clear Section I: Gun Violence in the United States

The Nature of the Problem and Current Trends

In 1996 (the most recent year for which data are available), 34,040 people died from gunfire in the United States. Of these deaths, approximately 54 percent resulted from suicide, 41 percent resulted from homicide, and 3 percent were unintentional (see figure 2). Firearm injuries are the eighth leading cause of death in the United States. In addition, for every fatal shooting, there are roughly three nonfatal shootings.1

Figure 2. 1996 Firearm Deaths by Intent

Figure 2. 1996 Firearm Deaths by Intent

Gun-related crime peaked in the late 1980's and early 1990's. Since that time, the United States has made steady improvement in reducing gun-related violence (see figure 3). Gun-related homicides have declined by 33 percent since 1993, including a 35-percent drop in handgun homicides. Meanwhile, from 1992 to 1996, murder rates declined by 20 percent, aggravated assaults by 12 percent, and the overall violent crime rate by 16 percent.2 The Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI's) Uniform Crime Report data for 1997 show that these trends are continuing, with murder and robbery totals declining by 7 percent over the previous year and the total of all violent crimes declining by 3 percent.3 Nonetheless, gun violence remains a serious national problem.

Figure 3. Murders, Robberies, and Aggravated Assaults in Which Firearms Were Used

Figure 3. Murders, Robberies, and Aggravated Assaults in Which Firearms Were Used

The impact of gun violence is especially pronounced among juveniles and adolescents. The firearm homicide rate for children under 15 years of age is 16 times higher in the United States than in 25 other industrialized countries combined. Among those ages 15 to 24, the U.S. firearm homicide rate is 5times higher than in neighboring Canada and 30times higher than in Japan, and the firearm homicide rate for the 15- to 24-year-old age group increased 158 percent during the 10-year period from 1984 to 1993 (see figure 4). This contrasts with a 19-percent decline in gun-related homicides for those 25 and older. A teenager in the United States today is more likely to die of a gunshot wound than from all the "natural" causes of death combined.4

Figure 4. Firearm and Nonfirearm Homicide Deaths for Ages 15­24 and 25 and Above

Figure 4. Firearm and Nonfirearm Homicide Deaths for Ages 15­24 and 25 and Above

Young African-American males have the most elevated homicide victimization rate of any race or gender group. Homicides involving firearms have been the leading cause of death for African-American males ages 15 to 19 since 1969.5

Gun ownership, possession, and carrying

There are approximately 44 million gun owners in the United States.6 This means that 25 percent of all adults, and 40 percent of American households, own at least one firearm. These owners possess 192 million firearms, of which 65 million are handguns. Among legal gun owners, the reasons given for owning or carrying a weapon include hunting, sports-related activities, and home protection. Among those who own handguns, 75 percent reported in a national survey that self-protection is the primary reason for owning a firearm.7

Approximately 37,500 gun sales, including 17,800 handgun sales, are completed every day in the United States. The increasing number of gun owners has elevated the danger of guns being acquired illegally through robberies and burglaries. In 1994, more than a quarter-million households experienced the theft of one or more firearms; nearly 600,000 guns were stolen during these burglaries.8

The number of youth who report that they carry weapons is significant. In 1997, 14 percent, or 1 in 7 male juveniles, reported carrying a gun outside the home in the previous 30-day period.9 In the inner city, the problem is more severe. One study involving 800 inner-city high school students reported that 22 percent said they carried weapons.10 An even greater number of convicted juvenile offenders reported carrying guns -- 88 percent, according to another study.11

Firearms are readily available on the illegal gun market, and those who are most likely to possess guns are drug sellers and gang members -- overwhelmingly young and male.12 More than two-thirds of the respondents in one study of urban arrestees stated that the primary reason for owning and carrying a weapon is self-protection -- a small number also reported using the weapon for drug trafficking or other illegal activities. Among arrestees overall, 23 percent of those who owned a gun said they had used one to commit a crime. Among juvenile drug sellers who owned a firearm, 42 percent reported using a gun in a crime; among gang members, 50 percent reported using a gun.

Although no national data base contains detailed information about all the guns used in crimes, police records and surveys of offenders provide some insights on the types of firearms used in criminal offenses. In 1994, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms received more than 85,000 requests from police departments for traces of guns used in crime.13 More than three-fourths of the guns traced were handguns, and almost one-third were less than 3 years old. In 1994, the most frequent types of guns used in homicides were large caliber revolvers, but the number of large caliber semiautomatic guns is increasing.14

In an early survey of incarcerated felons, 32 percent reported that they had acquired their most recent handgun by theft.15 A more recent survey reported that guns had been stolen by 13 percent of all arrestees, 25 percent of all juvenile arrestees, 29 percent of the gang members, and 30 percent of the drug sellers.16

Gun violence in schools

During the 1997­98 school year, the public was riveted by extensive media coverage of school shootings in Jonesboro, AR; West Paducah, KY; Pearl, MS; Springfield, OR; and Edinboro, PA. This spate of multiple shootings increased parental concerns about school safety. However, the 40 school shooting deaths in the 1997­98 school year fall within the midrange of total annual incidents since 1992.17 According to the National School Safety Center, violent deaths in school settings (suicides and homicides) declined 27.3 percent between the 1992­93 school year and the 1997­98 school year.

The high-profile multiple shootings also have fueled public perceptions that children are in danger while attending school. In fact, youth (in particular those who live in high-crime neighborhoods) are safest while in school. A 2-year study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the incidence of school-associated violent death was less than one in a million.18

Even if actual shootings at school are rare, the presence of guns in schools is not. One leading survey reveals that between 1994 and 1996, the percentage of 12th grade males that reported carrying a gun to school in the previous 4 weeks increased from 4.8 to 6.3, or roughly 1 in 17.19 Another survey tells us that 12.7 percent of students ages 12 to 19 reported knowing a student who brought a gun to school.20

Guns and drugs

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The drug market is a major contributor to the Nation's homicide rate. Indeed, the peak in homicides during the mid-1980's was directly related to the saturation of urban areas with the crack cocaine drug trade. Methamphetamine -- more powerful, more addictive, and easier to produce than crack cocaine -- is becoming a major drug of choice in urban, suburban, and rural communities. If the methamphetamine trade results in drug wars on the same scale as those of the 1980's, it is possible that homicide rates will begin to climb once more, as drug dealers are among those most likely to carry weapons.21

Guns and gangs

Gangs have proliferated rapidly since 1980, when there were about 2,000 gangs with 100,000 members in 286 cities.22 By 1996, there were 31,000 gangs with 846,000 members in 4,800 cities and towns.23

Gangs are more likely to recruit adolescents who own firearms, and gang members (who are twice as likely to own guns for protection than nongang members) are more likely to carry guns outside their homes.24 The risk of being killed is 60 times greater among young gang members than in the general population25 and in some cities, far higher. For example, the St. Louis youth gang homicide rate is 1,000 times higher than the U.S. homicide rate.26

Although not all gangs are drug organizations, gang membership appears to increase individual participation in drug use and trafficking, gun carrying, violence, and prolonged involvement in drug sales.27 Furthermore, gang activity is no longer a problem that is unique to urban communities. From 1989 to 1995, the percentage of students who reported that street gangs were present at school increased by 186 percent in suburban schools and 250 percent in rural schools. Gangs reportedly operate in 41 percent of urban schools, 26 percent of suburban schools, and 20 percent of rural schools. Long-term solutions to address the problem of gun violence must include a comprehensive approach to reducing the number of youth involved in gangs.

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Promising Strategies to Reduce Gun Violence OJJDP Report