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Americans Love Guns, but They Have No Idea How to Use Them

Devotion to the Second Amendment has somehow replaced personal responsibility as the core idea of the right to bear arms.

The United States is awash in guns—and a significant portion of those gun owners have no idea how to use their weapons.

That's the conclusion of a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington School of Public Health and published in the journal Injury Prevention. The research, culled from a national survey of nearly 4,000 American adults, reveals that some 61 percent of firearm owners "had received formal firearm training." While that's an increase from the 56 to 58 percent of Americans who reported firearm training in a similar nationally representative survey conducted in 1994, the number of Americans who demonstrably know their way around a gun, in the study authors' words, "has not meaningfully changed since two decades ago."

Incompetence is neither a satisfying nor comprehensive explanation for America's exceptional rates of gun violence. A 2016 examination of World Health Organization data published in the American Journal of Medicine found that gun homicide rates—that is, manslaughter and murder—are 25 times higher in the U.S. than in comparable advanced countries, an increase from 19.5 times higher back in 2003. In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the U.S. saw only 505 deaths from the accidental discharge of firearms compared to more than 11,000 gun homicides. And it's increasingly difficult to measure accidental gun deaths in the U.S. when the CDC data doesn't consistently measure national incidents, an information gap revealed by USA Today in 2016.

Responsible gun ownership isn't just a question of knowing when to pull the trigger—it's also about knowing when not to.

The results of the Injury Prevention research highlight a uniquely American angle to the gun debate: Devotion to the Second Amendment has somehow usurped personal responsibility as the ideological core of many gun-rights advocates.

Consider the pernicious myth of the "good guy with a gun," a defense that rests on the idea that that the ubiquity of firearms will keep the peace. But that vision of a well-armed and polite society remains a thought experiment; in reality, gun-toting citizens rarely exchange gunfire with would-be assailants. According to HuffPost, only 13 percent of shooting situations between 2000 and 2014 ended with the gunman subdued by unarmed civilians—and the 3 percent of cases that ended with armed civilians mostly included security guards who had training with firearms.

But responsible gun ownership isn't just a question of knowing when to pull the trigger—it's also about knowing when not to, and how to maintain the gun even when it's not being used; that includes the safe storage and handling reported in Injury Prevention as common training topics. Consider that American toddlers have managed to shoot people on a weekly basis going back as far as 2015. Or the fact that, according to Injury Prevention, only 15 percent of gun owners reported receiving firearm training on suicide prevention—but according to CDC data, 62 percent of the U.S. firearm deaths between 2011 and 2015 were suicides. Guns are easily accessible, and they are as deadly in irresponsible hands as they are in immature, crazed, or mentally deficient ones.

An armed society is not necessarily a polite one, only because the armed citizen isn't necessarily the most educated one. The best example of this may be the so-called "conditions of readiness" articulated by self-described liberal Democrat Dan Baum in a Harper's essay on his experience with a concealed weapon.

"Condition White is total oblivion to one's surroundings—sleeping, being drunk or stoned, losing oneself in conversation while walking on city streets, texting while listening to an iPod," Baum writes. "Condition Yellow is being aware of, and taking an interest in, one's surroundings. ... Condition Orange is being aware of a possible threat. Condition Red is responding to danger. Contempt for Condition White unifies the gun-carrying community almost as much as does fealty to the Second Amendment."

In retrospect, that constitutional prerequisite to the right to bear arms of a "well-regulated militia" appears less about military organization and more about discipline and responsibility.

So what's the solution? North Carolina lawmakers had an interesting idea in April: Let high school students take gun classes to learn about the responsibility that comes with handling a firearm. After all, the country is awash in guns; rather than pretend they don't exist, the lawmakers reasoned, perhaps it's worth training the next generation to at least know how to use them safely.