As everyone knows, autumn is a spectacular time of year in Vermont. Growing up in Warren forty years ago, I have vivid memories of the beautiful colors, the clean crisp smells and the crunching sounds of dried leaves under my feet. Fall is also hunting season when intrepid Vermonters wake up early to hike deep in the woods to spend the day drinking coffee in a hunting blind waiting for deer, bear or fowl to cross their path. My memories of autumn back home also include the annual ‘big buck’ contest, where classmates’ names and the number of antler ‘points’ were recorded on yellow paper taped on the principal's window at my high school in Duxbury. For so many in my beautiful state, such sporting traditions are as much a birthright as hiking, skiing or water sports are for others. It has been so for centuries and should rightly continue.
That said, last week’s tragedy in Las Vegas sadly reminds us that firearms are not just for hobby or sport. As our political leaders gnash teeth, flagellate and point fingers, let’s take a moment to review some facts. While statistic vary, consensus is that there are nearly enough guns in the United States for each of the 326 million men, women and children in our country to be armed. There are far more firearms per capita here than anywhere else in the entire world. In Canada, there are about 31 guns for every 100 people, in Britain that number is about 6 and in Japan it’s less than one. We are ranked eleventh worldwide in the rate of firearm deaths per 100,000 people - roughly five times the rate of Canada, fifty times the rate in Britain and one hundred times that of Japan. Of the top twenty countries on that list, we are the only advanced economy.
Studies have shown that there is a strong correlation between the number of firearms and the number of homicides, both across states in the U.S. and advanced economies more broadly. Studies also show that states with tighter firearm regulation also have less gun violence. In our country, some 93 people die and 216 others are injured every day by firearms. Of those 93 people, 58 are suicides. This means that there are nearly 12,000 gun-related homicides in the U.S. every year. What is that number in Canada? 170. In Britain? 40. In Japan? 11.
As the number of guns in the country continues to grow, the number of actual gun owners and hunters have long been in decline. Nearly half of American households reported owning a firearm in the 1970s with only one-third reporting the same today. The good news is that violent crime and homicides have declined dramatically over the last twenty years, though there is no conclusive evidence establishing a link between decreased crime and increases in the number of firearms. In fact, as mentioned above, many studies find that more guns mean more violence.
What do we conclude from all this? It’s pretty simple: where there are more guns, more people are hurt and more people die.
So, if this is the case, shouldn’t policy-makers focus on limiting both the number of and access to firearms? Skeptics of gun control say that universal background checks or other restrictions would not have stopped this most recent massacre. Perhaps so, but – again – there is irrefutable evidence that the number of guns is strongly correlated with violent crime, not to mention that 60% of gun-related deaths are suicides. In a sense, suggesting that we shouldn’t enact restrictions on ownership is akin to saying we don’t need seatbelts or airbags because they don’t prevent all vehicular deaths. People might respond by saying that the Second Amendment stipulates that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” but doesn’t grant similar rights to car ownership, hence the difference in application of regulation. And yet, the Declaration of Independence ensures the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” but we don’t extend unrestricted rights to drugs, alcohol, tobacco or other vices whose use may be described by some as an important enabler of happiness. The Fifth Amendment subjects the pursuit of life, liberty and property to the “due process of law” and we’ve readily sacrificed some of our civil liberties in response to the threat of terrorism – why on earth would we not do the same when it comes to firearms and the Second Amendment?
The fact that there are already hundreds of millions of firearms in the U.S. today makes the challenge seem daunting but with nearly 54,000 guns sold in the country every day, that hill just gets steeper.
It’s clear what must be done and there is a wide array of policy options that can be considered. We should begin by introducing much more stringent limitations on gun ownership, including universal background checks, a comprehensive national registry, stricter licensing/training requirements, transition to smart guns, etc. We should also place far greater restrictions or simply ban ‘assault weapons’ – how is it possible that the perpetrator of the Las Vegas massacre could amass a huge arsenal of lethal weapons over the course of a single year? ‘Bump-stocks’, silencers and other deadly and unnecessary accessories should simply be outlawed. The current ban on automatic weapons can be extended to cover all gas-powered semiautomatic rifles. Gun buy-backs and amnesties have seen moderate success in both removing weapons from circulation and in drastically reducing the rate of firearm suicide. Measures to locate and confiscate illegal weapons can be enhanced. Failure to comply with regulation and licensing requirements should result in forfeiture and restrictions on future ownership – much as driving without a license or under the influence can result in your driving privileges being revoked.
Does this mean we should we take firearms away from hunters? From those who own weapons to protect their home? Obviously not. Rather, we must simply regulate firearms in the same way we protect our communities by regulating the food we eat, the cars we drive, the toys our children play with and the power tools we use. If we don’t, we will just continue to turn places like Las Vegas, San Bernardino, Orlando, Roseburg, Charlestown, Newtown and Aurora into tragic epitaphs to our collective inability to address the scourge of gun violence in our country. Words alone just are not enough.
Stephen Groff grew up in Vermont and has spent the last 30 years working on sustainable development issues around the world. He is vice president of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Manila, Philippines. The views expressed in this commentary are his and do not necessarily reflect ADB policy. This commentary first appeared in VTDigger.