Guns Don’t Shoot Themselves

Responding to a post I wrote recently citing the fact that more people are killed by “personal weapons,” i.e., hands and feet, than by rifles, a friend asked me whether a person could kill fifteen people with their fists. I answered the query this way:

I don’t want to obscure the fact that more people are killed by fists and feet than with rifles. It’s not a small difference. In 2020, 455 people were killed with rifles, whereas 662 were killed with fists and feet. Around 1,500 people are killed every year with knives. Beatings with clubs and other instruments runs pretty close to stabbing numbers. Some of these incidents involve multiple victims. 

A man can in fact beat to death more than one person in the same context (or sequentially over time, something we ought not neglect). Of course, we can’t take away a man’s hands or feet. A man can knife to death more than one person. So should we ban knives?

In 2016, a man in Sagamihara, a town near Tokyo, killed 19 people and wounded another 26 with a knife. In the 2014 Kumming attack, in Yunnan, China, eight assailants stabbed to death 31 people and wounded 141. In 2017, on London Bridge, three assailants stabbed to death eight people and wounded 48. Just this year, in Saskatchewan, on September 4, 2022, two men stabbed 28 people, killing 10 of them. 

Alex Hribal after his arraignment on April 9, 2014. Hribal stabbed 21 students and a security guard at a Pennsylvania high school.

A man can mass murder using a car. We just put away a man for hundreds of years here in the state of Wisconsin for using a car to kill people in a Christmas parade last year. Any instrument is a murder weapon or potential murder weapon in the hands of a man with murderous intent.  

Fortunately, domestically speaking, mass killings involving 15 more people are extremely rare occurrences irrespective of weapon used. Moreover, mass shootings generally (four or more dead or injured in the same spatial and temporal context) are not distributed equally across the country. Most mass shootings occur in minority neighborhoods, most of those committed by black men (2021 was horrifying in that regard). The use of guns to mass murder is largely a phenomenon of gang violence in the inner cities of centralized urban areas. The vast majority of owners of guns, including rifles, are law-abiding citizens who use their rifles to hunt, for sport, and to protect their homes and persons. 

However if one were to say that guns are a problem, then one should take a look at handguns, which are used to commit on average annually more than 6,000 homicides (more lately since violence crime has been rising drastically in the wake of Ferguson). Handguns are the instrument most often used in homicide. 

It is also important to remember that most gun deaths aren’t homicides but suicides (and by a lot). Killing ones self with a handgun is overwhelmingly the choice of those who accomplish suicide. In fact, the discrepancy between the length of the typical individual’s arm relative to trigger and barrel for rifles cause investigators to question suicide as a possibility in those cases. In other words, not many people kill themselves with rifles (most who do rig a mechanism to pull the trigger and why do that when a handgun is uncomplicated).

Finally, guns are the tool most likely to deter assailants. Rifles and handguns have saved many lives. (Turns out that most people shot to death have criminal records, on average multiple arrests or convictions.)

When judging such matters, we should look at the causes of homicide and suicide. The instrument used does not cause either. Guns don’t shoot themselves. Murder is not less frequent in Europe than the United States because of gun availability. Murder is more frequent in the United States for the reasons identified above. America is unusual among advanced democratic countries in the level of serious crime, and in those cities where it worse, cities run by progressives, not enough is done to ameliorate the conditions or to protect the residents who live there—residents who are disproportionately black and brown.

Yes, my position on guns has changed over the years albeit not that much. I never supported gun bans. And I do not oppose gun regulations. But gun regulations cannot be of the sort that make it impossible for law-abiding citizens to obtain and possess firearms, including so-called assault rifles.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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