When the coronavirus pandemic struck last year, people throughout the developed world raced to buy toilet paper, bottled water, yeast for baking bread, and other basic necessities. Americans also stocked up on guns. They bought more than 23 million firearms in 2020, up 65 percent from 2019. First-time gun purchases were notably high. The surge has not abated in 2021. In January, Americans bought 4.3 million guns, a monthly record.
Last year was also a high-water mark for gun violence—more people were shot dead than at any time since the 1990s—though 2021 is shaping up to be even worse. There was one bright spot in 2020. When Americans self-isolated, mass shooters were denied their usual targets. But as America began to return to normal, so did the mass shootings: 45 in the single month between March 16 and April 15.
The shock and horror of mass shootings focus our attention. But most of the casualties are inflicted one by one by one. Americans use their guns to open fire on one another at backyard barbecues, to stalk and intimidate ex-spouses and lovers, to rob and assault, and to kill themselves. Half of the almost 48,000 suicides committed in 2019 were carried out by gun. All of this slaughter is enabled by the most permissive gun laws in the developed world.
You know this. You’ve heard it before. Maybe you have even gotten sick of hearing it. Yet the problem continues to get worse. The Biden administration is developing strategies to try to decrease gun violence—to crack down on rogue gun dealers, to “keep guns out of the wrong hands.” That’s a worthy project, of course, but it, too, may sound wanly familiar. Over the past decade, many states have relaxed their gun laws, making these weapons even easier to get.
This fall, the Supreme Court will hear a case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Corlett, that could expand gun rights even further. Thirteen years ago, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Court for the first time recognized people’s constitutional right to own firearms as individuals, not just as members of a “well regulated Militia.” Now lawyers for the New York affiliate of the National Rifle Association will argue that the Second Amendment should be interpreted as granting a constitutional right to carry firearms in the streets, parks, playgrounds. If the NRA prevails, the nearly 400 million guns in the United States will show up in even more places than they do now.
The legalistic approach to restricting gun ownership and reducing gun violence is failing. So is the assumption behind it. Drawing a bright line between the supposedly vast majority of “responsible,” “law abiding” gun owners and those shadowy others who cause all the trouble is a prudent approach for politicians, but it obscures the true nature of the problem. We need to stop deceiving ourselves about the importance of this distinction.
Pre-pandemic, about 30 percent of American adults owned a gun, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Another 33 percent rejected the idea of gun ownership. The remainder, about 36 percent, did not happen to own a gun at the time they were asked the question—but had either owned a gun in the past or could imagine owning a gun in the future. In 2020, the future came, and millions of them queued at gun shops, pandemic stimulus dollars in hand.
They were not buying weapons for hunting. Only about 11.5 million Americans hunt in a given year, according to the latest Department of the Interior survey, fewer than the number who attend a professional ballet or modern-dance performance.
Nor were they buying weapons to play private militia. Fewer than 10 percent of Americans amass arsenals of five weapons or more. And for all the focus on assault rifles, they make up a small portion of the firearms in private hands: approximately 6 percent of all guns owned.
The weapon Americans most often buy is the modern semiautomatic handgun—affordable, light, and easy to use. This is the weapon people stash in their nightstand and the glove compartment of their car. This is the weapon they tuck into their purse and shove into their waistband. Why? Two-thirds of American gun buyers explain that they bought their gun to protect themselves and their families.
And here is both the terrible tragedy of America’s gun habit and the best hope to end it. In virtually every way that can be measured, owning a firearm makes the owner, the owner’s family, and the people around them less safe. The hard-core gun owner will never accept this truth. But the 36 percent in the middle—they may be open to it, if they can be helped to perceive it.
The weapons Americans buy to protect their loved ones are the weapons that end up being accidentally discharged into a loved one’s leg or chest or head. The weapons Americans buy to protect their young children are years later used for self-harm by their troubled teenagers. Or they are stolen from their car by criminals and used in robberies and murders. Or they are grabbed in rage and pointed at an ex-partner.
The record shows case after case of guns escalating ordinary disputes into homicides or attempted homicides. In March 2020, a man was fatally shot in the head after an altercation over a parking space at an Atlanta shopping mall. In August 2020, a 75-year-old Nashville homeowner reportedly shot and wounded a landscaper for not properly hauling brush from his property. In November 2020, a gun owner shot and killed a teenager for playing music too loudly in the parking lot of the motel they were both staying at, police said.
These incidents are unusual in only one way: The victims were all men. A frequent use of guns in American life is to dominate and terrorize women. According to a 2017 study, some 4.5 million American women have been threatened by a gun-wielding partner or former partner. Almost 1 million American women have survived after a gun was used by a partner against them.
Put moments of rage or malice aside, and catastrophes still keep happening, due in part to Americans’ collective overconfidence in their gun-handling skills.
Altogether, about 500 Americans a year die from unintended shootings. That’s four times the rate of deaths from unintended shootings in peer nations. Yet this grim statistic still understates the toll of Americans fooling around with weapons. Unintended shootings tend not to be lethal. They account for only about 1 percent of all U.S. gun deaths. But they account for more than one-third of American gun injuries—injuries that can leave people disabled or traumatized for life. A majority of gun owners fail to store their weapons safely, according to research by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. That’s why the annals fill with so many heartrending stories of children shooting themselves or others.
Above all else, guns are used for suicide. In any given year, twice as many Americans die by suicide as by homicide. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among teenagers and young adults, behind only accidents. The good news is that suicide is highly preventable. Most suicide attempts are impulsive, an act of depression or panic. If a person survives an attempt, he or she will almost certainly survive the suicidal impulse altogether. A gun in the house massively raises the likelihood that a suicide attempt will end in death.
Gun advocates counter this tally of unnecessary bloodshed by generating piles of studies on successful “defensive gun use.” Estimates of defensive gun use vary wildly, from as few as 60,000 incidents a year to as many as 2.5 million. The higher estimates are distorted by a crucial error: They rely heavily on self-reporting by gun owners themselves, with a huge risk of self-flattering bias. If an argument spirals until one person produces a gun and menaces the other into shutting up, the gun owner might regard that use as “defensive.” A third party, however, might perceive a situation that only spiraled in the first place because the gun owner felt empowered to escalate it. Whose perception should prevail?
But there’s a larger absurdity to the project of counting “defensive gun uses.” For decades, the world has witnessed a colossal natural experiment in gun laws. With one exception, virtually all developed countries strictly regulate firearms, especially handguns. If there were any merit to the “defensive gun use” argument, you’d expect that one permissive nation to boast much greater safety. Instead, the one outlier nation—the United States—suffers the deadliest levels of criminal violence. Guns everywhere engender violence everywhere.
In national debates, America’s gun carnage is often blamed on the National Rifle Association. That group is indeed highly blameworthy. But the NRA has been mired in scandal and bankruptcy since 2019, without any notable alteration in the political balance of power on the gun issue. America has a gun problem because so many Americans are deceived by so many illusions about what a gun will do for them, their family, their world. They imagine a gun as the guardian of their home and loved ones, rather than the standing invitation to harm, loss, and grief it so much more often proves to be.
It would be good to reverse the permissive trends in gun law. It would be good to ban the preferred weapons of mass shooters. It would be good to have a stronger system of background checks. It would be good to stop so many Americans from carrying guns in public.
But even if none of those things happens—and there is little sign of them happening anytime soon—progress can be made against gun violence, as progress was once made against other social evils: by persuading Americans to stop, one by one by one.
Drunk driving has been illegal in the United States since automobiles became commonplace. Yet laws against drunk driving went lightly enforced until the 1980s. Police and courts treated drunk drivers leniently. The offenders seemed so remorseful. Had they not suffered enough?
That practice of leniency began to change in 1980, with the founding of Mothers Against Drunk Driving by one determined woman, Candy Lightner, who had lost her daughter to a repeat hit-and-run driver. From Fair Oaks, California, MADD spread across the nation. Before it pressured politicians to amend laws, before it persuaded courts and police to enforce those laws, it enabled those reforms by working directly on public attitudes. MADD convinced American drivers that they were not weak or unmanly if they surrendered the car keys after drinking too much. MADD empowered the families and friends of those drivers to insist that the keys be surrendered.
That kind of cultural change beckons now. The mass gun purchases of 2020 and 2021 have put even more millions of weapons into even more hands untrained to use and store those weapons responsibly.
Today, a new generation of determined women are emulating MADD, this time fighting against gun violence. The day after the Sandy Hook gun massacre, a Colorado mother of five, Shannon Watts, launched a group that now numbers 6 million: Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. After the large Republican gains in the state elections of 2014, Moms Demand Action fought mostly on defense, helping prevent Tennessee from restoring gun rights to violent felons, for instance, and Alaska from compelling state universities to allow guns to be carried on campus. In the 2020s, Moms Demand Action and allies could reshape the national gun debate more fundamentally. It’s the kind of effort that should be much more widely embraced, and not only by mothers.
The gun buyers of 2020–21 are different from those of years past: They are more likely to be people of color and more likely to be women. They are not buying guns to join a race war, or to overthrow the government, or to wait for Armageddon in a bunker stocked with canned beans. They just want to deter a burglar or an assailant, should one come.
Those dangers are real, and it’s understandable that people would fear them and seek to avert them. But like the people who refuse lifesaving vaccines for fear of minutely rare side effects, American gun buyers are falling victim to bad risk analysis.
They need to meet the grandparents who stuffed a gun beneath a pillow while cooking—and returned to their granddaughter’s dead body. They need to see the man in prison because he lost his temper over a parking space. They need to listen to the parents whose teenager found a suicide weapon that had not been locked away. They need to know more about the woman killed in the electronics aisle at an Idaho Walmart when her 2-year-old accidentally discharged the gun she carried in her purse.
They need to hear a new call to conscience, aimed not at the paranoid and the extreme, not at the militiamen and the race warriors, but at the decent, everyday gun owner.
You want to be a protective spouse, a concerned parent, a good citizen, a patriotic American? Save your family and your community from danger by getting rid of your weapons, and especially your handguns. Don’t wait for the law. Do it yourself; do it now. Do it because you just bought your first home, do it because you just got married, do it because you just had the baby you cherish more than anything in this world. The gun you trust against your fears is itself the thing you should fear. The gun is a lie.
As more Americans recognize the lie, they may notice a powerful new possibility. Once emancipated from the false myth of the home-protecting gun, they will find it easier to write laws and adopt policies to stop the criminals and zealots who carry guns into the streets. Win enough elections, and the federal courts will retreat from their sudden gun advocacy—and return to their historic deference to state regulation of firearms.
None of this will be easy, but it is not impossible. Over the past half decade, we’ve seen American society changed for the better through mass movements such as #MeToo. Now we need a new moral reckoning.
Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Greek writer Thucydides described the progress of civilization. It began, he said, when the Athenians ceased carrying arms inside their city, and left that savage custom to the barbarians. It’s long past time for Americans to absorb this first lesson from the first democracy.
This article appears in the October 2021 print edition with the headline “Responsible Gun Ownership Is a Lie.”