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Guns and violence are integrally related. A discussion about guns that does not mention their role in violence, or a discussion of violence without regard to guns, misses part of the whole picture. Understanding the nature of gun violence requires looking at the issue from different levels of analysis and different political approaches. Examining varying levels of analysis allows us to consider the issue of how individuals, society, and state institutions see the problem. An examination of different political approaches will highlight the issue of the political debate around gun control and violence. This entry begins with gun violence statistics and then discusses gun violence with regard to individuals, society, and governmental interventions.
Gun Violence Statistics
Between 1999 and 2003, there were 140,795 gun-related violent deaths in the United States, accounting for 57.8% of all violence-related deaths within the same period. During this time frame, firearm-related homicide was the leading cause of violence-related deaths in the United States for individuals between the ages 15 and 34.
According to Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) statistics, 68% of the homicides that occurred in 2005 were committed with firearms. Of those, 75% involved handguns, and the remaining 25% involved shotguns, rifles, and unknown gun types. The number of murders committed with a firearm increased from 8,890 to 10,100—nearly 14%—between 2001 and 2005.
The proportion of gun involvement in violent offenses remains well above the average of other industrialized countries. Most gun violence scholars agree that gun violence is an “epidemic” for the United States; however, the causes and solutions are debated widely. The primary form of the debate on how to reduce gun violence involves policy options regarding gun availability. On one side of the debate, it is claimed that gun violence is related to easy access to guns in American society. Conversely, others argue that the ability to legally possess guns decreases violence because the legal carriers of the weapons are able to protect themselves from violent offenders; therefore, they actually have a deterrent effect.
In addition to the high proportion of fatal incidents of violence, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which is a national victimization survey of about 134,000 persons age 12 and older, reveals that a substantial number of nonfatal violent crimes were also committed with a firearm. While the proportion of nonfatal violent incidents that involved the use of a firearm fell to 6% by 2004, a substantial increase to approximately 9% was observed in 2005.
It is estimated that 49% of U.S. households have guns, which amounts to 47.6 million households. Half of the weapons in these households are owned specifically for self-defense. Nevertheless, guns are involved in approximately 70% of homicides and 60% of suicides in the United States. Death by firearm is the second leading cause of injury death. In the United States, gun mortality is more than twice that of the next highest of the industrialized countries. It costs as much as $100 billion each year, and it disproportionately affects young people, as it is the second leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 19.
Individuals and Gun Violence
Violent behavior, in general, can be considered a way of communicating where such action is either accepted or tolerated. In this context, Deanna L. Wilkinson and Jeffrey Fagan have argued that the presence of firearms presents a unique contingency
that shapes decision-making patterns of individuals. The presence of firearms influences decisions both in social interactions with the potential for becoming disputes and within disputes that have already begun. From an individual point of view, gun use has become a means of status and identity formation for members of inner-city neighborhoods in the United States. Therefore, gun violence can be thought of as an ultimate tool to form and sustain positive social identities within the neighborhood. For some, firearms represent toughness, power, dominance, self-defense, and protection for those living in a violent subculture.
Society and Gun Violence
Violence in the society and the availability of guns present risk factors. Some studies indicate that television programs and video games cause further violence. Research also indicates that adolescents who are exposed to higher levels of community violence also engage in higher levels of violent activity, associate with more deviant peers, and adhere more strongly to an aggressive cognitive style. Families are important determinants of both violent victimization and perpetration. Neighborhood disadvantage also plays a significant role in violence outcomes.
Federal Government/State Intervention in Gun Violence
Gun violence in the United States has created a huge and ongoing debate on gun control laws and policies, which has resulted in a struggle both in politics and policy processes for decades. In politics, gun control and regulation of gun ownership have played a significant role in gaining public support during elections. Debate on gun control policies has become a highly salient issue, especially at times when gun violence occurs in schools or other public places. As gun violence grew in the United States, gun control became an important topic for the federal government to address in various ways. It has been argued, in fact, that American policy processes promote a complicated debate on the gun issue and that the debate on gun control is a product of the American political process, rather than America’s romance with guns.
One policy option shared by both gun control supporters and Second Amendment advocates is enhanced prison penalties for gun crimes, which has found widespread support from all sides of the U.S. gun policy debate. From a deterrence perspective, sentence enhancements ought to reduce gun violence by incapacitating gun criminals through longer sentences. Sentence enhancements give prosecutors discretion to be able to increase sentences for gun crimes. However, others have found that sentence enhancement laws have not produced a significant deterrent effect for firearm-related crimes and, in many cases, those charges are used as a plea-bargaining tool.
Most recently, the federal government proposed Project Safe Neighborhood (PSN) to reduce gun violence by increasing enforcement and prosecution of gun laws. Under this initiative, prosecutors are expected to argue for the maximum sentence for gun crime charges in their jurisdictions. PSN is a coordinated effort to stop gun violence in communities through enhanced, directed resources and more effective prosecution of gun crimes.
Criminologist Lawrence Sherman examined gun violence programs and research on gun violence in the United States from an epidemiological perspective. He concludes that most gun crimes would still occur even if every convicted felon in the United States were shipped to Australia, rather than just barred from legal gun ownership. By making this argument, Sherman illustrates that a policy of using prior felony conviction to determine which people are unsafe to have guns is too simplistic. Rather, gun crime rates might be better reduced by adopting an epidemiologically based perspective. An individual’s decision to use a gun in crime cannot adequately be predicted simply by previous criminal history, and alternative strategies to restricting sales to “safe people” are needed to substantially reduce gun violence. Taking such an epidemiologic approach would involve such tactics as increasing gun patrols that focus on high-risk times and geographically concentrated violent places.
Gun violence is a substantial and pervasive problem that has been difficult to solve in the United States. While some strategies have shown promise for reducing gun violence in targeted communities, large-scale changes in policies have been less successful at addressing the gun violence issue. While the debate continues on the most appropriate policy response to gun violence, few would argue that individuals in the United States continue to be killed by firearms at an unacceptable rate.
- Behrman, R. E. (2002). Children, youth, and gun violence. The Future of Children, 12(2). Retrieved from http://www.futureofchildren.org/pubs-inf02825/pubs-info_show.htm?doc_id=154414
- Egendorf, L. (2005). Guns and violence. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2005). Crime in the United States, 2005. Retrieved August 24, 2007, from www.fbi.com
- National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. (2008). WISQARS (Web-based Injury Query and Reporting System). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/wisqars/default.htm
- Sherman, L. W. (2000). Reducing gun violence: What works, what doesn’t, what’s promising. In Perspectives on crime and justice: 1999-2000 [Lecture series]. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.
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- Wilkinson, D. L., & Fagan, J. (2001). What we know about gun use among adolescents. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 4(2), 109-132.
- Zimring, F., & Hawkins, G. (1997). Crime is not the problem: Lethal violence in America. New York: Oxford University Press.
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