Gun Violence By The Numbers

Right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks someone on a listserv I belonged to shared that it was to be expected, given U.S. foreign policy.[1]  That contributor was excoriated by other list members as being indifferent to the situation.  My response was a bit more tempered, as I pointed out that while the topic was appropriate, the timing wasn’t.  I had a similar reaction when astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, a man I greatly respect, was criticized for tweeting about last month’s mass shootings.  In his tweet, Tyson shared mortality data from other causes such as car accidents and medical errors.  He was, I believe, trying to put this horror into context but given the timing many found his tweet insensitive.[2]  Nonetheless, data can provide us with context to help make sense of the gun violence we’re experiencing in our country.

As the following graph[3] indicates, the number of homicides by gun has remained relatively stable, about 12,000 deaths a year, over an 18 year period.  That is significant because the U.S. population has increased by more than 45 million people over the same period.  Thus, as a percentage of the population, gun-related homicides have actually, and significantly, decreased.  

That’s good news, of a sort, as I think we all would agree that 12,000 gun-related homicides a year is too many regardless of population growth.  Although, as indicated by the  graph, gun-related homicides have increased in the last three years, we don’t know why it remained relatively stable in prior years and why it suddenly rose.[4]  One reason we don’t know the answers to these questions is that Congress, in response to pressure from the NRA, scaled back funding for gun violence research.[5]

Because of mass shootings, the number of gun-related homicides is often reported in the media.  However, homicides and gun-related deaths are two different data sets.  For example, CDC data indicates that between 500 and 800 people die from gun related accidents, such as a hunter accidentally shooting another hunter, an accidental discharge of a gun that kills the gun owner, or the accidental discharge of a gun that kills someone else.  Because these are accidental deaths they are typically not reported in the media and don’t receive the attention they should when discussing gun control legislation.  For example, over a multi-year period, 531 of those deaths were of children under the age of 14.[6]  This might occur when a child picks up a parent’s pistol and thinking it is a toy, points it at another child and discharges it causing the other child’s death.  Gun locks and “smart guns’ that can only be discharged by the owner would greatly reduce these fatalities, but pressure from gun-rights advocates and the NRA has slowed development of smart gun technology and created obstacles to legislative measures requiring use of these safety features.[7]

Although the rate of firearm-related homicides has held fairly steady for the past two decades, those numbers tell only part of the story.  When we compare those numbers to other countries, the U.S. has the distinction of being in the top six countries with double digit gun-related deaths:

Brazil = 43,200

United States = 37,200

India = 26,500

Mexico = 15,400

Colombia = 13,300

Venezuela = 12,800

(based on 2016 data)

The authors of this study also compared the number of gun-related deaths in 1990 to 2016 and found that some countries reported decreases, most a slight increase in proportion to population growth, and a few a significant gain.  For example, in 1990 there were 27,300 fire-arm related deaths in Brazil compared to 43,200 in 2016.  There were 3,220 gun-related deaths in Venezuela in 1990 which nearly quadrupled in 2016 to 12,800.  The numbers for the U.S., India, and Mexico increased, but not as significantly.  Columbia, with its drug cartels, actually saw a decrease, from 19,100 in 1990 to 13,300 in 2016.[8]  Nonetheless when compared to over 200 countries, the U.S. was second in the total number of fire-arm related deaths.  Interestingly, the researchers also found that globally two thirds of firearm deaths were homicides, whereas in the U.S. it is the exact opposite: one third are homicides and two thirds are accidental; that’s data that could and should help shape policy.

So far, I have presented information about homicides and accidents.  Between 33,0000 and 40,000 Americans also use guns to commit suicide each year;[9] in recent years the total number of fire-arm related deaths and injuries in the U.S. – homicides, accidents, and suicides – actually exceeds 80,000!  For many Americans that’s reason enough to take action.

Finally, there is more to this topic than just numbers.  When I was a grad student, I came across the following phrase which, as I was majoring in evaluation and social research methods, had a profound impact on my thinking: “Statistics are people without the tears.”  There are stories behind these numbers; stories about how gun deaths and injuries have impacted the lives of individuals at a physical and emotional level.  For example, after the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting which killed 58 people and wounded 422 we were confronted not only with the stories of people who had lost loved ones, but also of those who were injured, who today are still recovering.  Many were maimed physically and psychologically, and many were permanently disabled.  Whether it is one person who is killed or wounded by a gun, or many, each event is traumatic for the victim and their survivors.  And let’s not forget the stress and trauma of the medical staff who treat these victims.[10]

In my previous article I noted that medical costs associated with gun-related deaths and injuries are estimated to be around $2.8 billion a year.  The health care system cannot prevent these fatalities, it can only respond to them in an effort to save lives.

In 2012 a shooter shot and killed 26 people including 20 children between the ages of six and seven.  When that happened, with tears in her eyes, my wife said as a moral society, even the Republican Party would be compelled to pass meaningful gun control legislation.  She didn’t reckon that many members of the Republican Party don’t share the same moral values.


[1] A listserv is where subscribers correspond via email.

[2] Also, it is not an exact comparison as the situations are quite different and the circumstances surrounding a mass shooting is what we find so disturbing. 

[3] By RCraig09 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72121545

[4] Some might argue that Donald Trump’s rhetoric has brought out the worst in some people, but that is a presumption and not a demonstrated cause and effect relationship.

[5] http://theconversation.com/why-is-there-so-little-research-on-guns-in-the-us-5-questions-answered-85519

[6] https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr68/nvsr68_09-508.pdf

[7] https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/nicolenguyen/what-is-smart-gun-technology

[8] https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2698492

[9] I’ll address the topic of suicide in a future article.

[10] https://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/glimpse-las-vegas-shooting-survivors-wide-ranging-injuries-article-1.3539049

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