This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Guns Are a Public Health Problem in the U.S.

Republican politicians may insist that it is inappropriate to talk about gun control so soon after the mass shooting in Las Vegas, but of course these horrific events remind us that we need to do something--and the sooner the better. The first step is to increase public understanding of how "exceptional" the U.S. is in terms of gun violence. Several people have alerted me to a very good story put together by German Lopez at He has assembled an array of information that puts things into context. In the first place, the U.S. has an almost unimaginably higher rate of homicides by firearms per million persons than any other rich country--29.7 compared to the next highest, Switzerland, at 7.7. Why is this so? Well, it's because we have so many guns in civilian hands. Using data from the United Nations, the calculation is that while the U.S. has 4.4 percent of the world's population, it has 42 percent of the world's guns that are in civilian hands. 

When it comes to gun deaths, however, Steven Pinker in his excellent book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined reminds us that the U.S. varies considerably by state, and the data from Lopez's reveal the pattern, as can be seen in the graph below.

States with more guns have more gun deaths. One line of thinking would be, of course, that these are more violent states and so people need guns to defend themselves. The research, however, suggests that this is a case of reverse causality. In reality, the more guns are available, the more likely they are to be used to kill someone, including the owner (gun ownership is associated with higher rates of suicide).
When economist Richard Florida took a look at gun deaths and other social indicators, he found that higher populations, more stress, more immigrants, and more mental illness didn’t correlate with more gun deaths. But he did find one telling correlation: States with tighter gun control laws have fewer gun-related deaths. (Read more at Florida’s “The Geography of Gun Deaths.”)
Pew Research Center data referenced in the Vox story also show clearly that the vast majority of Americans favor specific policies to regulate gun ownership. It is past time for Congress to respond to the American public on this. This isn't about taking away guns, but rather about lowering the odds that guns will be used to kill innocent people. This will also help in at least a small way to close the gap between the U.S. and other rich countries on overall life expectancy. We have the highest rate of gun ownership and the lowest life expectancy among rich countries. Coincidence?

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