Frontiers

Burden to Bear

Associate Professor of Criminology John MacDonald discusses America’s relationship with guns
January 2013

The debate over gun control in America reveals a sharply divided public—and while many are passionate in their opposition to guns, the issue is rarely visited on a legislative level. But the recent mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., have rekindled the debate over the place of guns in the U.S. “Firearms are part and parcel of the American story,” says John MacDonald, Associate Professor of Criminology. “Despite these horrendous mass killings in the last year, we’ve actually seen an overall decrease in homicide. The problem is that the share of homicides caused by guns has stayed the same—80 to 90 percent.”

One problem is that firearm technology continues to grow more deadly. In the 1970s, the average gun used in a homicide was a small caliber rifle like a .22, or a zip gun—a poor quality, homemade weapon. Now the average gun seized from a felon in the street is a 9mm semiautomatic. “High rates of violent crime are, of course, not limited to America,” says MacDonald. “In fact, when compared to victimization rates in the United Kingdom, Germany, and France, the U.S. rates well. But our homicide rate outpaces these places by a factor of, in some cases, as much as 10, and guns have got to be the reason.”

Despite these horrendous mass killings in the last year, we’ve actually seen an overall decrease in homicide. The problem is that the share of homicides caused by guns has stayed the same—80 to 90 percent

Historically, passing any meaningful prohibitions on guns has been an uphill battle, especially given the influence of powerful lobbying organizations like the National Rifle Association. In a rare coup in 1994, Congress imposed the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, but the law has since expired. Ironically, the ban had the unintended effect of ratcheting up the purchasing of the same firearms it was attempting to limit, and the net difference in the number of assault weapons in circulation was largely unaffected. “People preemptively purchased these weapons at such a rate before the ban kicked in that you probably had just as many of them out in circulation as you would have had without the ban,” says MacDonald.

Any unified approach to gun control legislation is inherently problematic given that each state’s position is unique. In the short time that has elapsed since the shooting at Sandy Hill Elementary School in Newtown, New York City has already signed into law sweeping new gun prohibitions. Conversely, other states are proactively fighting any new legislation, with Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant even asking state legislators to pass laws that would condone willful disobedience of any new federal gun sanctions. Some experts have proposed a federal sales tax on guns, or a law requiring owners of certain firearms to purchase liability insurance. And while the cost of owning a gun might act as a deterrent, the likeliness the legislation would pass on a state-by-state basis is a statistical impossibility.

Despite the opposition, President Obama has announced 23 separate executive actions, including heightened background checks and a fresh assault rifle ban. “The newly proposed ban is mostly symbolic,” says MacDonald. “It’s probably not going to reduce spree killings. But even if it’s only symbolic, it’s a start, but the real issue is the culture and the sheer volume of guns in circulation.”