You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Too Many Guns = Too Many Deaths

It’s not a mystery why the United States has a unique problem with mass shootings.

David McNew/Getty Images

National Public Radio’s Saeed Ahmed reported on Wednesday that there have been 213 mass shootings in the first 21 weeks of 2022 (including 27 school shootings). That fact comes courtesy of the Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting as “an incident in which four or more people are shot or killed, excluding the shooter.” That adds up to approximately 10 mass shootings every week. I should say “as of this writing,” because in the time between my writing this paragraph and your reading it, all these numbers probably will have changed. One thing, however, will remain constant: This is a uniquely American phenomenon, for no other reason than the fact that, unlike everywhere else in the world, there are too many readily available guns in America.

As my colleague Alex Shephard observed this week, the constant repetition of mass shootings has given rise to the notion that we are becoming numb to this carnage. This isn’t true: The killing of 19 children at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, has ably revealed an abundance of emotion. “If there is a ‘numbness,’ it’s not to the slaughter of children or churchgoers or people just trying to do their shopping on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. The grief and the anger is as raw and as energetic as it’s ever been,” he writes. Any numbness instead “stems from the grim knowledge that our elected officials will do little beyond making their wan pleas for prayers or votes.… ‘Numb’ is just the imperfect term being used to describe this sad state of affairs, because we’ve not really invented a word to describe what it’s like to live in a reality that’s so galling, and so stupid.”

The best people in the journalism industry go to work every day in the hope that our crises might be solved with newer and better information, in the belief that the only reason that big problems persist is because we haven’t yet ferreted out that all-important fact that finally unlocks the puzzle. But mass shootings don’t offer this challenge: All roads inevitably lead back to “there are too many readily available guns in America.” That’s basically all you need to know to answer the question, “Why does this keep happening?” The facts are in, the case is closed; the rest is just the deception of politicians and ideologues who are OK with schoolchildren being gunned down in their classrooms.

But if you’ll permit me to beat this dead horse on behalf of some dead children, I’ll put this all in some stark terms. According to “The Accessibility of Firearms and Risk for Suicide and Homicide Victimization Among Household Members,” a study published in 2014 in Annals of Internal Medicine, “Access to firearms is associated with risk for completed suicide and being the victim of homicide,” and gun ownership is “more prevalent in the United States than in any other country.” As a result, the “annual rate of suicide by firearms is higher in the United States than in any other country with reported data,” and the “annual rate of firearm-related homicide in the United States is the highest among high-income countries.”

As The New York Times reported two years later, the U.S. resides on an entirely different planet when it comes to gun deaths—an extreme outlier when measured against other advanced countries. Per the Times, “about two people out of every million are killed in a gun homicide in Germany,” which is “roughly the death rate for hypothermia or plane crashes” here at home. In the U.S., meanwhile, “the death rate from gun homicides is about 31 per million people—the equivalent of 27 people shot dead every day of the year.” How’s this for American exceptionalism? In 2020, according to an analysis in April of the most recent CDC data available, guns overtook car accidents as the leading cause of death among children and teenagers.

Can gun laws reduce gun violence? Here again are the facts: According to a 2016 study in Epidemiologic Reviews, wherever a country has imposed “new restrictions on gun purchasing and ownership,” these steps were “followed by a decline in gun deaths.” As Vox’s Zach Beauchamp reported, the study concluded that “gun violence declined” any time “countries pass a raft of gun laws at the same time.” Moreover, the gun safety packages these countries opted to fashion “all tended to share similar features”: bans on “powerful weapons,” such as “automatic rifles,” the implementation of background checks, and mandatory permits and licenses. As the study’s lead author told Vox, “Across countries, instead of seeing an increase in the homicide rate, we saw a reduction,” wherever gun restrictions of this variety were passed.

There is very little chance that we will pass such laws anytime soon, which means that other fact patterns that currently hold sway will continue in perpetuity—such as the abundant evidence we’ve collected about what a bullet does to a human body, and what a hundred bullets can do to scores of human bodies. In 2017, Jason Fagone reported extensively in HuffPost Highline on the facts related to bullets and bodies. The most interesting thing I learned from his story is that while people die from gunshot wounds, it can be just as harrowing to not die from gunshot wounds. In fact, according to the Radiological Society of North America, “the bulk of the cost of treating victims of gun violence is spent on ongoing care,” as opposed to the emergency care administered in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting.

To wit: Some of the kids who are merely wounded in school shootings go on to have lifelong health concerns: They have neurological injuries as a result of blood loss; they are forced to use colostomy bags for an extended period of time; in general, bullets that tear through bone and muscle and organs leave lasting damage behind. Heather Sher described this latter concern, a process called “cavitation,” for The Atlantic in 2008: “The high-velocity bullet causes a swath of tissue damage that extends several inches from its path. It does not have to actually hit an artery to damage it and cause catastrophic bleeding.”

“Exit wounds,” she adds, “can be the size of an orange.”

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.