I Grew Up Thinking Guns Were a God-Given Right: Here’s Why I’ve Changed My Mind
Sometimes the ideas you're taught as a child just aren't true.
I grew up in a very observant Mormon household where we were taught that the Second Amendment was God-given. There was a lot of “nothing stops a bad guy with a gun like a good guy with a gun” thinking, even though my parents didn’t (and still don’t, I think) own a firearm. The way to stop the next mass shooter, we believed, was with more guns.
We didn’t talk about gun violence statistics or the facts about mass shootings in America so much as we worried that the government or other “bad guys” would try to take over. If we didn’t have guns, how could we stop them? (Never mind that I’d never touched a gun in my life—much help I’d be!)
Guns were also an important cultural piece. I remember when my uncle showed us a rifle that had belonged to my great grandpa, a hardworking Idaho farmer who loved hunting and fishing. The gun, with intricate designs in its wood and steel body, felt like an important legacy he’d left. The ability to own guns similarly felt like a cherished legacy from the Founding Fathers. Thanks to them, we could protect ourselves from any animal, person, or organization that wanted to take away our lives or our freedom.
I now believe that guns need to be much more regulated and limited in this country, that military-grade weaponry like AR-15s should not be in the hands of private citizens, and that guns, in general, should be harder to obtain. Here’s why I’ve changed my mind.
I’ve been exposed to other perspectives
Growing up, I heard the same ideas so often that I just assumed they were true. I never went looking for hard data, because this information came from my peers and my elders—my best friend, my Sunday school teacher, my friends’ parents, my parents. I assumed that all good people felt the same way.
After growing up in Arizona, I went to college in Utah for four years, then moved to New York City after graduation. I met new people who had different ways of looking at the world. If I don’t know someone well, I generally listen to conversations before jumping in, so I didn’t get in a lot of arguments, but I did hear lots of new ideas, including about gun control. This was a surprise. I had always thought of gun control as something that sneaky politicians who didn’t like real Americans were for. After all, the right to bear arms is in the Constitution. But my friends who were writers, lawyers, cheese mongers, bartenders, and bankers were sharing these ideas and believed strongly in them.
Good, earnest people can have differences of opinion, and feelings are rarely an indicator of how true something is. Data is the best metric we have to measure truth on issues like this. So, I’ve dug into the data, and here’s what I’ve found.
Bad guys with guns are rarely stopped by good guys with guns
Turns out, a lot of the beliefs that gun advocates like to share about guns just aren’t true. For instance, a good guy with a gun does not usually stop a bad guy with a gun. There were “good guys with guns” at mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso, and it did not help. The violence unfolded too quickly for anyone to intervene. In Boulder, an on-duty police officer (a trained “good guy with a gun”) was fatally shot. Nine other people were, too.
Even if an armed civilian does become involved, it doesn’t always help—and, in fact, more people can get hurt. John Donohue, a Stanford Law School professor who focuses his research on gun policy and gun violence, told Time magazine in 2019, “Unless you’re very well trained, you usually add more to the body count than you subtract.” When former United States representative Gabby Giffords was shot in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011, the shooter went to reload and was quickly stopped by bystanders. A wounded survivor grabbed the gun. He was almost shot by a man with a gun who was coming to help, mistaking the survivor for the shooter.
Plus, a recent study in Justice Quarterly found that laws more broadly allowing people to carry guns in public are associated with a rise in gun violence. It also found that states with higher gun ownership rates are more likely to have mass shootings.
Gun deaths aren’t all (or even mostly) mass shootings
When we think about gun deaths, we often think of homicides and mass shootings. These events are senseless, cruel, and chilling, so they get a lot of press (and they should). But gun deaths are not limited to mass shootings and “bad guys with guns.” In fact, the majority (two-thirds) of gun violence deaths are suicides—an average of 23,437 per year, according to CDC data analyzed by Everytown. There are also many accidental gun deaths every year, about 483 annually. This is four times more than in other high-income countries. A good guy with a gun can do absolutely nothing in these instances.
According to Politifact, about 1.4 million people died from gun violence in the United States between 1968 and 2011—more than the death toll of every war we’ve had put together. According to Pew Research, that number has only gone up in recent years. Between 2014 and 2017, the number of gun murders rose 32 percent. Between 2006 and 2017, the number of gun suicides rose 41 percent on average.
For me, learning these statistics was an important step in realizing that bad guys are not always the problem. Guns, however, are always the problem in gun violence.
The United States has a gun problem
It’s hard to ignore the fact that the United States has one of the highest rates of gun violence deaths in the world, to say nothing of mass shooting rates. (A mass shooting is defined as an event in which four or more people are killed, not including the shooter.) A USA Today analysis of Gun Violence Archive statistics showed that mass shootings rose from 417 in 2019 to 611 in 2020. There were 95 in June 2020 alone.
When you compare these numbers with those from other similarly wealthy nations, the numbers are shocking. We have the 32nd-highest rate of deaths from gun violence in the world (3.96 deaths per 100,000 people in 2019)—eight times more than Canada (0.47 deaths per 100,000) and 100 times more than the United Kingdom (0.04 deaths per 100,000). Countries with similar levels of violence tend to have political unrest or serious drug trafficking issues. In the U.S., guns have developed a very specific symbolism that’s become ingrained in our culture; we associate guns with freedom, masculinity, and sovereignty. We think of guns as proof of our power, rather than tools of destruction. Correlation is not causation, of course, but the correlation alone is troubling.
Some guns are obscenely powerful
AR-15s have been called the “civilian sibling of a military assault rifle.” Not only does this weapon fire more quickly than the average gun, but its bullets are much more likely to cause severe damage to the body. Heather Sher, a doctor who treated the victims of the Parkland, Florida, shooting, explained to The Atlantic that an AR-15 is far more lethal than the average handgun, even in the hands of an unskilled shooter. In fact, the AR-15 bullet imparts more than three times the energy than a bullet from the average handgun. “The high-velocity bullet causes a swath of tissue damage that extends several inches from its path,” she said. “It does not have to actually hit an artery to damage it and cause catastrophic bleeding. Exit wounds can be the size of an orange.”
According to NBC, AR-15s were used or claimed to have been used “in several mass shootings—including Aurora, Colorado; Newtown, Connecticut; San Bernardino, California; Sutherland Springs, Texas; Las Vegas and Parkland, Florida.”
While I would prefer not to have a gun in my household, I do understand the desire to have a handgun or rifle. I do not, however, see a reason why any civilian would need military-grade weaponry, or anything even approaching that. We don’t casually stock up on nuclear missiles, nor should we have AR-15s on the market. Many gun advocates like to point out that most people with AR-15s don’t use them for mass shootings. Fine. But why do you need that powerful of a weapon to begin with?
I’m less reverent about the Founding Fathers
I certainly understand the reverence and adoration that many Americans have for the Founding Fathers. But, in learning more about them, I’ve come to understand that they were products of their time. Many of them were very young around the time of America’s founding (one might even call some of them “Founding Teenagers”), and many owned slaves. Only 39 people actually signed the Constitution, and they were all White men and property owners. The Constitution is not an infallible document, and, of course, a number of amendments have been added to it over the years. Yes, the Founding Fathers sacrificed much to cobble together a country out of what had been a few scrappy colonies, but I no longer feel like America needs to reflect the 18th-century views, hopes, and ideals of these men. It’s a different world, with different needs (to say nothing of different guns).
Guns are complicated, but also pretty simple
People have strong feelings about guns. I don’t think everyone needs to hate them, and I see value in people hunting for their meat instead of buying it from factory farms, where animals are mistreated. But studies have found that gun control reduces gun violence. According to a policy evaluation conducted by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, loosening laws around concealed weapons increases gun homicides. Even after controlling for poverty, unemployment, college education, population density, race, and non-firearm deaths, the same policy evaluation found that states with tighter gun control see fewer gun suicides and homicides.
Guns, by definition, are instruments of violence. I understand a farmer owning a rifle to protect his sheep, cows, or chickens from predators. I understand owning a gun to hunt with. I understand that some folks feel it’s necessary to own a handgun for protection. Still, while it may make them feel safer, one study actually found that “people successfully defend themselves with guns in less than 1 percent of crimes in which there is contact between a perpetrator and a victim.” They’re much more likely to be unharmed if they flee the scene or call law enforcement.
Our feelings about guns may vary, but the fact is that guns kill or wound. Some do that more efficiently than others. They don’t double as construction tools or household objects. They are created to destroy. It’s pretty clear to me that more available guns means more destruction, which is why I am now a proponent of common-sense restrictions that keep us safe from gun violence of any kind.
Editor’s note: The opinions here belong to the author. To submit your own idea for an essay, email [email protected].
- Time: “‘Good Guys With Guns’ Can Rarely Stop Mass Shootings, and Texas and Ohio Show Why”
- Giffords: “The ‘Good Guy with a Gun’ Myth”
- Everytown: “Gun Violence in America”
- BBC: “Guns in the US: The statistics behind the violence”
- Pew Research Center: “What the data says about gun deaths in the U.S.”
- CDC: “Suicide and Self-Harm Injury”
- Injury Epidemiology: “Unintentional firearm deaths in the United States 2005–2015”
- USA Today: “Boulder grocery store rampage follows spike in mass shootings during 2020”
- NPR: “Gun Violence Deaths: How the U.S. Compares with the Rest of the World”
- Preventive Medicine: “The epidemiology of self-defense gun use: evidence from the National Crime Victimization Surveys 2007-2011”
- The Atlantic: “What I Saw Treating the Victims From Parkland Should Change the Debate on Guns”
- NBC: “America’s rifle: Why so many people love the AR-15”
- Vox: “A huge international study of gun control finds strong evidence that it actually works”
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “Harvard Injury Control Research Center”