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A shooting over a cheeseburger tells us a lot about America's gun problem

A cheeseburger.
A cheeseburger.

This National Gun Violence Awareness Day, a lot of attention will go to the domestic and inner-city attacks that make up a lot of the deadly gun violence in America — the type of brutal acts that make the US the most violent developed country in the world.

But beyond the gang and domestic disputes, Americans also kill each other for a lot of extremely petty, dumb reasons. At the Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham listed a small sampling of such cases:

The Florida man who is accused of shooting and killing his brother over a dispute about a cheeseburger.

The Texas man who is accused of shooting and killing a stranger for cutting in front of him at a taco truck.

Another Texas man who is accused of shooting and killing his stepson for jumping on the bed.

A Colorado man who is accused of shooting a neighbor after an argument about feeding squirrels.

The Tennessee man who is accused of shooting a toddler three times after her mother didn't flirt back with him.

On the one hand, this might just seem completely idiotic: Why would someone shoot another human being over a cheeseburger or taco? That's completely ridiculous.

But it also speaks to the exact problem that America has with guns: mainly, that the country simply has far too much access to firearms.

More guns mean more gun deaths

The idea is simple: The prevalence of guns can cause petty arguments and conflicts to escalate into deadly encounters. People of every country get into arguments and fights with friends, family, and peers. But in the US, it's much more likely that someone will get angry during an argument, pull out a gun, and kill someone.

So in another country, maybe two brothers will get in an argument over a cheeseburger. But because people are much more likely to own a gun in the US, it's much more likely in America that one of those brothers will be able to pull out a gun and shoot and kill the other. As a result, these kinds of trivial arguments will more frequently result in serious injuries or deaths.

The research overwhelmingly supports this idea: When there are more guns and gun owners, there are far more gun deaths. Studies have found this to be true again and again — for homicides, suicides, domestic violence, and violence against police.

Here's one chart, from a 2007 study by Harvard School of Public Health researchers, showing the correlation between statewide firearm homicide victimization rates and household gun ownership after controlling for robbery rates:

More guns mean more homicides. Social Science and Medicine

A more recent study from 2013, led by a Boston University School of Public Health researcher, reached similar conclusions: After controlling for multiple variables, the study found that a 1 percent increase in gun ownership correlated with a roughly 0.9 percent rise in the firearm homicide rate at the state level.

This holds up around the world. As Vox's Zack Beauchamp explained, a breakthrough analysis in the 1990s by UC Berkeley's Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins found that the US does not, contrary to the old conventional wisdom, have more crime in general than other Western industrial nations. Instead, the US appears to have more lethal violence — and that's driven in large part by the prevalence of guns.

"A series of specific comparisons of the death rates from property crime and assault in New York City and London show how enormous differences in death risk can be explained even while general patterns are similar," Zimring and Hawkins wrote. "A preference for crimes of personal force and the willingness and ability to use guns in robbery make similar levels of property crime 54 times as deadly in New York City as in London."

These studies aren't the only ones to reach such conclusions. Multiple reviews of the research, including the Harvard Injury Control Research Center's aggregation of the evidence, have consistently found a link between gun ownership and gun deaths after controlling for other factors.

Guns are not the only factor that contribute to violence. (Other factors include, for example, poverty, urbanization, and alcohol consumption.) But when researchers control for other confounding variables, they have found time and time again that America's high levels of gun ownership are a major reason the US is so much worse in terms of gun violence than its developed peers.

That helps explain why the most rigorous reviews of gun policies have concluded that stricter gun laws can reduce gun violence and deaths: A 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns tended to be followed by a drop in gun violence — a strong indicator that restricting access to guns can save lives.

Taking all of this together, the empirical research seems clear: If America had fewer guns, maybe less people would be shooting each other for the stupidest of reasons.