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Ted Cruz accidentally explained America’s gun problem in one sentence

He made the case for gun control while trying to argue against it.

Sen. Ted Cruz. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) on Monday threw out the typical conservative talking points following the mass shooting at a Sutherland Springs, Texas, church, arguing not to politicize the shooting and making some claims about “a good guy with a gun.” But in the process, he made — accidentally, it seems — a good case for gun control.

“Evil is evil is evil,” Cruz said on CNN, “and will use the weaponry that is available.”

This, it turns out, is exactly the point made by gun control advocates. There are bad people in every society in the world. The US is not unique in this regard, and I don’t think Cruz is saying that America is uniquely evil.

What Americans seem to have, instead, is extra stock of — and way more access to — incredibly deadly weapons in the form of firearms. And this stock and access give bad people an easier way to commit mass atrocities — more so than they’d be able to if they only had access to, say, a baseball bat or a knife.

As Zack Beauchamp explained for Vox, 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.”

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, be able to pull out a gun, and kill someone.

This is, in short, America’s gun problem.

The research is clear: more guns, more gun deaths

While other developed countries impose very tough laws on guns, the US has some of the laxest laws in the world. As a result, it also has way more guns and, yes, gun deaths.

Consider: America 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 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

At the same time, the US has by far the highest number of guns in the world. According to a 2007 estimate, the number of civilian-owned firearms in the US was 88.8 guns per 100 people, meaning there was almost one privately owned gun per American and more than one per American adult. The world's second-ranked country was Yemen, a quasi-failed state torn by civil war, where there were 54.8 guns per 100 people.

Gun ownership by country.

Max Fisher/Washington Post

The research shows these two statistics are connected. Regularly updated reviews of the evidence compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center have consistently found that when controlling for variables such as socioeconomic factors and other crime, places with more guns have more gun deaths.

“Within the United States, a wide array of empirical evidence indicates that more guns in a community leads to more homicide,” David Hemenway, the Injury Control Research Center’s director, wrote in Private Guns, Public Health.

For example, this chart, from a 2007 study by Harvard researchers, shows a correlation between statewide firearm homicide victimization rates and household gun ownership after controlling for robbery rates:

A chart that shows the close correlation between levels of gun ownership and gun homicide rates. 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.

Stricter gun laws can help prevent such deaths. Last year, researchers from around the country reviewed more than 130 studies from 10 countries on gun control for Epidemiologic Reviews. This is, for now, the most current, extensive review of the research on the effects of gun control. The findings were clear: “The simultaneous implementation of laws targeting multiple firearms restrictions is associated with reductions in firearm deaths.”

The study did not look at one specific intervention, but rather a variety of kinds of gun control, from licensing measures to buyback programs. Time and time again, they found the same line of evidence: Reduced access to guns was followed by a drop in deaths related to guns. And while non-gun homicides also decreased, the drop wasn’t as quick as the one seen in gun-related homicides — indicating that access to guns was a potential causal factor.

To put it in Cruz’s terms, evil may always exist, but the research shows laws really can make it more difficult for evil people to get some of the world’s deadliest weapons — and that could save lives.

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