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Handgun Ban Backgrounder

America's gun problem is a handgun problem. Handguns exact an inordinate toll on American lives. The vast majority of gun death and injury�in homicides, suicides, and unintentional shootings�is carried out with easily concealable pistols and revolvers. The public health model as well as the traditional approaches employed in protecting consumer health and safety lead to one inevitable conclusion: handguns should be banned.


There are an estimated 192 million firearms in civilian hands.1 Yet, fewer and fewer Americans own more and more guns.

Surprisingly, only 25 percent of adults own a firearm. Of these, three out of four own more than one gun.2

About 10 percent of the adult population owns 77 percent of the total stock of firearms.3


There are about 65 million handguns in the United States. Handguns make up 34 percent of all types of firearms.4

Of all firearm-related crime, 86 percent involved handguns.5

Only one in six Americans own handguns.6

Unlike manufacturers of other consumer products, the industry that makes handguns is unregulated for health and safety.

Overall Firearm-Related Deaths

Since 1962, more than one million Americans have died in firearm homicides, suicides, and unintentional shootings. Handguns were used in more than 650,000 of these fatal shootings.7

In 1997�the most recent year available�there were 89 firearm deaths per day, or a firearm death every 16 minutes.8

In homes with guns, a member of the household is almost three times as likely to be the victim of a homicide compared to gun-free homes.9

Handguns and Homicide

On the average, if someone gets shot and killed, four out of five times it will be with a handgun. In 1997, for example, handguns were used in 79.4 percent of all firearm homicides.10

From 1990 to 1997, handguns were used in a majority (55.6 percent) of all homicides; that is, they were used in murder more than all other weapons combined.11

From 1990 to 1997, there were 293,781 firearm deaths�homicides, suicides, and unintentional shootings.12

From 1990 to 1997 in the United States there were more than�

  • 160,000 homicides

  • 110,000 firearm homicides

  • 89,000 handgun homicides13

Handgun homicides hit record highs in the early 1990s, peaking in 1993. That year there were 13,258 such killings�out of a total of 16,120 firearm homicides.14

As part of an overall drop in crime, in 1997 handgun homicides fell to 8,503.15


The largest category of firearms fatality is suicide, not homicide. In 1997, 54 percent of all gun deaths were suicides, and 42 percent were homicides.16

About six out of 10 suicides are committed with firearms.17

For firearm suicides, it is estimated that handguns are used twice as often (69 percent) as rifles and shotguns.18

For all suicides, it is estimated that more than four out of 10 were committed with handguns.19

From 1990 to 1997�

  • there were more than 147,000 suicides committed with a firearm

  • an estimated 90,000 involved a handgun20

People living in a household with a gun are almost five times more likely to die by suicide than people living in a gun-free home.21

Self Defense

For every time a gun in the home is used in a self-defense homicide, a gun will be used in�

  • 1.3 unintentional deaths

  • 4.6 criminal homicides

  • 37 suicides22

In 1997 there were 15,690 homicides.

  • Of these, 8,503 were committed with handguns.

  • Among handgun homicides, only 193 (2.3 percent) were classified as justifiable homicides by civilians.23

For every time in 1997 that a civilian used a handgun to kill in self-defense, 43 people lost their lives in handgun homicides alone.24


For every firearm death, there are nearly three gun injuries requiring emergency medical treatment.25

By conservative estimates, gunshot injuries cost about $4 billion a year in medical expenses.26

Public Attitudes

Polls over the past 20 years have consistently shown that one out of three Americans support a ban on handgun possession (except by law enforcement officers).27

Several polls taken in 1999 show this level of support reaching as high as 44 percent to 50 percent.28

The Second Amendment

No gun control law has ever been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court on Second Amendment grounds. Such laws include federal bans on machine guns and semiautomatic assault weapons as well as local community bans on the sale and possession of handguns.

Every federal Court of Appeals that has considered the meaning of the Second Amendment has held that it protects the right of states to maintain a militia, not an individual right to own a gun.

  • In 1981 the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals stated that "possession of a handgun by individuals is not part of the right to keep and bear arms."

  • In 1976 the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals noted "the erroneous supposition that the Second Amendment is concerned with the rights of individuals rather than those of the states."29

1) Cook, P. and Ludwig, J. Guns in America. Police Foundation, 1996.

2) Cook, P. and Ludwig, J. Guns in America. Police Foundation, 1996.

3) Cook, P. and Ludwig, J. Guns in America. Police Foundation, 1996.

4) Cook, P. and Ludwig, J. Guns in America. Police Foundation, 1996.

5)Zawitz, M. Guns Used in Crime: Firearms, Crime and Criminal Justice�Selected Findings. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1995.P> 6) Cook, P. and Ludwig, J. Guns in America. Police Foundation, 1996.

7) Data sources: Fatal Firearm Injuries in the United States 1962-1994. Violence Surveillance Summary Series, No. 3, 1997. And Deaths: Final Data for 1995, Deaths: Final Data for 1996, Deaths: Final Data for 1997. National Vital Statistics Report.

8) Hoyert, DL, Kochanek, KD, et al. Deaths: Final Data for 1997. National Vital Statistics Report, 1999.

9) Kellermann AL, Rivara FP, et al. "Gun ownership as a risk factor for homicide in the home." NEJM 329:15 (1993):1084-1091.

10) FBI Supplementary Homicide Report data, 1978-1997.

11) FBI Supplementary Homicide Report data, 1990-1997.

12) Hoyert, DL, Kochanek, KD, et al. Deaths: Final Data for 1997. National Vital Statistics Report, 1999.

13) FBI Supplementary Homicide Report data, 1990-1997.

14) FBI Supplementary Homicide Report data, 1978-1997.

15) FBI Supplementary Homicide Report data, 1978-1997.

16) Hoyert, DL, Kochanek, KD, et al. Deaths: Final Data for 1997. National Vital Statistics Report, 1999.

17) CDC National Center for Injury Prevention and Control Fact Sheet. Suicide in the United States,

18) Wintemute, GJ, Teret, SP, et al. "The Choice of Weapons in Firearm Suicides." Am J Public Health. 78:7 (1988):824-826.

19) Violence Policy Center estimate taken from CDC fact sheet and the Wintemute, Teret, et al. study noted above.

20) CDC Wonder.

21) Kellermann, AL, Rivara FP, et al. "Suicide in the Home in Relation to Gun Ownership." NEJM 327:7 (1992):467-472.

22) Kellermann, AL and Reay, DT. "Protection or Peril? An Analysis of Firearm-Related Deaths in the Home." NEJM 314:24 (1986):1557-1560.

23) FBI Supplementary Homicide Report data, 1997.

24) FBI Supplementary Homicide Report data, 1997.

25) Annest JL, Mercy JA, et al. "National Estimates of Nonfatal Firearm-Related Injuries: Beyond the Tip of the Iceberg." JAMA 273:22 (1995):1749-1754.

26) Kizer, KW, Vassar, MJ, et al. "Hospitalization Charges, Costs, and Income for Firearm-Related Injuries at a University Trauma Center." JAMA 273:22 (1995):1768-1773.

27) For example, see: National Gun Policy Survey of the National Opinion Research Center: Research Findings.

28) Pew Research Center, poll May 12-16, 1999; CBS News Poll, poll April 9, 1999; Newsweek Poll, poll April 21-22, 1999.

29) Sugarmann, J. and Rand, K. Cease Fire: A Comprehensive Strategy to Reduce Firearms Violence. Violence Policy Center, 1997.

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All contents � 1999 Violence Policy Center