Guns spark intense political debates in America. What’s the link, if any, between gun ownership, crimes involving guns, and firearm-related fatalities? Do regulatory laws make a difference? Discover the statistics that help answer these questions, and learn some essential gun safety practices that will prevent accidental deaths in your own home.
Gun Ownership and Safety in America
According to a 2017 survey, 30% of adults in America owned at least one gun. Two-thirds of that figure owned more than one gun. Thirty-six percent of American adults said they could see themselves owning a gun in the future, and 33% of respondents said they couldn’t imagine themselves ever owning a gun.
Most gun owners prefer handguns, with rifles and shotguns representing the next-most popular firearms. Surveys suggest that between 54% and 63% of gun owners do not store their guns with gun safes, locked gun racks or trigger locks. Such safety measures are highly recommended to avoid accidental child deaths. Seventy-three of these tragedies occurred in 2018, and 152 took place between 2014 and 2016.
The average demographic profile of a U.S. gun owner is that of a white male over the age of 50 living in the rural south, with some college education, and who votes for Republican politicians. The average demographic profile of a person least likely to own a gun in the U.S. is that of a Hispanic woman in her 20s living in a northeast urban area, with at least a bachelor’s degree, and who votes for Democratic politicians.
In April of 2020, RAND Corporation published a long-term study on gun ownership in the United States between 1980 to 2016. The 16 states with the highest rate of gun ownership, in which at least 50% of the adult population owns at least one firearm, include:
- West Virginia
- South Dakota
- North Dakota
Many people affiliate gun ownership with conservative politics, and this seems to hold. Of the top gun-owning states, Oregon and Vermont are the only “blue” states — in other words, those carried by Democrats in the last four presidential elections.
Does greater gun ownership equate to more gun-related deaths? In 2019, the following 16 states had the highest crude rate of firearm-related deaths, including homicide, suicide and accidental deaths:
- New Mexico
- District of Columbia
- South Carolina
- West Virginia
There is considerable overlap between gun ownership and gun-related death. However, it’s worth noting that Vermont had one of the lowest crude death rates by firearms despite more than 50% of the population owning guns in the state.
Do strict gun laws help rein in gun-related deaths? Few gun laws exist at the federal level, so it’s up to each state to determine its own regulations regarding the purchase, possession, sale, and use of firearms. Since Alaska tops both lists with the highest percentage of gun ownership and the highest per-capita rate of firearm-related deaths, it can be useful to see what kind of laws the state does and doesn’t have. Alaska does prohibit:
- People convicted of a felony and some domestic violence misdemeanors from purchasing or possessing firearms.
- Carrying firearms in places that sell liquor, in K-12 schools, childcare centers, and private residences (without the resident’s permission), among other facilities.
- Unemancipated minors under the age of 16 from possessing a firearm without a parent or guardian’s consent.
- The possession of firearms and ammunition by individuals found by a lawful authority to be dangerous to themselves or others or lacking certain mental capacities.
Alaska’s laws have been deemed lax enough to earn it an F rating on the Gifford Law Center gun law scorecard. Every other state on the above lists also earned an F rating, except for Hawaii (A-), New Mexico (C+), and Tennessee (D-). California and New Jersey are the only two states to have earned a solid A rating. They also have very low per-capita firearm-related death rates: 5 such deaths per 100,000 people occurred in New Jersey in 2019, and 7.9 per 100,000 people occurred in California.
Both states earned their A ratings thanks to laws regulating:
- Ammunition sales.
- Possession of assault weapons.
- Gun purchases by anyone who does not pass a criminal background check or has been deemed an extreme risk to oneself or others.
- Bulk firearm purchases.
- Child firearm access.
- Concealed carry.
- Handgun design and safety standards.
- Loaded guns in vehicles.
And much more.
Crimes, Suicides and Accidents Involving Guns in America
Although the FBI has yet to release weapon information for crimes committed in 2020, preliminary data shows that murder and aggravated assault increased in 2020 compared to 2019, whereas robbery decreased over the same period.
Data going all the way back to 1979 reveals that firearm-related deaths have fluctuated over time. They peaked at 39,600 in 1993 and then fell to an all-time low of 28,700 in 2000. The year 2017 set a new record of 39,800 firearm-related deaths.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 59.2% of all firearm-related deaths between 2001 and 2019 were suicides, 37% were homicides, 1.8% were accidental deaths, and 1.2% occurred during “legal intervention.” Firearm-related deaths affected men six times as often as women and affected African-Americand twice as often as Caucasians.
Harvard notes that 52% of suicides involved a firearm. Research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that having access to a gun at home increases the risk of firearm suicide three-fold. When people use guns to commit suicide, the attempt is 99% fatal. In contrast, suicide attempts involving overdose or cutting represent 68% and 19% of non-fatal self-harm treated in emergency rooms, respectively.
Family Gun Safety
If you choose to own a gun, it’s crucial to follow a few safety guidelines to prevent accidents in the home, including safe storage and proper education. According to Stanford Children’s Health, a 3-year-old child can be strong enough to pull the trigger on a handgun.
Safely Storing Guns at Home
According to a Pew Research Center survey, 67% of respondents cited protection as a reason for owning guns. It may be tempting to keep a gun within arm’s reach (i.e., not secured in a safe) in case you need to protect your home quickly, but guns kept out in the open pose a significant safety threat, especially if you have children in the home.
Beth Alcazar, associate editor of Concealed Carry Magazine and a firearms instructor certified through the SIG Sauer Academy and six other organizations, notes that kids are far more observant than parents realize and are typically aware of “hidden” gun locations.
“Safe storage at home is paramount in order to keep firearms out of the hands of unauthorized users, especially children,” Alcazar explains. “A small biometric or RFID safe may be the best choice […] for quick, strategic access to a defensive handgun during an emergency for only those users who hold the correct code, key, ID fob, or fingerprint.”
Jeremy Nesbitt of Nexgen Outfitters also points out that biometric trigger locks represent a good option for gun owners wanting “the best security that is also removed by an authorized user in the blink of an eye.” The only downside to trigger locks is that they do not prevent firearm theft. But in terms of preventing accidental discharge or keeping a gun away from a family member at risk of suicide, trigger locks are affordable and effective.
Teaching Gun Safety to Children
Just like “stop, drop and roll,” children should always know what to do if they encounter a firearm. Teach children to:
- Don’t touch.
- Tell a grown-up.
Alcazar also recommends modeling proper gun safety at all times: “Be good role models, share the gun safety rules, and have purposeful and meaningful discussions with [children] about safety and personal protection.” Any time you perform maintenance on the gun, for example, make sure you explain what you’re doing and why.
Nesbit recommends consistently reiterating the following four gun safety expectations to your children any time you handle a gun:
- Treat every gun as if it were loaded and able to fire.
- Never point a gun at anything you’re not willing to kill or destroy.
- Always keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.
- Be 100% sure of your target and what’s in front of, behind and around it.
For thorough gun safety training that goes beyond the basics, sign your entire family up for a course with a local instructor.
Responsible Gun Ownership Saves Lives
You don’t have to be a child or even a first-time gun owner to benefit from a reminder about gun safety. Gun-related deaths aren’t always caused by criminals. Sometimes it’s an accident. Do your part to prevent a tragedy by making sure your guns stay unloaded, locked up or on your person at all times.