The availability of firearms is clearly associated with an increased risk of homicide, suicide, and deaths from firearm-related accidents. However, there is an active debate in the United States on the right to own and bear arms and the government's role in controlling access to firearms. Apart from the opinions on both sides, there are numerous studies on the topic. For example, countries with very restrictive legislation, including strict licensing of owners, have many fewer nonhunting fatalities from accidental shootings than countries with less restrictive firearm legislation. The United States is the Western country with the least restrictive firearm legislation; the accidental death rate by firearms in the United States is .7 people per 100,000 per year (compared to Sweden, which has restrictive legislation and one-tenth the number of nonhunting fatalities from accidental shootings).
When one factors in the variables of sex, age, income, ethnicity, education, previous violence in the home, and drug use, the presence of a firearm in the home greatly increases the likelihood of a homicide or a death by suicide. In the case of homicide, evidence shows that in many killings the offender did not have a single-minded intention to kill, and thus the lethality of the instrument used in the crime affected the outcome. Because homicides in the home usually follow altercations, and situational factors such as alcohol or drug consumption are often present, the presence of a lethal weapon increases the risk that a death will occur. Unsafe storage is also a risk factor, although the presence of a firearm has been found to be more critical than its accessibility.
In the case of suicide, studies have found that having access to a firearm in the home increases the risk of suicide; suicide rates are five or six times higher than in homes without guns. Restrictions on carrying firearms, enhanced sentences for the use of firearms in criminal offenses and legislation (e.g., in Canada), and compelling firearms in the home to be guarded under lock and key have been associated with reduced deaths by suicide and homicide. According to a study conducted by Colin Loftin and colleagues, a widespread prohibition of handguns in the Washington, D.C., area in 1976 also appeared to be effective in decreasing mortality by 25 percent in the ten years following adoption of those restrictive laws, compared to no similar reductions in adjacent metropolitan areas in Maryland and Virginia where the law did not apply.
Persons opposed to legislative controls on firearms see criminals and suicidal individuals as being motivated by an intransigent need to harm others or themselves that is predetermined before any lethal event occurs. According to this view situational factors, such as the presence of a firearm, are irrelevant because these people will commit their premeditated acts irrespective of the means available. Opponents of gun control also feel that if "guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns." These opinions ignore the reality that many homicides and suicides are impulsive and passionate acts where the presence of a lethal weapon immediately available greatly increases the risk of a lethal outcome. Furthermore, many people who commit acts of violence, including homicide, have no known history of criminal behavior. Research has shown that suicidal people have a much greater likelihood of not dying by suicide if a particular preferred lethal means is not available. Studies conducted since the mid-1970s have shown that situational influences, including the availability of firearms, can be critical in the outcome of an event.
Gabor, Thomas. The Impact of the Availability of Firearms on Violent Crime, Suicide, and Accidental Death: A Review of the Literature with Special Reference to the Canadian Situation. Ottawa: Canada Department of Justice, 1994.
Kellerman, Arthur K., et al. "Suicide in the Home in Relation to Gun Ownership." New England Journal of Medicine 30 (1992):86–93.
Loftin, Colin, David McDowal, Brian Wiersema, and Cottey Talbart. "Effects of Restrictive Licensing of Handguns on Homicide and Suicide in the District of Columbia." New England Journal of Medicine 325 (1991):1615–1620.
Ornehult, L., and A. Eriksson. "Fatal Firearms Accidents in Sweden." Forensic Science International 34 (1987):257–266.
BRIAN L. MISHARA