Gun Violence Research

I tried to educate myself about gun violence, so I spent a few hours researching the topic. All sources were as objective as I could find, with a strong bias in favor of governmental research agencies and mostly-objective national polling agencies.

Here’s everything I found. I am not going to speculate on this data, but rather present it here as a collection of my current state of knowledge on gun violence. The most interesting things I learned were:

  • The statistics on gun availability and suicides
  • The relatively small number of deaths from mass shootings
  • The lock-step increase (on average) in gun violence as gun availability increases
  • I found absolutely no data backing up my belief that altercations escalate to violence more easily and lethally when a firearm is available (due to lack of data)
  • I found no evidence that mass stabbings are less lethal than mass shootings (due to lack of data)

I would appreciate any references for the things I couldn’t find evidence for, references against anything listed below, and opinions on the questions in the last section.

Things which are true:

Gun ownership

  • The case law in support of individuals owning firearms is pretty solid, and an outright ban on gun ownership is almost certainly unconstitutional at the federal level, but not necessarily at the state level. 12
  • The number of households and individuals who own guns has decreased slightly since 1960 34
  • The number of guns in circulation has drastically increased since 2005, while the number of people owning guns has gone down slightly, leading to fewer people owning more guns 35
  • The average gun owner, when excluding outliers, is a white male that owns 5 firearms. 6
  • Studies have shown that ownership of guns has recently increased mostly due to “personal protection” 7


  • Homicide rates are around 1968 levels, after coming down from a peak between 1971–1994 8
  • The percent of homicides committed with a gun has increased since 1975, while all non-gun homicides have declined 8
  • Most law enforcement officers are killed by handguns 8
  • 67% of all murders are done with a gun 89
  • Mass shootings account for a small fraction of gun-related deaths. 1011
  • Gun murders disproportionately affect young black men (20x young white men) 11
  • For every 1% of people in a community owning guns, there is a 0.9% increase in firearm homicides. 12
  • Women are 5x as likely to be murdered in an abusive relationship when their abuser owns a gun. 13
  • Availability of guns is associated with a higher murder rate, but it does not affect general violence levels. 6
  • Knives kill over twice as many people as rifles and shotguns combined, per year. 14
  • Handguns kill over 4x as many people as knives per year. 14


  • Most deaths (64%) caused by guns are due to suicide 11
  • When people have access to firearms, suicide attempts are much more fatal; this disproportionately affects white men & women. 1115
  • The most people die from gun suicides (85%), but guns are not the most common way to attempt suicide 15
  • Gun-owning households are more than 3x likely to commit suicide by gun 15
  • States with high availability of firearms have higher than normal gun suicides, but the same numbers of non-gun suicides 15
  • 70% of people who survived a near-lethal suicide attempt decided to commit suicide suddenly, in less than an hour. 15
  • Reducing the urge to commit suicide is near impossible, but reducing availability of very lethal methods does reduce suicide deaths. 15

Mental Illness, and other indicators of gun violence

  • Mental illness is not a leading contributor to gun violence, but is the highest indicator of self-inflicted gun violence. 11
  • Alcoholism, substance abuse, and a history of violence are the leading contributors to interpersonal gun violence 11
  • Rates of mental illness among gun-owning and non-gun-owning households are identical 15
  • America does not have good access to mental healthcare, and the stigma against seeing a psychiatrist would prevent those most likely to commit murder (mass- or otherwise) from actually getting help. 1617

Unintended consequences

  • When people have access to firearms, they are much more likely to accidentally kill themselves or others, this is also true for family members of the gun owner. 1518
  • People in possession of a gun are over 4x as likely to be shot in an assault than those that do not carry guns. 19
  • People are less likely to be hurt, but more likely to be murdered, during a robbery or mugging when the attacker has a gun. 6

Gun buy-back programs

  • Gun buy-back programs, while apparently successful in Australia, have not been shown to be effective in America. 2021
  • The guns turned over in buy-back programs are those least likely to be used in criminal activities. 20
  • Gun buy-back programs have broad support, but little evidence that they reduce mortality due to guns. 21
  • The Australian gun buy-back was mandatory, unlike the voluntary buy-backs in the USA. 22 It is not clear if this would make a meaningful difference in the USA.

Things which I thought were iron-clad true, but which I couldn’t find evidence for (and have adjusted my scepticism accordingly):

  • When people have access to firearms, regular fights that would normally end in a fist fight often end in gunshots.
  • Fights which end in gunshots are more deadly than those that end with fists or knives, both for people near the fight and those involved in the fight.
  • It’s likely that if people couldn’t carry firearms they would carry knives, but that is a net benefit to public safety because it’s all but impossible to stab somebody you didn’t mean to stab or get caught in the crossfire.
  • Mass stabbings are less deadly and fewer people are injured than in mass shootings.

Things which I believed, but didn’t expect to find evidence for, and in fact found no evidence for, and which I no longer believe strongly:

  • Forcing everyone to undergo a thorough background check and psychological evaluation would deter regular people from getting a gun due to the hassle of it.
  • Like drugs, making guns illegal would not prevent everybody from getting them.
  • Gun ranges have a net positive impact on gun safety because inexperienced people are taught by people who know how to handle weapons.
  • Anybody can experience anger intense enough to fire a gun if they have a gun nearby.

Things I have no knowledge of:

  • Would forcing those who want to own a gun to first undergo a thorough background check and psychological evaluation prevent disturbed or mentally unstable people from getting a weapon?
  • Has concealed carry successfully stopped shootings?
  • How does the likelihood of being shot change when someone near a shooting is carrying a weapon?
  • Do gun safes have a net benefit on safety?
  • Do trigger locks have a net benefit on safety?
  • Is limiting the use of firearms to gun ranges unconstitutional?

Written on December 7, 2015 by Steven Buss.

Originally published on Medium

  1. Presser v. Illinois, 116 U.S. 252 (1886) ↩︎

  2. District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008) ↩︎

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  10. Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence. The National Academies Press. ISBN 978–0–309–28438–7 ↩︎

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