Chapter 1. Guns and American Society
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Chapter 1   Guns and American Society The landmarks of political, economic and social history are the moments when some condition passed from the category of the given into the category of the intolerable. . . . I believe that the history of public health might well be written as a record of successive re-defining of the unacceptable. —G. Vickers On an average day during the 1990s in the United States, firearms were used to kill more than ninety people and to wound about three hundred more. Each day guns were also used in the commission of about three thousand crimes. The U.S. rates of death and injury due to firearms and the rate of crimes committed with firearms are far higher than those of any other industrialized country, yet our rates of crime and nonlethal violence are not exceptional . For example, the U.S. rates of rape, robbery, nonlethal assault, burglary, and larceny resemble those of other high-income countries (Van Kesteren et al. 2000); however, our homicide rate is far higher than that of other highincome nations (Krug, Powell, and Dahlberg 1998). This chapter discusses the nature and extent of the firearms injury problem in the United States (Hemenway 1995, 1998a) and describes the prevalence of firearms in contemporary America. The Scope of the Gun Problem Perhaps the most appropriate international comparisons are those between the United States and other developed “frontier” countries where English is spoken: Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. These four nations have roughly similar per capita incomes, cultures, and histories (including the violent displacement of indigenous populations). In 1992, the rates of property crime and violent crime were comparable across these four countries (Mayhew and van Dijk 1997); with the decline in U.S. crime, by the end of the century U.S. crime rates were actually lower than in these other countries (table 1.1). What distinguishes the United States is its high rate of lethal violence. In 1992 our murder rate was five times higher than the average of these three other countries (Krug, Powell, and Dahlberg 1998); in 1999– 2000 it was still about three times higher (table 1.2). In contrast to these other nations, most of our murderers use guns. Comparisons with other high-income countries make our gun/lethal violence problem look even worse (Killias 1993; Hemenway and Miller 2000). Canada, Australia, and New Zealand all have many guns, though not nearly as many handguns as the United States. The key difference is that these other 2 PRIVATE GUNS, PUBLIC HEALTH Table 1.1.   Percentage of People Victimized in 2000 (from comparable victimization surveys) Sexual Assault or Nation Car Theft Burglary Robbery Incident Threat 11 crimes United States 0.5 1.8 0.6 1.5 3.4 21.1 Canada 1.4 2.3 0.9 2.1 5.3 23.8 Australia 1.9 3.9 1.2 4.0 6.4 30.0 New Zealanda 2.7 4.3 0.7 2.7 5.7 29.4 17 Industrialized Nationsb 1.0 1.8 0.8 1.7 3.5 21.3   Source: Data from Van Kesteren et al. 2000.   aData for 1992   bAustralia, Belgium, Canada, Catalonia (Spain), Denmark, England and Wales, Finland, France, Japan, Netherlands , Northern Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Scotland, Sweden, Switzerland, United States. TABLE 1.2.  Firearm and Nonfirearm Homicide in the Frontier Countries, Rates per 100,000, 1999–2000 Firearm Nonfirearm Total Homicide Households Nation Homicide Rate Homicide Rate Rate with Guns (%) United States 4.0 2.2 6.1 41 Canada 0.6 1.2 1.8 26 Australia 0.4 1.4 1.8 16 New Zealand    (1997–98) 0.2 1.5 1.7 20   Source: Homicide data from CDC WISQARS (Note: U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics give slightly lower homicide rates); Fedorowycz (Homicide in Canada 2000); Mouzos (Homicide in Australia 1999–2000); Injury Prevention Research Unit (New Zealand). Gun data from United Nations 1998. countries do a much better job of regulating their guns. Their experience and that of all high-income nations shows that when there are reasonable restrictions on guns, gun injuries need not be such a large public health problem. Their experience also shows that it is possible to live in a society with many guns yet one in which relatively few crimes are committed with guns. A nation may be judged by how well it protects its children. In terms of lethal violence, the United States does very badly. For example, a comparison of violent...