Facts

World Gun Homicide Rates

Contrary to what a lot of people assume, the United States does not even rank in the top 10 in the list of world gun homicide rates. It comes in at #16, with a total (in 2017) of 4.46 per 100K people. That’s 15 times less than the #1 country, Honduras, which had 66.64/100K in 2014. Even more suprisingly, the U.S. has fewer homicides than Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Paraguay, three countries that seldom make the news as violent and/or dangerous countries. Here’s the list that appears on Wikipedia, modified to show only gun homicides. The original list included information about gun suicides and gun deaths whose cause was unintentional and undetermined. Note, too, that the information for each country is not from the same year, so any comparisons should be made with that in mind.

An interesting side note: The number of guns per 100 inhabitants in the U.S. (120.5) is more than 3x larger than the next country, Serbia (37.82).

In addition to world gun homicide rates, you can find out information about United States homicide rates and gun ownership by checking out these related articles:

Firearm Deaths per 100K People per State

Number of Registered Guns By State

Gun Ownership Percentages By State

What the Second Amendment Does (and Does Not) Cover

What does “the right to bear arms” mean? Are there any weapons a U.S. citizen cannot own? Can they own rocket launchers and bazookas and other weapons of war?

A Changing Interpretation

Up until 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court held the view that people could not even own sawed-off shotguns. The reasoning was that these guns could not be reasonably viewed as “ordinary military equipment” necessary for the common defense.” And that was the original purpose of a militia. With the District of Columbia v. Heller decision in 2008, though, the Court’s view shifted radically. It ruled that a weapon did not have to be connected to service in a militia in order to be legally owned. As long as the weapon was not “dangerous” or “unusual,” it could be owned. Thankfully (and logically), weapons of mass destruction containing nuclear, biological, chemical, or radiological materials fall into the category of prohibited arms.

The Answer to the Question

So getting back to the original question: can a U.S. citizen own a rocket launcher or bazooka? The answer depends on how the words “dangerous” and “unusual” are interpretted. All weapons are dangerous, to some extent, so is a bazooka too dangerous or just dangerous enough to be okay? If you look online the answer seems to be, “Yes,” but with two very significant caveats.

The most important caveat: sales of weapons like these are tightly controlled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). Because they are classified as destructive devices. If a person found a weapon for sale legally, they would have to register it. And then obtain a $200 tax stamp for the weapon from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). This latter step can take between 10 and 12 months. For details on the rules established by the ATF, refer to their Question and Answers page.

The second important caveat: After obtaining the weapon, the buyer would likely find it nearly impossible to obtain ammunition for it. Even in America, you cannot by rockets for rocket launchers at gun stores. And even if the person did find ammunition, they would have to pay taxes on each round of ammunition. In some cases, they would also have to prove that they were qualified to transport and store the explosives.

 

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What Does It Say (in Modern English)?

The Second Amendment to the Constitution protects a U.S. citizen’s right to possess and hold firearms. It was ratified on December 15, 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, at a time when the newly formed states “[were] concerned that Congress might try to disarm the state militias. The state militias were then the chief military force of the nation.” (https://www.minnpost.com/eric-black-ink/2019/05/second-amendments-origins-laid-out-in-compelling-fashion-by-igor-volsky/)

Terms Defined

“To bear arms” simply means to carry them, so granting US citizens the right to bear arms means allowing them to walk around with them. For this reason, many US states today allow their residents to carry weapons in public without fear of arrest. In many states, gun owners do not even have to register their arms. They can buy them legally and carry them in public without any sort of government oversight.

In 1791, militias were groups of men whose duty it was to protect their towns, colonies and, eventually, states. Those bodies entrusted the militias with protecting the people against threats both internal and external. With only a small United States military at the time, militias were a vital part of America’s national defense. The most famous group of them at the time were the Minutemen. Highly trained colonists who fought against and ultimately defeated the British in the American Revolution.

In modern times, militias exist independently of the government. They tend to be comprised of disaffected citizens who view the government as having failed in its duties to protect, serve, and defend its people. As such, they often step in to discharge the rules and laws that they see the government as having failed to enforce. The majority of the groups have far-right ideologies and are paramilitary in nature. They often ascribe to conspiracy theories, many involving government plots to take away citizens guns and other basic rights. For an excellent overview of these groups, check out the article, The Militia Movement, on the Anti-Defamation League website.

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Individual Right Theory

Interpretation #2: Individual Right Theory

The Individual Right theory focuses on the second part of the second amendment: the right of the people part.

SHORT VERSION

The right to own a gun is a right of individuals within a state. It is not a right of the state, as a whole. Nor of any militia formed to protect that state.

LONGER VERION

Lawmakers cannot enact legislation that prohibits or restricts an individual citizen’s right to possess a firearm. If such laws are enacted, they are presumed to be unconstitutional. Note: This interpretation is paraphrased from the Cornell University Law website (https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/second_amendment).

The National Rifle Association is the chief proponent and most vocal backer of this interpretation. In this view, there are no real limitations on the kinds of firearms a U.S. citizens can possess. Which is not to say that they are free to buy and use weapons of war, such as grenade launchers and RPGs. The only groups who cannot bear arms, as determined by the courts, are felons and people who are mentally ill. The latter group is the subject of the myriad Red Flag laws that exist throughout the individual United States.

Prior to the 2008 Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, this interpretation had NOT been the predominant one throughout American history. In fact, until that ruling, the rights granted under the Second Amendment had almost always beeen interpretted as applying to militias. As a result, the types and volume of weaponry a person could possess had to be in line with what a militia member might reasonably need.

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Collective Rights Theory

Interpretation #1: Collective Rights Theory

This theory focuses on the first part of the amendment, the militia part. SHORT VERSION: The right to own a gun is a right of individual states, not the federal government. States can decide how to control firearms. LONGER VERISON: A militia was a group of local citizens, as opposed to a national army. The belief in this interpretation is, therefore, that the Framers of the Constitution were saying that each state had a right as a collection of citizens, to defend itself. In this view, citizens do not have an individual right to possess guns. It is local, state, and federal legislative bodies that have the authority to regulate firearms. (Interpretation paraphrased from https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/second_amendment)

United States v. Miller (1939)

Decided in favor of collective rights theory. The case involved two men, one named Miller, who were charged with violating the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934 for transporting a sawed-off shotgun across state lines. The men claimed that the NFA violated their Second Amendment rights. The Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the possession of a sawed-off shotgun “does not have a reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia.” The decision went on to state, “Certainly it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment or that its use could contribute to the common defense.” Thus, the Supreme Court focused on their interpretation of the first part of the Second Amendment; the part dealing with the arming of a state militia and what could reasonably be considered “bearing arms” in that sense.

District of Columbia v. Heller (2008)

Decided in favor of individual right theory. The Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home. They made it clear, though, that the right is not unlimited and does not preclude the such traditional prohibitions such as those forbidding “the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill” or restrictions on “the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.” This decision was monumental in that it was the first time in U.S. history that the the right to keep and bear arms was defined as an individual right of Americans. Previously it had been seen as a right possessed by states as a way to ensure that their own militias would not be disarmed by the federal government.

McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010)

Decided in favor of individual right theory. This case built upon the Heller decision of 2008, which ruled that the federal government (the District of Columbia) did not have the right to restrict handgun ownership. The question in McDonald v. City of Chicago was whether that decision applied to states, as well. Did states have the right to restrict gun ownership? Based on the 14th Amendment (see below), the Court reasoned that rights that are “fundamental to the Nation’s scheme of ordered liberty” or that are “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” are appropriately applied to the states and that the right to self-defense was one such fundamental and deeply rooted right.

 

The 14th Amendment: No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.)

Number of Registered Guns By State

It’s a well-known fact that in America, there are a lot of guns by state. This article provides statistics to back that assumption up.

According to WorldPopulationReview.com:

Texas has the most registered guns of any U.S. state, with 588,696. That’s a lot of guns. But Texas also has the second largest population in America with 29 million residents. That means, there is roughly one registered gun for every three people. (3.6 guns for every 10 people).

Rhode Island has the fewest registered guns of any U.S. state, with 4,223. That comes out to one gun per 17 residents. That’s not surprising, though. Rhode Island ranks 45th in terms of population and 50th in terms of size.

chart showing guns by state

However, according to AmmoLand.com for every registered gun in the U.S., it is estimated that there are 3 unregistered ones. Although some of the unregistered guns are undoubtedly illegal, most of them are not. In most states, gun owners can legally own a gun without registering it.

To view a chart showing the percentage of gun owners per state, refer to our article, Gun Ownership Percentages By State.

For detailed information about the gun related homicide rates in each state, check out our article entitled Firearm Deaths per 100K People per State.

Gun Ownership Percentages By State

When it comes to measuring gun ownership percentages by state, WorldPopulationReview.com lists Alaska at the top. And Delaware all the way at the bottom.

gun ownership percentages by state

These figures, though, don’t really tell the true story. 40% of Alaska’s 731,000 residents live in and around Anchorage. The rest, approximately 450,000, live in small towns surrounded by vast tracks of wilderness filled with big game. For many residents, hunting is both a sport and a way to supplement the family diet. It’s not surprising, then, that a lot of Alaskan own guns. In fact, living in rural Alaska without a gun to defend against potential wild animal threats would seem foolhardy.

The point is, don’t assume that “gun” means handgun or sawed-off shotgun. For a place like Alaska, it’s far more likely that a gun owner has a hunting rifle than a pistol. And that they fire it in sport rather than in anger.

In contrast, Delaware is a small state but it has a population 1/3 larger than Alaska’s. In 2016, USA Today ranked it as the 5th easiest state in which to purchase a gun. Although background checks are required for most gun purchases, there is an exception made for shotguns. And no permits are required. So why do they have the lowest percentage? Perhaps because 83.3% of the population lives in urban areas, according to the 2010 census. And perhaps the vast majority of urban residents don’t feel the need to arm themselves. Those are just conjectures, though.

For information about the number of gun homicides per state, refer to our article Firearm Deaths per 100K People per State.