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 rearms 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.
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