Five myths about gun violence

 In U.S.
Police found 12 weapons with bump-fire stocks in the shooter’s hotel room. These devices can be used to make semi-automatic weapons perform like machine guns. (Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

Daniel Webster is the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Jon Vernick is the center’s deputy, and Cassandra Crifasi and Beth McGinty are faculty members at the center.

With the killing of 58 and the wounding of hundreds in Las Vegas last weekend, Americans are once again debating gun violence. Adding to the passion and the entrenched political and economic interests that make this conversation so intense are a number of myths — about how much violence there is, what causes it and how to prevent it. Here are some of the most stubborn ones.

Myth No. 1

Gun violence in the United States is at an all-time high.

Donald Trump accepted the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 with a speech that described a country besieged by violence. He said that President Barack Obama “has made America a more dangerous environment than frankly I have ever seen.” Earlier this year, Trump declared the U.S. murder rate to be “the highest it’s been in, I guess, 45 to 47 years.” Half of Americans in a Pew Research Center poll said gun violence is “a very big problem” today, with 59 percent of non-gun-owners saying the same.

Indeed, data from the FBI indicates an alarming 32 percent increase in the number of homicides committed with firearms from 2014 to 2016. The number of robberies and aggravated assaults committed with firearms increased by 17 percent over that time. The number of people shot in mass shootings has also risen sharply in the past 12 years.

Yet the current rate of firearm violence is still far lower than in 1993, when the rate was 6.21 such deaths per 100,000 people, compared with 3.4 in 2016. The high rate in the early 1990s was linked to a variety of conditions, most notably the emergence of a large and violent market for crack cocaine. It’s too soon to determine the causes of recent increases in gun violence or whether the upward trend will continue.

Myth No. 2

Background checks save lives, research shows.

The concept of universal background checks enjoys rare broad support in the debate over gun violence: consistently at or near 90 percent . Large majorities of Republicans and Democrats favor the expansion of background checks to private sales and gun show sales, according to Pew. And there is solid research indicating that laws that keep guns out of the hands of high-risk individuals, such as domestic abusers and people convicted of violent crimes, reduce violence.

But there is no research indicating that background check laws as they currently exist save lives. Studies suggest that the federal Brady Law, which mandates background checks for firearm sales but exempts sales by private parties, has not been strong enough to reduce homicide rates. There is no compelling, peer-reviewed research on the effectiveness of extending background check requirements to private sales — unless those requirements are paired with a permitting or licensing system for purchasers.

Still, state laws requiring checks via a permitting system do reduce the diversion of guns for criminal use, homicides and suicides, and they may lower the risk of police officers being shot in the line of duty. Only 10 states and the District of Columbia require permits for handgun purchasers; eight states require background checks for private sales but do not require permits.

Myth No. 3

Mental illness is behind most gun violence against others.

National opinion polls show that the majority of Americans believe that mental illness, and the failure of the mental-health system to identify those at risk of dangerous behavior, is an important cause of gun violence.

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