The Effect of Gun Culture and Firearm Laws on Gun Violence in America

Exploring the symbolic meaning of guns in the United States may be one the best ways to approach theoretical questions concerning the effect of culture in action because it focuses on a single object -the gun- which brims with symbolic power far beyond its physical utility.
People Impacted
$ 1.8T
Potential Funding
I have this challenge
the problem
Nature and Context

The guaranteed right to bear arms and to be armed for self-defense as a legal justification to use lethal power, authorizes an individual to kill a person if a perceived unlawful life-threatening attack is imminent.

Most recently, “stand-your-ground” laws expanded the scope of this self-defense concept to include perceived threatening situations occurring in public places rather than limiting these situations to defense of home or personal property only (Castle doctrine). 

Currently, about 26 states have adopted Stand your Ground Laws with the vast majority of these states situated in the Southern and Midwest sub-regions of the United States. These states are also known for their permissive laws on firearms licensing and purchasing (LACV2012).

Thus it is deeply rooted in American culture to have easy access to firearms, permissive regulations regarding the carrying of concealed weapons, and the enactment of laws that authorize citizens to use a gun in public spaces to defend themselves against an imminent deadly threat. 

Symptoms and Causes

At the heart of the gun control debate, in the aftermath of the tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary School, is the potential impact of regulations to curb gun violence and to ultimately prevent public mass shootings. Regulating guns in the United States is a very contentious topic mainly due to the issues of historical and political contexts. The United States is one of only two countries in the world - with Mexico - to guarantee the “right to bear arms” in its constitution. Other countries granting that right in the past have amended their constitutions to make gun ownership a privilege (not a right), which requires permission from a licensing authority (the State), as with a driver’s license, for the sake of better public safety and security (Elkins, 2012).

the impact
Negative Effects

In 2017, the most recent year for which complete data is available, 39,773 people died from gun-related injuries in the U.S., according to the CDC. This figure includes gun murders and gun suicides, along with three other, less common types of gun-related deaths tracked by the CDC: those that were unintentional, involved law enforcement or whose circumstances could not be determined. It excludes deaths in which gunshot injuries played a contributing, but not principal, role. (CDC fatality statistics are based on information contained in death certificates.) (Pew Research Center).


Though they tend to get less attention than gun-related murders, suicides have long accounted for the majority of U.S. gun deaths. In 2017, six-in-ten gun-related deaths in the U.S. were suicides (23,854), while 37% were murders (14,542), according to the CDC. The remainder were unintentional (486), involved law enforcement (553) or had undetermined circumstances (338).

Change over time

Number of Gun Deaths

The 39,773 total gun deaths in 2017 were the most since at least 1968, the earliest year for which the CDC has online data. This was slightly more than the 39,595 gun deaths recorded in the prior peak year of 1993. Both gun murders and gun suicides have gone up in recent years: The number of gun murders rose 32% between 2014 and 2017, while the number of gun suicides rose each year between 2006 and 2017 (a 41% increase overall).

Gun suicides reached their highest recorded level in 2017. But the number of gun murders remained far below the peak in 1993, when there were 18,253 gun homicides – and when overall violent crime levels in the U.S. were much higher than they are today.

Rate of Gun Deaths

While 2017 saw the highest total number of gun deaths in the U.S., this statistic does not take into account the nation’s growing population. On a per capita basis, there were 12 gun deaths per 100,000 people in 2017 – the highest rate in more than two decades, but still well below the 16.3 gun deaths per 100,000 people in 1974, the highest rate in the CDC’s online database.

The gun murder and gun suicide rates in the U.S. are both lower today than in the mid-1970s. There were 4.6 gun murders per 100,000 people in 2017, far below the 7.2 per 100,000 people recorded in 1974. And the rate of gun suicides – 6.9 per 100,000 people in 2017 –  remained below the 7.7 per 100,000 measured in 1977. (One caveat when considering the 1970s figures: In the CDC’s database, gun murders and gun suicides between 1968 and 1978 are classified as those caused by “firearms and explosives.” In subsequent years, they are classified as deaths involving “firearms.”)

who benefits from solving this problem
Organization Types
  • Gun violence advocacy organizations

  • Civil liberties organizations

  • Safety at school groups

  • Parents

  • Teachers

  • Students

  • Government agencies

  • Gun violence advocacy organizations

Ideas Description

Gun safety: Part of a public health approach to gun violence is about preventing the imminent risk of lethality through sensible gun laws and a culture of safety.  

  1. Sensible gun laws: Reduce easy access to dangerous weapons by banning high capacity magazines and bump stocks, requiring universal background checks without loopholes, instituting waiting periods, and reinstituting the assault weapons ban immediately.

  2. Establish a culture of gun safety: As the nation on earth with the most guns, we must make sure people are safe.

  • Reduce firearm access to youth and individuals who are at risk of harming themselves or others. This includes keeping guns out of the hands of those who have been violent toward their partners and families, and those with previous violent convictions, whether through expanding lethality assessment and background checks or supporting domestic violence bills, and gun violence restraining orders.

  • Hold the gun industry accountable and ensure there is adequate oversight over the marketing and sales of guns and ammunition. Five percent of gun dealers sell 90% of guns used in crimes, and must be held accountable to a code of conduct. Further, states can pass laws requiring sellers to obtain state licenses, maintain records of sales, submit to inspections and fulfill other requirements. Unlike other industries, gun companies have special legal protections against liability leaving them immune from lawsuits. There is a need to repeal gun industry immunity laws in states that have them, and resist their enactment in states without current immunity laws. Increasingly, in the absence of legislative action, organizations are divesting from companies that manufacture firearms, and consumers are pressuring companies directly. More and more companies are setting new policies about what they are selling to the public and/or who they are selling products to.

  • Engage responsible gun dealers and owners in solutions. For example, some gun dealers and range owners are already being trained in suicide prevention.

  • Insist on mandatory training and licensing for owners. This training should include recurring education to renew permits, with a graduated licensing process at least as stringent as for driver's licenses.

  • Require safe and secure gun storage. For example, in King County, Washington, public health has teamed up with firearm storage device retailers. In addition to safe storage being tax exempt in Washington, through the LOK-IT-UP initiative, residents can learn about the importance of safe storage, purchase devices at discounted rates and learn how to practice safe storage in the home.

Underlying contributors to gun violence: Risk and resilience. A public health approach to preventing gun violence expands solutions beyond gun access to reduce additional risk factors associated with gun violence and bolster resilience in individuals, families, and communities.

  1. Public health solutions: Recognize gun violence as a critical and preventable public health problem. Gun violence is a leading cause of premature death in the country. Yet, unlike other preventable causes of death, we haven't mustered the political will to address it. Gun violence is most noticed when multiple people die at once, but it affects too many communities and families on a daily basis whether through suicide, domestic violence, community violence, or other forms. Data shows that risk for firearm violence varies substantially by age, race, gender, and geography, in patterns that are quite different for suicide and homicide. Through a public health approach, we have learned that violence is preventable across all of its forms. The public health approach studies data on various forms of violence and who is affected and identifies the biggest risk factors and what’s protective, and develops policy, practice, and program solutions in partnership with other sectors and community members. Many communities and groups have adopted a public health approach to preventing violence such as Prevention Institute’s UNITY City Network and Cities United, a growing network of over 100 mayors.

  2. Comprehensive solutions: Support community planning and implementation of comprehensive community safety plans that include prevention and intervention. A growing research base demonstrates that it is possible to prevent shootings and killings through approaches such as hospital-based intervention programs, the Cure Violence model, and Advance Peace. A growing number of safety plans across the country include upstream strategies such as youth employment, neighborhood economic development, safe parksrestoring vacant land, and reducing alcohol outlet density. Following the implementation of Minneapolis’ Blueprint for Action to Prevent Youth Violence, which prioritized prevention and upstream strategies, the City experienced a 62% reduction in youth gunshot victims, a 34% reduction in youth victims of crime, and a 76% reduction in youth arrests with a gun from 2007-2015. Yet too many communities lack the resources to do what is needed. We must commit to helping communities identify and implement solutions.

  3. Trauma, connection, and services: Expand access to high quality, culturally competent, coordinated, social, emotional, and mental health supports and address the impact of trauma. Too often gun violence is blamed on mental illness, when in fact in most cases people who carry out shootings do not have a diagnosable mental illness. However, throughout a community, members often recognize individuals who are disconnected and/or otherwise in need of additional supports and services. It is critical to reduce the stigma associated with mental health needs and support our children, friends, family members, and neighbors in seeking and obtaining appropriate supports. For this to work, communities need resources to assess and connect individuals at a high risk for harming themselves or others to well-coordinated social, emotional, and mental health supports and services, particularly in critical times of crisis and high need. Further, trauma can have damaging effects on learning, behavior, and health across the life course, especially during key developmental stages such as early childhood and adolescence, and can increase the risk for multiple forms of violence. We need to do more to recognize trauma, develop trauma-informed protocols, including for law enforcement, and support healing and treatment for individuals who have experienced or are experiencing trauma, including from exposure to violence in any form.

Prevention Infrastructure: Beyond addressing the risk and underlying factors of gun violence, a public health approach also entails building a prevention infrastructure with mechanisms for scale, sustainability, and effectiveness. The UNITY RoadMap is a tool to support prevention infrastructure.

  1. Support gun violence research: Ensure that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and others have the resources to study this issue and provide science-based guidance. The CDC, the nation's public health agency, has long been restricted from conducting the kind of research that will support solutions to reduce gun violence. CDC can track, assess, and develop strategies to prevent gun violence, just as we do with influenza and tainted spinach. In the absence of sufficient tracking and evidence at the federal level, California launched the Firearm Violence Prevention Research Center at UC Davis, and other states are proposing to establish research centers as well.

  2. Health system: Establish a comprehensive health system in which violence prevention is a health system responsibility and imperative. The Movement towards Violence as a Health Issue, which consists of over 400 individuals representing more than 100 organizations across the country dedicated to a health and community response to violence has proposed a framework for addressing and preventing violence in all of its forms. Moving away from the current, fragmented approach to violence that leans heavily on the justice system, this unifying framework encourages and supports extensive cross-sector collaboration. The framework includes 18 system elements such as public health departments, primary care, behavioral health care, law enforcement and the justice system, schools, and faith-based institutions, which together can move the nation toward safety, health, and equity.

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