Unemployment, peer groups, poverty, drug addiction, and low levels of education bear some responsibility here, but they are only risk factors. While they increase the likelihood that someone will engage in violence, they are not direct causes.
Crime has one universal cause: opportunity. We show implicit understanding of this when we lock our cars. Doing so doesn't make it impossible to steal the car, but it eliminates the opportunity to steal it for those who can't pick the lock. And without opportunity, there can be no crime.
The same cannot be said for the other risk factors mentioned above. If we eradicated poverty, would we still have crime? I doubt the Enron executives convicted of fraud were struggling to pay the rent.
Reducing the opportunity to commit crime by increasing the effort it takes has repeatedly been shown to prevent crime. This is not rocket science; it's crime science.
Handguns are designed for one purpose: to kill people. They are cheap and widely accessible, and their size affords opportunities to conceal them. This creates a lethal cocktail that turns bar fights into gunfights, robberies into serious assaults, and neighborhood disturbances into homicide scenes. It also prevents patrolling law enforcement officers and other observant citizens from taking effective precautions.
Americans are not necessarily more violent than people in other countries. But our violent interactions are more lethal largely because of the opportunity provided by easy access to handguns.
The British, for example, have a robust proclivity for violence; knife crime and soccer hooliganism continue to be serious problems among them. They do, however, have very restrictive handgun laws. As a result, Britain's homicide rate for the most recent year available, 2011-12, was 0.98 per 100,000 people. America's is more than four times that.
Meanwhile, the Brits had only 39 murders in which a firearm was used - nationwide. Even considering that the U.S. population is six times larger than Britain's, our firearm homicides dramatically outpaced theirs at 8,000 a year. We can trump their yearly number in a weekend.
If we are ever going to stop leading the industrialized world in homicide, our elected officials must stop trying to placate us by addressing peripheral issues that will not make us significantly safer. They must increase the effort required to gain access to handguns and ammunition and reduce the opportunities for gun crime.
Of course, even with such measures, many guns would stay in circulation for years. But the supply of handguns and ammunition would eventually start to dry up, increasing the effort needed and reducing the opportunity to commit murder. Handgun control today may not noticeably improve public welfare tomorrow or the day after, but the next generation would grow up in a much safer America.
Jerry Ratcliffe is a professor, the chair of the criminal justice department, and the director of the Center for Security and Crime Science at Temple University. For more information, see temple.edu/cj/cscs.