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Guns are a hot-button issue in American politics. America is an outlier among advanced nations for its levels of gun violence, and many efforts to enact policy for gun safety and control are blocked by invocations of the 2nd Amendment’s right to bear arms. In a conversation fraught with emotion and political spin, it’s important to know: what is the factual situation of guns in the United States, and what does the 2nd Amendment actually mean in a legal sense?

Here is some important data to know about guns in America:

  • In 2023, four-in-ten American adults self-reported that they live in a home that has a gun, and 32% of Americans said they personally owned one. More specifically, Republican and Republican-leaning independents were doubly as likely than their Democratic counterparts to say they personally had a gun.
  • 49% of Americans said in 2023 that owning a gun leads to more safety, if law-abiding citizens own them, but another 49% said that gun ownership erodes safety by elevating access to guns for people who misuse them. There is a political divide here, too: while 79% of Republican respondents felt gun ownership boosts safety, 78% of Democrats said it reduced safety.
  • In 2021, 48,830 people died from a gun-related injury in the U.S. (the most recent year for which complete data was available)—this includes both gun murders and gun suicides, which themselves include accidental deaths, deaths involving law enforcement, and those with undetermined circumstances. Suicide accounts for the majority of gun-related deaths in the U.S.—in 2021, 54% of the 48,830 gun deaths were suicides (26,328) and 46% were murders (20,958).
  • Eight-in-ten murders recorded in 2021 involved firearms, and more than half of suicides that year (55%) involved guns also. This number of gun deaths was a 19% increase from the numbers recorded in 2019—specifically, gun murders rose 45% in those two years, and gun suicides grew by 10%. Notably, gun deaths for children and teenagers rose 50% from 2019 to 2021, from 1,732 to 2,590.
  • Though the number of gun deaths reached a record in 2021, when accounting for population growth, gun deaths per capita in 2021 were 14.6 per 100,000 people, the highest rate since the 1990s but still lower than the record of 16.3 per 100,000 in 1974. While the gun murder rate remained below its historic peak level, the gun suicide rate reached a par with its historical peak: 7.5 per 100,000 in 2021 compared to 7.7 in 1977.
  • The states with the top five highest recorded rates of gun-related fatalities in 2021 included Mississippi (33.9 per 100,000 people), Louisiana (29.1), New Mexico (27.8), Alabama (26.4), and Wyoming (26.1). The lowest five states were Massachusetts (3.4), Hawaii (4.8), New Jersey (5.2), New York (5.4), and Rhode Island (5.6). Check the Pew Research article for further breakdowns of gun homicides and suicides.
  • The U.S. ranked 20th overall in 2016 for gun deaths per capita (10.6 per 100,000) among nations, but that position is a bit misleading. Compared to other, similar “developed” nations, the U.S. ranked significantly higher than Canada (2.1), Australia (1.0), Germany (0.9), Spain (0.6), and others, but ranked below several Latin American nations such as El Salvador (39.2), Venezuela (38.7), and Colombia (25.9).

The disparity between America and its peer nations is a major motivator behind advocates for gun control policies. But often their proposals are met with claims that such policies would be violations of the Constitution’s 2nd Amendment, which famously says that “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Many who oppose gun control laws argue that this provision is a guarantee for the individual’s right to own a firearm, and that the government cannot infringe on that ability in any way.

Historically speaking, however, many historians and Constitutional scholars don’t believe that individual, private ownership of guns was what the Founders intended with this amendment. America’s founders were strong believers in the use of civilian militias to protect the security of the state, and they believed that everyone serving part-time in citizen militias was a preferable alternative to standing armies. Everyone should participate in the militia, and everyone who participated in the militia should be armed to be effective. If you were unable to serve in the militia, you were not expected to be privately armed.

This philosophy was actually acknowledged and born out in a series of court decisions about guns over the centuries. They consistently recognized that the concept of individual citizens to “keep and bear arms” was specifically linked to the context of participating in the militia. It was the Supreme Court’s decision in 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller, that rejected the precedent interpretation of the amendment to be about collective rights related to the militia rather than individual right to ownership.

It’s clear from the numbers that America has a gun violence problem, and if that is the condition in the status quo, then maybe we should try something different. Gun control doesn’t simply mean taking guns away from Americans. It means treating guns—deadly weapons—with the common sense that fits a modern context, and it can be done while maintaining the spirit of a “well regulated militia.” It could mean mandatory gun safety and handling training to own one: it’s a good bet most people in the militias were more familiar with handling a gun as part of modern life back then. There are already rules in place to require safety and training for managing other dangerous objects in modern society, like vehicles—maybe a “well regulated militia” means proper training for guns, too.

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