Private Guns, Public Health by David Hemenway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Viewed from abroad, America’s so-called freedom is portrayed as the freedom to sit behind a door with a gun.


Guns were one of my first and longest childhood obsessions. I would ask my mom to buy me encyclopedias of guns, complete with illustrations of pistols, rifles, shotguns, machine guns, assault rifles, and grenade launchers. I learned about the different loading and firing mechanisms, different sorts of bullets and bores, and even about the history of firearms. I had memorized, for example, which guns had been used by each side in World War II. In middle school I even took to designing my own guns on paper.

While my own gun obsession took a predictably nerdy form, in a way it was not at all unusual. First-person shooter video games were and remain intensely popular, and a lot of the fascination comes from the thrill of virtually firing all sorts of exotic weapons. Most action movies have a similar appeal. At one point, all the boys in my neighborhood even acquired realistic-looking airsoft guns, which we would use to pelt one another with little plastic pellets. (When white children do this, the cops aren’t called.)

But it was only when I had graduated high school that I held a real gun. It was just a .22 caliber practice rifle, which we used to shoot a few soda cans. Even so, I remember the powerful and disturbing sensation of knowing that the only thing between safety and injury was a mere twitch of the finger. Contrary to my childhood fantasies, the reality was not something I much cared for.

Gun culture in the United States is odd by any standard. With less than 5% of the world’s population, American civilians own nearly half of all the firearms on the planet. There are more guns than people; and this, despite the fact that only about a third of the population owns a gun. Nowhere else in the developed world is close, and nowhere else has gun ownership become such a divisive and persistent issue.

David Hemenway, the director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, wrote this book to inject some reason and data into the conversation. This book is filled with study after study—mostly statistical analyses—that all aim to prove a simple point: that guns are a threat to public safety. To most people living elsewhere in the world, this point will probably seem blindingly obvious; but it is just such a point that is debated incessantly in America.

One of the most common arguments in favor of guns is that they can be used in self-defense, and thus protect citizens from criminals. But having a gun in the house also introduces different sorts of risks. For one, there is the question of gun accidents. This can take many forms. Guns can be dropped and misfire, or can be fired in the mistaken belief that they are unloaded. Tragically, many young children die while playing with guns that have been unsafely stored. And then there is suicide. Studies have shown that a substantial portion of suicides are impulsive decisions made in a moment of crisis, not carefully-planned acts. This means that having access to a deadly weapon in a crisis can dramatically increase the chances that a suicide attempt results in fatal injury. Added to this are mistakes that turn deadly:

A fourteen-year-old girl jumped out of a closet and shouted ‘Boo’ when her parents came home in the middle of the night. Taking her for an intruder, her father shot and killed her.

Yet maybe the increased risks from accident and suicide are balanced by decreased risk from criminality? The evidence is not encouraging. Hemenway finds no evidence to support the notion that gun ownership acts as a deterrent for criminals. He also finds surprisingly few examples of guns being used to successfully ward off robbers. Indeed, studies show that the safest thing to do in the event of a robbery is to call the police and run away (not necessarily in that order). What is more, in evaluating the policy of allowing guns for self-defense, we also must factor criminal access to guns—that a robber is more likely to be armed.

Another argument in favor of guns is that regulations will only stop the “good guys” from getting guns, not the “bad guys.” This argument is unconvincing for many reasons. For one, the population of the world is not so easily divided into good and bad people. Take, for example, the couple who threatened Black Lives Matter protesters with their guns last July. Were they good guys or bad guys? According to the law, they were committing a felony; yet according to the Republican Convention, they were acting heroically. This is a silly example, but it does show how many illegal uses of fire-arms are considered “self-defense” by the users.

This argument is also unconvincing because the weight of evidence is all on the other side. In states where there are stricter gun laws there are fewer guns. In countries with stricter gun laws, it is far less likely that a criminal will be able to purchase a firearm. This is obvious as soon as one leaves the United States. Indeed, the truth is that “bad guys” all over the world are often able to get guns due to our lax gun laws. Most of the guns used in criminal activity in strict states like New York come from permissive states like Florida; a third of the guns in Japan from the United States. In short, while we worry about drugs and gangs entering our country, lethal weapons have been illegally leaking out.

But the sticking point is always the Constitution—specifically, the Second Amendment, which guarantees the “right to keep and bear arms.” Yet Hemenway convincingly shows that this amendment was not written to guarantee individuals the right to buy guns, but in part of a larger debate about standing armies. After all, the amendment begins: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State… .” One must remember that the United States Constitution was written to replace the Articles of Confederation, which gave too much power to the individual states at the expense of the federal government. This amendment seems to have been a way of placating the Anti-Federalists, who wanted to maintain the state’s rights to keeping militias.

The amendment was actually interpreted along these lines—as guaranteeing the right to state militias—right up until 2008, when the Supreme Court first decided that the right does indeed extend to individuals. (In my opinion, the constitutional wording is almost incoherent if meant to apply to individuals, but I am no legal scholar.) Nevertheless, that decision still conceded the government’s right to regulate the sale and purchase of firearms; so there is no legal reason why we could not enact more sensible regulations.

Still, a common pro-gun argument goes that civilian gun-ownership is a major check on government tyranny. It is difficult to see the logic in this argument. For one, the government has tanks and fighter jets, so this is not even realistic. And of course people living all over the world, in places with far fewer guns, enjoy the same civil liberties as Americans do. Indeed, as the opening quote shows, most non-Americans consider an armed society substantially less free, since freedom is incompatible with the threat of violence. One could even make the argument that civilian firearms directly threaten freedom, since they give government forces a pretext for violent action.

What is more, there is no historical evidence that the founders thought this was desirable. Shays’ Rebellion was an armed revolt against the government on behalf of debtors, led by a Revolutionary War veteran. The revolt was put down by the state government after the nascent federal government could not raise enough money, which further exposed the weaknesses in the Articles of Federation. In short, far from inspiring the founders, this armed rebellion likely goaded the founders to further empower the federal government.

Some years later, during the presidency of George Washington, there was another armed revolt: the Whiskey Rebellion, so named because it was against the taxation of whiskey. Far from supporting this citizen justice, Washington rode out himself at the head of an army, accompanied by Alexander Hamilton, to put it down. (Luckily, the rebels dispersed before any fighting.) If these examples do not show the founders’ attitude towards armed civilian uprisings, then I am not sure what could.

To cut this short, American gun laws are extremely lax by world standards. Meanwhile, the evidence suggests that guns do not help keep people safe, but precisely the reverse. And there does not appear to be any legal reason why we cannot improve the situation. Even the American public broadly supports gun restrictions, such as mandatory background checks, closing legal loopholes, and improving gun design to make accidents less likely. This has been shown in survey after survey. And yet, despite all this, there does not seem much hope of significant change.

Although gun control is not the most pressing issue facing the United States (the list grows daily), I think that the issue does crystalize one of the most frustrating and depressing aspects of American political life: our inability to make progress on issues that do (or should) have broad consensus. Like so many problems—climate change, abortion, and recently COVID-19—guns have been fully assimilated into the American culture war machine, which inevitably turns all nuanced discussions into simple pro and against stances. Once this happens, even repeated tragedies seem unable to shake us out of our paralysis.

For me, this was made brutally apparent after the Sandy Hook school shooting. Even the cold-blooded murder of children was not enough to cause meaningful change. By the time of the Stoneman Douglas high school shooting, six years later, the culture war had polarized the issue so greatly that the two sides were not even living in the same universe anymore, as we can see from the many conspiracy theories claiming that the entire tragedy was somehow faked. As a thousand Americans die per day from the virus, and as wildfires rage and hurricanes batter the coast, this same dynamic plays out again and again—threats to public health that we are unable to address due to the culture war machine.

I find David Hemenway’s contribution to this issue to be both compelling and strangely touching. He has held onto the belief that he can change people’s minds using statistics, and that he can steer the conversation away from simple pro and against stances to a more nuanced discussion based on shared interests and values. Yet such a book as this—written dispassionately, full of careful reasoning and research, devoted to the public good—seems particularly unlikely to make a significant impact. And that, perhaps, is the most depressing fact of all.

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