Collapsing social trust is driving American gun violence

Last Saturday a far-right extremist opened fire with an AR-15-style rifle on passers-by at a shopping mall in Allen, Texas. He killed eight, including two children, and wounded a further seven. This was the ninth “active shooter” mass killing of 2023 so far in the US, according to the definition used by the FBI.

Stories like this have understandably come to dominate the conversation about gun violence in America, but it’s worth taking a step back to consider all facets of the crisis.

Active shooter incidents were responsible for 103 US firearm deaths in 2021. This is a sickeningly high number, but it looks tiny when you consider the total number of US gun deaths in the same year was 48,830. An astonishing 44 per cent of Americans say they know someone who has been shot, and one in four says someone has used a gun to threaten or intimidate them or their family.

Similarly, while the damage that can be done with a semi-automatic weapon is truly diabolical, rifles account for only 5 per cent of US firearm homicides (a figure that has not changed in two decades). Meanwhile, the portion attributable to handguns has been climbing steadily: it now stands at 91 per cent of all murders in which the type of gun was known.

The threat of a heavily armed extremist descending on a school or nightclub is terrifying, but the scale of “non-mass” shootings in the US is arguably more shocking. Indeed, while US gun ownership is far higher than any other developed country, it’s on handgun violence in particular that America really stands out.

Canada and Finland, the second and third most armed societies in the developed world, have about three times fewer firearms per head than the US overall, but 10 times fewer handguns. The distinction is key, since most gun deaths are suicides by handgun, and most murders are spontaneous rather than planned.

It also reflects very different gun cultures. In Finland and Canada — like most developed countries — gun ownership has traditionally centred on hunting, whereas 76 per cent of US handgun owners say their weapon is for personal protection.

Much of this US exceptionalism doubtless stems from the right to bear arms being enshrined in the country’s constitution, but there is another factor at play here: trust.

There is a strong positive relationship between a nation’s gross domestic product per head and levels of interpersonal trust, but levels of trust in the US have been eroding for decades and the share of Americans who say they do not trust other people in their neighbourhood is now roughly double what you would expect based on US socio-economic development.

This should be cause for concern in and of itself, but especially so because trust plays a significant role in helping to drive gun violence.

Few appreciate that at country and state level, the statistical relationship between gun availability and gun deaths is driven almost entirely by suicides. The more people who have access to guns, the more who use them to take their own lives. And since the vast majority of all gun deaths are suicides, this dynamic dominates the overall guns-deaths link.

Look only at gun homicides instead, and the link with the number of guns is much weaker, whether the unit of analysis is different countries or US states. But add in interpersonal trust as well as gun ownership, and the relationship returns. In other words, it’s the interplay between guns and fear that sends homicide rates climbing.

This toxic combination of handguns and hostility is all too clear in the spate of recent US shootings involving young people shot while playing hide and seek, pulling into the wrong driveway and going to retrieve a basketball from a neighbour’s yard.

The vast majority of Americans who die by firearm don’t make national and global headlines. They’re not killed by extremists with semi-automatics and slogans, but by suicides that most likely wouldn’t have happened without a gun to hand, arguments that escalated, intimate partner violence and by people who have come to see their neighbours as a threat.

The debate around US gun violence is dominated by mass shootings, but this is a crisis that runs much deeper. Fixing it will require slow and difficult cultural shifts as well restrictions on gun ownership much broader than anyone is currently proposing., @jburnmurdoch

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