15 times higher than London’s for at least the last 200 years, long before either city could have had its rates affected by English gun control laws, the advent of dangerous drugs, or the supposedly harmful effects of the mass media (Monkkonen, 2001). Thus, the United States arguably has a high level of violence and homicide independent of firearm availability. Nonetheless, today homicides by a firearm occur in the United States at a rate that is more than 63 times that of England, so firearms, though not the sole source of violence, play a large role in it (Zimring and Hawkins, 1998).
The problem is the same with suicide. People often kill themselves with firearms. There is some evidence that states with the highest rates of private firearm ownership tend to be those with the highest proportion of suicides committed with firearms (Azrael et al., 2004), and there are studies suggesting that homes with firearms in them have more suicides than homes without firearms (Hardy, 2002). However, it is difficult to determine how many people would kill themselves by other means if no firearms were available.
Explaining a violent death is a difficult business. Personal temperament, mental health, the availability of weapons, human motivation, law enforcement policies, and accidental circumstances all play a role in leading one person but not another to inflict serious violence. Furthermore, the impact that a gun has on a situation depends critically on the nature of the interaction taking place. A gun in the hand of a robber may have different consequences than a gun in the hands of a potential robbery victim, a drug dealer, or someone who is suicidal. The relationship between the individuals may also be important in determining the impact of a gun. In a domestic dispute, for instance, both parties might be well informed as to whether the other person has a firearm. In a burglary or street robbery, the offender is less likely to know whether the victim is armed.
In addition, the presence or threat of a gun may influence an interaction along multiple dimensions. A firearm may increase or decrease the likelihood that a potentially violent situation will arise. For instance, an offender with a firearm may be more likely to attempt a robbery, but knowing the victim has a firearm may lead the offender to forgo the crime. The presence of a firearm may also affect the likelihood that an interaction ends in violence or death. For example, it might be that the presence of a gun in a robbery is associated with higher death rates, but lower injury rates.
The intent of the persons, the nature of their interaction and relationships, the availability of firearms to them, and the level of law enforcement are critical in explaining when and why firearm violence occurs. Without attention to this complexity it becomes very difficult to understand the role that firearms play in violence. Even if firearms are shown to be a cause of lethal violence, the development of successful prevention programs remains a complex undertaking, as such interventions would undoubtedly have to address the many factors other than the firearm that are involved in any violent situation.
Many people derive benefits from firearm ownership. Some people