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20 years after Columbine, the guns are still the problem

The Columbine mass shooting could have been a turning point on gun control. It wasn’t.

A student at Columbine High School holds a sign reading “Enough is Enough” during a walkout after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting.
A student at Columbine High School holds a sign reading “Enough is Enough” during a walkout after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting.
RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Twenty years ago, at Columbine High School in Colorado, two student shooters killed 13 people and themselves — a mass shooting so shocking that it would have been hard to imagine it would ever begin to seem routine.

In the shooting’s aftermath, it seemed a lot of people wanted to talk about everything but gun control. Politicians blamed video games like Doom. They blamed Marilyn Manson. They pointed to bullying — even though the shooters weren’t particularly unpopular or bullied in their school. There was the “trench coat mafia” freakout.

But the problem then, as is true after mass shootings today, was guns. Whether it’s Columbine or recent mass shootings in Las Vegas or Parkland, Florida, the fundamental issue is that the people behind these tragedies were able to obtain extremely deadly firearms, from handguns to assault rifles to weapons modified with devices like bump stocks. This is what let the shooters carry out such awful atrocities.

After thousands of US mass shootings, however, this has all become routine. Following these tragedies, conservative politicians and other officials try to point to all sorts of explanations for why an attack happened: It’s mental illness. It’s misogyny. It’s anti-Semitism. It’s some other form of extremism or hate. It’s violent video games, music, movies, or another aspect of American culture.

It’s never the guns. So while there’s a flare-up of discussion about gun control, Congress — blocked by the NRA and Republican officials from action on guns — ultimately does little in response. In the two decades since Columbine, America has not appreciably changed its gun laws at the national level, besides letting an assault weapons ban expire.

In individual shootings, the non-gun issues can and do sometimes play a role. But when you want to explain why America sees so many of these mass shootings in general — 91 so far in just 2019, by one estimate — and why America suffers more gun violence than other developed nations, none of these factors in individual shootings give a satisfying answer. Only guns are the common factor.

To put it another way: America does not have a monopoly on mental health issues, bigots, or extremists. What is unique about the US is that it makes it so easy for people with these issues — or any other motive — to obtain a gun.

America’s gun problem, briefly explained

It comes down to two basic problems.

First, America has uniquely weak gun laws. Other developed nations at the very least require one or more background checks and almost always something more rigorous beyond that to get a gun, from specific training courses to rules for locking up firearms to more arduous licensing requirements to specific justifications, besides self-defense, for owning a gun.

In the US, even a background check isn’t a total requirement; the current federal law is riddled with loopholes and snared by poor enforcement, so there are many ways around even a basic background check. And if a state enacts stricter measures than federal laws, someone can simply cross state lines to buy guns in a jurisdiction with looser rules. There are simply very few barriers, if any, to getting a gun in the US.

Second, the US has a ton of guns. It has far more than not just other developed nations, but any other country period. Estimated for 2017, the number of civilian-owned firearms in the US was 120.5 guns per 100 residents, meaning there were more firearms than people. The world’s second-ranked country was Yemen, a quasi-failed state torn by civil war, where there were 52.8 guns per 100 residents, according to an analysis from the Small Arms Survey.

A chart showing civilian gun ownership rates by country. Small Arms Survey

Both of these factors come together to make it uniquely easy for someone with any violent intent to find a firearm, allowing them to carry out a horrific shooting.

This is borne out in the statistics. The US has nearly six times the gun homicide rate of Canada, more than seven times that of Sweden, and nearly 16 times that of Germany, according to United Nations data for 2012 compiled by the Guardian. (These gun deaths are a big reason America has a much higher overall homicide rate, which includes non-gun deaths, than other developed nations.)

A chart shows America’s disproportionate levels of gun violence. Javier Zarracina/Vox

The research, compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center, is also pretty clear: After controlling for variables such as socioeconomic factors and other crime, places with more guns have more gun deaths. Researchers have found this to be true not just with homicides, but also with suicides (which in recent years were around 60 percent of US gun deaths), domestic violence, violence against police, and mass shootings.

As a breakthrough analysis by UC Berkeley’s Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins in the 1990s found, it’s not even that the US has more crime than other developed countries. This chart, based on data from Jeffrey Swanson at Duke University, shows that the US is not an outlier when it comes to overall crime:

A chart showing crime rates among wealthy 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.”

A chart showing homicides among wealthy nations.

This is in many ways intuitive: 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 at an argument and be able to pull out a gun and kill someone.

Researchers have found that stricter gun laws could help. 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. A review of the US evidence by RAND also linked some gun control measures, including background checks, to reduced injuries and deaths. A growing body of evidence, from Johns Hopkins researchers, also supports laws that require a license to buy and own guns.

That doesn’t mean that bigots and extremists will never be able to carry out a shooting in places with strict gun laws. Even the strictest gun laws can’t prevent every shooting.

Guns are not the only contributor to violence. Other factors include, for example, poverty, urbanization, alcohol consumption, and the strength of criminal justice systems. But when researchers control for other confounding variables, they have found time and time again that America’s loose access to guns is a major reason the US is so much worse in terms of gun violence than its developed peers.

So America, with its lax laws and abundance of firearms, makes it uniquely easy for people to commit massacres. Until the US confronts that issue, it will continue to see more gun deaths than the rest of the developed world.

For more on America’s gun problem, read Vox’s explainer.