The Gun Death ‘Epidemic’ and the 2nd Amendment



State lawmakers are now holding public forums to consider whether the General Assembly should further restrict citizens’ Second Amendment rights. Here’s what South Carolinians should understand about the gun debate before it begins.

(1) The constitutional principle

The American Constitution is not a “working draft” or a list of suggestions. It is the rulebook for governing in this country. Government officials may not take a constitutional right from the people simply because they’ve decided it’s in the people’s best interest.

Only in the rarest of circumstances – when there is a clear and compelling case that limiting one right is absolutely necessary to protect against a greater threat to another right – may any American government impose a limit on a constitutional right.

It’s easy to dismiss such statements as demagogic in the face of heightened emotions, or theoretical ideals that are impractical for “real life.” That is exactly the attitude that threatens citizens’ rights, and precisely why the constitution was designed with such clarity of purpose. The question to ask about any gun control law is not whether it will prevent gun deaths. It has not and will not. The important question is this: Is the threat to life so dire that the only way to protect it is by compromising Americans’ right to defend themselves?

(2) There is no gun death “epidemic”

The answer: No. The call for gun control isn’t based on compelling evidence that the threat to life is so overwhelmingly great that it merits compromising the Second Amendment’s right to self-defense. The senseless taking of innocent life understandably provokes a frustrated call to action, but to claim that firearms are gun-death-statistics2responsible for a “pandemic” of homicidal violence isn’t just misleading – it’s irresponsible – and elected officials have a duty to respond to such claims with reason rather than irrational fear.

In truth, only 1.2 percent of all deaths in the United States are the result of firearms.* And of those, around two-thirds were suicides. More to the point, gun homicides account for 0.43 percent – less than half a percent of total deaths.

The total number of deaths in the United States for 2013 (the most recent year complete data is available) were 2.5 million. Of those, a total of 33,636 were caused by firearms – 21,175 of which were suicide. It is unavoidably true that the inherent properties that make a firearm the most effective self-defense weapon also make it the most efficient means of taking one’s own life. In fact, the vast majority of gun deaths – roughly two-thirds – are suicides. Still, roughly half of those who committed suicide did so through means other than a firearm.

Perhaps the most irresponsible element of the gun control debate is the overblown rate of accidental deaths from firearms. To be sure, it is horrifying to learn of a child dying from accidental gunfire, or shooting someone else. But how prevalent is accidental gun death? Of the 2.5 million who died in 2013, accidents claimed the lives of 130,557.  Of those, a total of 505 died from accidental gunfire –  0.38 percent. Less than half of one percent of all accidental deaths were from a firearm.

Compare 505 accidental deaths from gunfire to the 38,851 who died of accidental poisoning, the 37,184 who died in a transportation accident and the 30,208 people who died from an accidental fall.

What is not reflected in those statistics is that the overwhelming number of gun owners are responsible citizens who do not commit crimes. It is their lives – and their right to defend them – that must be weighed in context. There is no overwhelming case that banning guns – or even limiting access to them for reasons that aren’t logically connected to the goal – would reduce the rate of gun deaths. But there is an excellent case that innocent people can and do protect themselves through responsible gun ownership.

It isn’t possible to know how many more innocent lives might have been lost had they not had that right, just as there is no evidence that the right to self-defense poses a greater threat than the lack of it. There is evidence, however – and a lot of it – that gun control legislation is both constitutionally unwarranted and practically ineffectual.


* Source for statistics: 2013 Center for Disease Control National Vital Statistics Reports Volume 64, Number 2.

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