughter of its citizens with guns. Why does this happen? The data show a really clear picture: It's the guns. Yes, it's that simple.
If you enjoy my writing, learn something from it, or want to support my work, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription. These articles take many, many hours to research and write, and the subscription costs less than $1 per week. My writing is completely reader-supported.
The late David Foster Wallace once wrote:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how's the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
When you live within a culture, it’s hard to describe it, just as a fish would have trouble describing water as it swims within it. But when you leave a culture, you suddenly get fresh insights on the water you used to swim in.
That happened to me eleven years ago, when I left the United States and moved to England to start my PhD research. And, over time, looking back home, nothing has astonished me more than America’s toxic relationship with guns.
I first shot a real gun with live ammunition when I was ten years old, at summer camp, in my home state of Minnesota. It was a basic bolt action rifle, but a rifle nonetheless. At the time, nobody thought that was remotely strange. But when I tell people in Britain, they’re beyond horrified. “Who would let a child touch, let alone, shoot a gun?” In America, assault weapons are now being marketed to kids much younger than ten.
With guns, gun violence, and mass shootings, the United States is in a dystopian league of its own. But whenever I write about guns, I get the same bad-faith arguments shot back at me by American gun advocates who are, perhaps, unaware of just how extreme, and just how unusual America’s gun culture is relative to the rest of the rich, democratic world.
The satirical newspaper The Onion nailed this dynamic with one of its all-time great headlines.
I’ve decided to write a comprehensive guide to understanding America’s gun extremism, engaging with all the main, spurious arguments, showing the truth with proper evidence and data. It’s my hope that this can be your go-to guide to defeating bad arguments being made about America’s gun culture—and that you can share this article with others, perhaps to help persuade them that the United States needs to fix its broken gun culture.
False Claim 1: The US isn’t that bad for gun violence. This is all left-wing hype.
This claim is extremely false.
As I wrote in the Washington Post a few years ago:
America has a gun deaths epidemic. If you add up all the U.S. soldiers who have died in every war in our nation’s history — from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War to World War II and the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — that number is still lower than the number of civilians who have died in gun-related incidents in the United States in the past 50 years.
Look at this graphic, compiled by National Public Radio.
America’s gun murder rate is not a small outlier. Countries on this list include Japan and the United Kingdom, which each have their share of social problems, but are roughly as rich as the US and have reasonably large populations, too. But Japan has 0.04 gun murders per 100,000 people, compared to 3.96 in the US. To put it bluntly, the gun murder rate is about 99 times higher in the US than Japan.
As an American living in the UK, every time there’s a US mass shooting in the news—which is pretty much constantly these days—I post the same message on Twitter:
I do this so people can instantly see the scale of the problem, between two countries that are roughly similar. It isn’t close. For most recent years, the number of people murdered by guns in the UK is around 30 or 40. (Note: this data are for England and Wales, because the data are collated that way, but it’s very close to UK-wide data).
Here's the official government data for England and Wales:
Remember: in 2020, there were nearly 20,000 gun murders in the US.
For mass shootings, the differences between the US and UK are even starker. Since I moved to Britain eleven years ago, there has been one fatal mass shooting. It took place in Plymouth in 2021. It was headline news for several days. Five people were killed, plus the gunman. Before that, the next previous UK mass shooting was in 2010, in Cumbria, which killed 12 people.
Let’s compare that to the United States. There were 44 mass shootings in November 2022 in the US, killing 65 people, and injuring another 168 more.
Let me just reiterate that:
Mass shootings in the United Kingdom in the last ten years: 1
Mass shootings in the United States in the last month: 44
Here’s a map of all the mass shootings that have taken place in the US this year, so far, from the Gun Violence Archive, which tracks them:
And lest you think that I’m just cherry picking a particularly favorable comparison case, here are other similar countries that the US is regularly compared to, and their respective gun murder rates, adjusted for population (so it’s comparing apples to apples) from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Nonetheless, whenever I post my usual UK/US gun murder comparison tweet, the comments section immediately swarms with pro-gun trolls, who try to pick apart the tweet and explain why it’s misleading, or wrong. Let’s look at the most common arguments they make—and debunk them.
False Claim 2: The US has a gun problem, but the UK has a knife problem. So, it’s a wash.
This is not true. Gun murders are significantly higher in the US than the UK. Even when you adjust for population, more people are also getting killed by knives in the US than the UK, but it’s a lot closer. The reason the knife murder rates are similar is because it’s reasonably easy to get a knife in both countries, so people who want to kill someone with a knife are, unfortunately, able to do so. In the US, it’s extremely easy to get your hands on a gun. That’s not true in the UK, which is why the gun murder rate is so much lower.
Moreover, there’s a reason you don’t hear about mass knifings – it’s a lot harder to kill dozens of people in a few minutes with a knife before being taken down by someone else.
Here’s the data, which come from Euronews. (It’s slightly outdated, but it’s the best apples to apples comparison I could find, and the rates are not significantly different today).
False Claim 3: The US may have a gun violence problem, but the UK matches it with terrorism.
This is categorically false. In fact, if you add up all terrorism deaths in the UK since 2010, 59 people were killed. Compare that to the single Las Vegas mass shooting that happened in 2017, in which 58 people were killed (and hundreds more were shot and wounded).
The UK had a serious terrorism problem due to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but since then, the number of terrorism deaths has been comparatively low—and it’s nothing even close to the number of gun murders each year in the United States.
Here is the official government data on deaths due to terrorism in the UK since 1970.
The bottom line is this: no matter how you slice and dice the data, the US has a far, far worse problem with gun violence than the UK, which is a similar peer country.
False Claim 4: It’s not the guns. Other murder weapons are more common in the US.
I have no idea where this bizarre myth comes from, but every so often, someone high profile in the pro-gun political right claims that hammers are used to kill more people than guns in the United States. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R, AK-47) has spread this particularly deranged lie in the past.
What do the data show?
Surprise, surprise: guns are, by far, the leading weapon used for homicides in the United States. It’s not close.
If you look at official data from the CDC for cause of death, you’ll note that in 2020, there were 24,576 homicides across the United States. Of those, 19,384 were from firearms. That’s 78.8 percent of all murders that were carried out with guns. The FBI compiles murder weapon data (though it’s not as up to date as the CDC). But for 2019, the most recent year FBI data is available, 74 percent of murders were carried out with guns, compared to 2.8 percent that were carried out with blunt objects (clubs, hammers, etc). So, yeah, not even close. It’s just a lie.
False Claim 5: Gun control doesn’t work. Just look at Chicago!
This is one of the most persistent—and stupidest—claims that America’s pro-gun advocates point to. They take an American city with strict gun regulations, point to its high rate of gun violence, and then say “See, gun control doesn’t work! If it did, Chicago would be the safest city in the US!”
There are two glaring problems with this argument. The first is obvious: cities have larger populations, more crime, and more gangs than sparsely populated areas (this is true everywhere in the world). But the second flaw is more important: the “Chicago argument” compares ineffective patchwork gun control to real gun control.
South Chicago is roughly five miles from Indiana, where there are virtually no meaningful gun restrictions. It’s a fifteen minute drive. One Indiana gun shop has been directly linked to 850 firearms that were used to commit crimes in Chicago. People just hop in the car and buy a gun outside of the Chicago city limits.
The only metric that matters is this: how hard is it for someone who shouldn’t have a gun to get a gun? In Britain, it’s really, really hard, which is why only a few dozen gun murders happen per year. In the United States, it’s insanely easy to buy a gun, no matter who you are, so long as you’re willing to travel a little bit. Because there are no checks between states, and because regulation of guns once they’re bought is basically non-existent, the patchwork gun laws in the US undercut any serious efforts at gun control.
Imagine you’ve got a high-rise building with fifty apartments in it. About half of the apartments pay to line their walls with fire-resistant insulation. But the other half line their walls with straw. One of the apartments lined with straw catches on fire. The apartment building burns to the ground. As the embers are still hot, someone points to the apartment building and says: “See, fire-resistant insulation is a waste of money! It doesn’t work!”
That’s the Chicago argument in a nutshell. See how stupid that is?
For gun control to fully work, it must be a national approach, not an easily bypassed patchwork of laws, and the goal is not to pass a few laws for the sake of it, but rather to make it meaningfully harder for people who shouldn’t have guns to buy guns. By that metric, there’s nowhere in the United States that has real gun control, expect perhaps Hawaii, since it’s hard to move an gun on an airplane without checks. And guess what? Hawaii has the second lowest gun murder rate in the country.
False Claim 6: It’s mental health, not guns!
If you’ve never travelled outside the United States, I suppose it’s possible to imagine that there’s something unique about America’s mental health crisis. But I can assure you that mental health problems afflict people across the world.
It’s also extremely clear that the overwhelming majority of people with mental illness are non-violent. According to Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke Unversity, quoted in Bloomberg: “If we magically cured all these serious mental illnesses tomorrow, which would be wonderful—imagine the alleviation of suffering—our violence problem would go down by about four percent.”
Now, it is true that America’s mental health services are abysmal for people who are uninsured or under-insured, which isn’t the case in countries that have stronger healthcare safety nets. But even if mental health were a major contributing factor to gun violence, keep in mind that it’s Republicans who almost always vote against funding increases for mental health support services. The very people who wrongly claim that gun violence comes from mental health problems are the ones who vote against funding mental health programs.
False Claim 7: Gun control won’t work, because criminals, by definition, don’t obey laws.
I’ve come across this particular zinger over and over. It’s posted as though you’re in a chess match with someone who triumphantly moves a piece, thinking they’ve just produced checkmate, only to realize that they’ve been checkmated themselves. It’s this moment that they imagine as a profound mic drop: “Oh yeah? You think gun laws would work! Well murder is illegal, and people still commit murders! Checkmate.”
Laws are designed to increase or decrease certain behaviors across society. Speed limits exist not because government officials believe that nobody will ever drive above the speed limit ever again, but because fewer people drive too fast because they face penalties for doing so. Yes, it’s true that people still commit murders even though murders are illegal. But more people would commit murder if there were no penalties for doing so. This isn’t difficult to understand.
Gun laws are broken in Japan, the United Kingdom, and within the EU. There are still criminal gangs who carry firearms. But there are far fewer of them, because it’s very difficult to source an illegal weapon—particularly in places that have few firearms in circulation. Think about it with, say, a bazooka. Do some criminal gangs and militias still sometimes get their hands on bazookas? Sure. Is it a good thing that it’s really difficult to get one because of laws? Absolutely.
The Garden of Forking Paths is a reader-supported publication. Please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
However, it is possible that the gun advocates may be right about one thing: around the edges gun law changes aren’t going to solve this problem, because it will still be easy to get a gun, including for criminals. Pandora’s Box has already been opened—and there are a hell of a lot of guns in circulation in the United States. Take a look at how many guns there are in America relative to other countries.
There are 120 guns for every 100 Americans. The second place country, that idyllic paradise of Yemen, has less than half that rate. This graphic is from the BBC.
In America, there are more guns than there are people. With 4 percent of the global population, America has about half the civilian-owned guns in the world.
In Britain, there is roughly 1 gun for every 20 people and in Japan, it’s 1 gun for every 334 people.
Does it matter that there are so many guns in circulation? Well, at the risk of bombarding you with charts, here’s another one, this time from The New York Times. What you can see here is that there is a clear relationship between gun ownership and homicide rates, but that the US is, yet again, in a dystopian league of its own.
How you can look at this data and think that guns have nothing to do with this problem is beyond me. The US shares a lot of common features with other rich democracies. It is a major, major outlier on two key issues: gun ownership rates and gun homicide rates. Is it really so difficult to imagine that they might be linked?
Now that we’ve got those stupid arguments out of the way, let’s look at the data around a few more angles with American gun culture.
One aspect of the gun debate that rarely gets mentioned because it’s overshadowed by mass shootings is the fact that widespread gun ownership creates elevated suicide rates. To put it bluntly, it’s much easier to commit suicide with a gun than with other methods.
As a result, the fact that it’s so easy to get a gun means that people who are experiencing suicidal thoughts are more easily able to act on them, spurring senseless and preventable tragedies. The US is home to just four percent of the global population, but home to, by far, the largest proportion of suicides by firearm (44 percent of the total globally). This graphic was compiled by CNN.
The National Tracing Center
The National Rifle Association, a powerful pro-gun lobbying organization, has repeatedly—and successfully—pushed to outlaw any serious efforts to register and track firearms in the United States. Technically speaking, nobody really knows how many guns are in the US, and the numbers we do have are estimates.
If you want to see just how insane this system has become, please read this GQ article from a few years ago about the National Tracing Center in West Virginia. It’s one of the most bewildering things I’ve ever read about America’s relationship with guns.
Due to an obscure 1986 law, it takes law enforcement roughly two weeks to perform a routine check on a specific firearm. Law enforcement can track license plates almost instantly, but for guns, it’s two weeks.
Licensing, Training, and Safety Regulation
Most of the gun debate in the United States focuses on gun purchasing and background checks. But what’s often lost in the mix is the standard array of regulations around gun ownership that exist in almost every other country on the planet.
Just to take one example, the United States is one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t require gun owners to have a license in order to own a gun. This graphic is from Politico:
The New York Times has put together a fantastic guide that compares how easy it is to buy a gun in the United States compared to other peer countries. It’s really worth a look to see just how much of an outlier America is—which matters, because it’s not just about gun laws, but also about regulation, licensing, and responsible gun ownership training.
So, what can we do?
I think it’s worth being realistic. Despite the routine mass slaughter of innocent civilians, there has been no political awakening in the United States as took place in other similar countries that experienced a mass shooting tragedy (Australia, New Zealand, and Britain each radically changed their gun laws after a mass shooting).
The Pandora’s Box problem of guns in America is real: with 400 million guns in circulation, it’s going to be extremely hard to get back to a sensible level of gun ownership in the United States. This is the best argument that pro-gun advocates have, in my view, and it’s extremely bleak: there are now just too many guns to control them. They have a point. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Moreover, the gun lobby and elected Republicans have made a policy choice that they are willing to tolerate tens of thousands of gun murders each year—including in terrifying mass shootings, even in schools. As a result, most sensible gun laws are dead on arrival in Congress, and until the balance of power tips substantially more toward the Democrats, the odds are low that any meaningful gun legislation will pass.
State legislation is crucial, even if it won’t solve the problem (due to what I described as the Chicago Problem above). But it’s going to be a generational battle, to shift America’s gun culture and bring it substantially more in line with other countries.
My message, though, is this: America’s gun violence is not inevitable. It’s a choice.
Parents in the United States are buying bulletproof backpacks, children are being traumatized by mass shooting drills, and an increasing number of people stay away from crowded events because they’re worried they’re going to be shot.
I’ve lived in the United States and I’ve lived in the United Kingdom. In the UK, there’s a key difference: I never think about guns. I never think about mass shootings. Never. It’s just not part of life. It’s not a problem that exists.
Every other rich democracy has solved this problem. The United States can solve it too. But it’s going to take a lot of effort, a lot of persuasion, and a lot of hard-fought election victories. It’s worth it, because nobody wants to live in a broken, violent society in which you have to look for the nearest exits when you go to a concert, a movie theater, or a school.
I hope this post has given you some intellectual ammunition, so to speak, for arguments about guns. Feel free to share it with someone who might be open to looking at hard data and evidence about America’s relationship with guns, or to bookmark it for the (inevitable) next mass shooting.
Since you’ve stuck around to the end for this extremely long post, I’ll end on a more lighthearted note. I was interviewed about American history for the BBC mockumentary “Cunk on Earth.” I had no idea what Philomena Cunk would ask me, but let’s just say that guns came up, and I went along with her line of questioning. Enjoy yours truly, in the video below, debating the right to bear arms.
If you’ve found this post useful or informative, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription, so I can continue to write more of these posts for you. This publication is completely reader-supported.