Guns kill thousands of Americans a year; in fact, only Mexico beats out the US among developed nations when it comes to shooting each other (NationMaster). At the same time, our right to own guns is protected by the Constitution. Such is the set up for one of the country's longest standing policy debates. Anti-gun activists generally don't bother to try to outlaw guns altogether; instead the battle between the pro & anti gun camps focus on sub-issues - bans on particular weapons, the ease with which potential criminals can acquire guns, and attempts to slow down the gun industry through litigation.

What's what

  • 2nd Amendment – The amendment to the Constitution that gun rights advocates say guarantees a right to bear arms (and the Supreme Court agrees with them to a certain extent). The amendment says “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

  • Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act - The “Brady Bill” requires background checks and a waiting period for all individuals who purchase a firearm. ATF

  • NICS - The National Instant Background Check System was designed by the Brady Bill to carry out background checks on prospective firearm buyers. ATF

Crime and deaths

How many die from guns each year:

  • 28,736 (2004) (CDC - pdf) , of those:

    • 16,603 are suicides;
    • 11,250 are homicides;
    • 661 are accidental;
    • 222 are of unknown intent.

Compared to how many people are killed by motor vehicles:

  • 43,947

Compared to how many homicides are committed without guns:

  • 5,360

Percent of all deaths caused by firearms:

Injuries related to firearms:

  • 29,737 (2002) (CDC)

Violent crime and guns.

  • 7.4% of all violent crimes involved a firearm (2003 DOJ - pdf)
  • 24.4% of violent crimes limited to murder, non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault involved a firearm (2001) DOJ
  • In 41% of robberies, a firearm was used (2004 DOJ - pdf)
  • 66% of murders and non-negligent manslaughters were firearm related (2004) (DOJ - pdf)

How many guns are out there?

No one knows, but DOJ says about 223 million guns entered the market between 1899 and 1993. The Hudson institute estimates there are 230 million guns and 59 million gun owners in the US.

Trigger happy Americans?

Americans definitely kill each other - with guns and in general - more than people do in other rich nations. The graph below gives a sense how much more so - although it doesn't suggest why we tend to knock each other off. Also note that "total crime" rates have a lot to do with how nations define and report crime, not necessarily how much crime they have.

murders with guns, compared to total murders and total crime - across a sampling of other rich nations (1999)

source: UNODC (pdf)

Assault weapons

What are assault weapons?

"Assault weapon" is a term that has no one technical definition. As used in the Crime Control Act of 1994 that banned them, however, it means a hand gun, rifle or shotgun that is semi-automatic, can hold more than 10 rounds of shots and/or has additional military-weapon-like features, such as a visible clip or magazine (if a handgun), pistol grip (if a rifle or shotgun), folding stock, flash suppressor, or bayonet mount. Semi-automatic firearms, for the non-gun aficionados, are guns that you don't have to reload after every shot. Unlike with fully automatic weapons, however, each shot with a semi-automatic requires that you pull the trigger (with fully automatics, like a machine gun, you can hold down the trigger and have multiple rounds come out). In addition to giving a general description of assault weapons, the 1994 act also listed specific models that it banned. For more details on the kinds of guns banned, see the National Institute for Justice report.

How many assault weapons (AW's) are there out there?

1993: 2 million or 1% of the 200 million guns in circulation, according to estimates by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BJS - see page 6 for all BJS knew about AW's in '93)

AW usage before 1997 according to a 1997 FBI report (a report that interviewed state and federal prisoners about their past crimes.):

How many state and federal prisoners carried an AW during their last crime:

  • Less than 1.5% of all prisoners;
  • Less than 2.2% of all prisoners in for violent crimes;
  • 7% of all prisoners who carried a firearm.

Where state and federal prisoners got their AW's:

  • Retail purchase: 19%;
  • Friend: 25%;
  • Illegal source: 49%.

Of those who had an AW during their offense:

  • 11% killed their victim (compared to 14% and 16% for other semi-automatics and single shot weapons);
  • 14% injured their victim (compared to 15% and 15% for other semi-automatics and single shot weapons).

What's up with the ban?

The Crime Control Act of 1994 banned the production and trade of new assault weapons, but said owners could still hang on to their pre-1994 AW's. The ban expired September 13, 2004.

Evidence that the ban on AW's decreased crime:

Like the ban or not, strong data just doesn't exist either way that it had an impact on crime rates. The government didn't think to track how often AW's were used before and after the ban (or they did but hid that data very well from cJ, who couldn't find it). There are, however, two bits of data out there that give an - at best - suggestive picture of the ban's effect on crime. A 1999 National Institute of Justice report uses data from 1993-1995 to slightly suggest that fewer AW's were involved in crime and that murders went down as a result of the ban; it saw both a relatively larger drop in the requests for traces on AW's than other guns and a greater drop in the murder rate in states that didn't already have a ban on AW's. (As NIJ notes in its report, the problem with searching for trends in relative AW use and crime is that AW's were used in so few crimes in the first place.)

Drop in trace requests:

and the murder rate from 1994 to 1995 (Trace requests are requests made to the FBI to track down a weapon. The NRA and other gun groups say that trace requests don't give a clear picture on how many guns are actually used):

  • For all guns: 11% decrease in the number of trace requests;
  • For AW's: 20% decrease in the number of trace requests.
  • There was a 12% drop in the murder rate.

From 5 years before the ban and the 10 years after:

  • Trace requests for AW's dropped 66% (Brady)

Difference between projected drop in murder rate (taking into account changes in economic and demographic changes but not taking into account the AW ban) and actual drop in murder rate:

  • In the 4 states that already had an AW ban, there was an additional 0.1% drop in the murder rate than what would have been expected.
  • In the 38 states that did not already have an AW ban, there was an additional 10.3% drop in the murder rate than what would have been expected.

Other firearms that are illegal (and will presumably remain illegal even if AWs come back):

"Foreign rifles like the AK-47 and Uzi were prohibited in 1989 under firearm importation law, which is more restrictive than the Clinton ban. "Assault pistols" were prohibited from importation in 1993. Street Sweeper and Striker-12 revolving cylinder shotguns, and the USAS-12 semi-auto shotgun, were restricted under the National Firearms Act six months before the Clinton ban. When the Clinton ban expires, all of those guns will remain prohibited under those other laws." (NRA. Note: the "Clinton ban" is the "Crime Control Act of 1994.")

Where the facts are from:

Updated June, 2008

Did we miss something, let some slant slip in, lose a link - or do you just have something to say? Drop a line below! In the spirit of open dialogue, cJ asks you keep it civil, keep it real and keep it focused on the message, not the messenger. See our policy page for more on what that all means.

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the gun laws in america are

the gun laws in america are to weak. people die everyday because the wrong person was allowed a gun. no gocvernment besides mexico puits out weake gun laws.america needs to step up its game and stop allowing all these random ex felons 2 get guns.

eddier george (not verified) | March 2, 2010 - 4:03pm

People use guns for the

People use guns for the wrong reasons. People should have a lisence for a gun and it should only use guns for protection and not taking one anothers lives away for stupidity. Guns can save us and guns can lead us the wrong way but no matter what stricter klaws should be enforced.

David Cinelli (not verified) | March 2, 2010 - 4:01pm


Wake up!!

Law abiding citizens that own guns don't go out and murder! They protect themselves, their familys and others when confronted by criminals! The police will not protect you, they come after a crime has taken place, take names and write reports! The criminals will have and / or get guns laws or no laws! Where people are armed, crime goes down.



a random Joe (not verified) | August 2, 2008 - 3:46am


Hey guys, before anyone is going to take any of you seriously you need to learn to write in English!

a random Joe (not verified) | July 20, 2008 - 3:02pm

Are you serious?

Your comments are half true.  There are pros and cons, but it seems you are saying that guns should only be used on police.  I hope that is not what you are saying, because then I have honestly lost some respect for you.

What are your ideas about how to stop the violence?

dujardin | January 10, 2008 - 9:25pm
talker's picture

a misplaced "not"?

Dujardin - I was also confused by yung-trillionair's comment, but I assumed yung meant that police should be the only ones carrying guns. I may be wrong, but that makes most sense.

Yung does bring up what I think is a good argument - that the more people have guns, the more they are used. You can't do anything to stop violence (that's human nature), but violence without guns usually ends up less lethal.

talker | January 11, 2008 - 8:08am


The morality of guns is not so good but it depends on the use. Because some guns are for procetion. Most people use it to kill people that's why everyone thinks guns are bad. You just have to think about it. Because there's pros and cons to everything.
I honestly think that guns should be sold or use to people that are not proceting us. ( police ) For the simple reason that the death rate incress and it gunna keep going. And we are tryin to stop that so we need to find a way to stop it. And we need to stop it soon.

yung-trillionairs | January 9, 2008 - 2:40pm