Slightly past 3 a.m. one night in 2011, college student Ryan Cordova huddled behind a futon in his Binghamton, N.Y., apartment clutching a shotgun while listening to lock picks rasping at his door. He had woken up in the night to the scariest few minutes of his life as someone broke into his apartment.
His shotgun, he recalls, was all that stood between him and disaster. “I’ve never been happier than at that point to own one,” said Cordova.
In the early hours of a 2005 morning Helen Hudson received a call from city police officers. Her 23-year-old stepson Wayne Watts Jr. was found lying dead in a Syracuse street. He had been shot three times.
“This can’t keep happening,” said Hudson, a founder of Mothers Against Gun Violence and elected to the Syracuse Common Council in November 2013. “We need to change people’s mindsets about guns and violence.”
Cordova and Hudson are two faces of America’s complicated relationship with firearms. Advocates for gun rights cite the Second Amendment of the Constitution and their uses in self-defense, like Cordova’s, as a reason for owning them. Advocates for tighter laws to restrict modern firearms turn towards personal tragedy and high-profile shootings like the Newtown massacre where 20 children and six adults were murdered or the Washington Naval Yard in which 12 died.
Here is the story of guns and violence told by the numbers:
- In 2011, the most recent figure available from the federal Centers for Disease Control, gunshots accounted for 32,163 deaths in the United States.
- Of those, 34 percent– or 11,101 — were homicides.
- Another 61 percent– or 19,766 deaths — were suicides.
- And 3 percent – or 851 deaths – were from accidental gunshots.
- Of those homicides, 6 percent – or 617 — were ruled justifiable homicides by the courts, such as shootings in self-defense.
- Firearms are used in self-defense 108,000 times each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Americans are still conflicted about how to prevent gun violence. In the wake of Newtown school shooting on Dec. 14, 2012, public support for more restrictive federal laws was at a high point. But the National Rifle Association, its members and other gun-rights groups intensely lobbied against new legislation, which died in the Senate in April.
The firearms controversy also plays out in state legislatures. New York proudly claims to have the most restrictive gun laws in the country, with the most severe limits on magazine size, restrictions on military-style features and tightest regulations on pistol ownership. It is one of seven states with a ban on assault-style weapons. Arizona represents the other end of the spectrum, with no restrictions on firearms, magazines or permits to carry firearms in public.
Here is an overview of some of the frequent proposals to reduce gun violence:
- Universal Background Checks
To sell firearms, dealers need a federal firearm license. This allows them to use the National Instant Criminal Background Check System where they run a prospective buyer’s information through the FBI. The FBI looks for criminal history, drug abuse and mental institutionalization. If those flags show up on the check, the purchase is denied. At a federal level, this check is not required for private purchases, which allows a person to legally purchase a gun from an individual without a background check.
In 2013, a proposal to extend background checks to all sales failed on a vote of 54 to 46 in the Senate.
Ten states, like New York and California, already require background checks on all private sales.
- Weapon Bans
For ten years, from 1994 to 2004, federal law prohibited the sale of so-called “assault weapons,” or weapons with features such as pistol grips and folding stocks. These weapons were used in some of the high-profile shootings like Newtown.
After Newtown, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., proposed a measure to renew the ban as well as update it with more restrictions. The bill classified a gun as an assault weapon if it had a pistol grip, adjustable stock, flash hider, bayonet mount or barrel shroud. But the bill never made it to a Senate floor vote.
In New York in January 2013, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act. The bill includes a ban on any gun with military-style features such as a pistol grip or bayonet mount. It allows magazines that hold 10 rounds of ammunition but prohibits anyone from putting more than seven rounds in a magazine.
But some law enforcement officers describe the prohibition on owners putting more than seven bullets as unenforceable. “It’s a ridiculous law,” said Onondaga County Sheriff Kevin Walsh. “How are you supposed to enforce that? If we catch someone committing another crime we will charge them for the extra bullet.”
- More guns for self-defense
Groups like the National Rifle Association have proposed a drastically different solution than laws that restrict firearms ownership. After Newtown, NRA president Wayne LaPierre expressed that philosophy: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
Proponents of this solution cite armed self-defense as a deterrent to crime.
The Centers for Disease Control counted 108,000 defensive gun uses each year, but it also cited studies that estimate the number as high as three million. The higher number studies say that the majority of defensive uses are not reported to police and do not end up in the federal database.
When Ryan Cordova of Binghamton, for example, pointed his shotgun at the intruder, he said, he never reported it. Cordova did not fire a shot and was afraid he might be charged with something if he told police.
“I heard stories about people going to jail after pointing a gun at intruders,” said Cordova. “I didn’t want that.”
But people on both sides of the debate are skeptical about whether laws can stop the violence.
“You can’t legislate the killing mind,” said now councilor Hudson, who lost her stepson to a street shooting.
That sentiment is coincidentally echoed by gun store owner Tim Evanchak of Tim’s Guns in Elbridge, N.Y. He strongly opposes laws restricting firearm ownership. Standing under a sign that calls for the repeal of the SAFE Act, Evanchak said: “You can’t make laws against crazy.”
(Ariel Levin-Waldman is a graduate student in broadcast and digital journalism.)