7 Dec 2015

11 facts about gun violence in the United States


In 2013, 33,636 Americans died of injuries caused by guns. Here's what we know about what's behind that problem, and about the effects of guns on society more broadly.

There's roughly one gun for every person in America

It's pretty hard to count up all the guns in the United States, especially given how varied different states' licensing and registration policies are. A 2012 Congressional Research Service report estimated that there were 310 million civilian guns in 2009: 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns. The Small Arms Survey, which measures gun prevalence internationally, estimated that there were 270 million in 2007. The latter estimate suggests there were 88.8 guns for every 100 people in the US in 2007; there were about 307 million people in the US in 2009, which would mean the CRS estimated there were more guns than people in America.
(Javier Zarracina/Vox)
What share of households own guns is a different question, and surveys differ a bit on whether gun ownership is declining. The Pew Research Center's polling and the General Social Survey suggest it is, while Gallup's data is more equivocal:
But whether 43 percent or 34 percent of the population owns guns, it still suggests that gun-owning households have, on average, more than one gun. Indeed, a study looking at 2004 survey data found that households with guns have a median of 3 guns, and an average of 6.6. The latter figure is skewed upward by the sheer number of guns the gun owners with the largest stockpiles have; 65 percent of America's guns are in the hands of 20 percent of gun owners.

Gun crime is more prevalent in the US than in other rich countries

Gun homicides are considerably more common in the US than in peer countries.There were 29.7 gun homicides per million people in the US in 2012, compared to only 5.1 per million in Canada, and 1.4 per million in Australia, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. The following chart by Vox's Javier Zarracina summarizes how America compares:
(Javier Zarracina/Vox)
A big part of this is that the US just has many more guns per capita than any other country:
(Javier Zarracina/Vox)
Gun ownership rates don't explain all the variation in homicide rates; lots of poor countries, particularly in Central America, have gun homicide rates many times that of the United States.
But among developed countries, homicide is much, much higher in the US, even after the great crime drop of the 1990s, as this chart from Duke sociologist Kieran Healy illustrates. That holds up if you include non-firearm homicides, which Healy does:
healy assault gun

Gun homicides (like all homicides) are declining

The murder rate declined significantly in the United States in the 1990s:
Most homicides in the US (68 percent in 2011) are committed with guns, so it should come as no surprise that the gun homicide rate dropped over this period, too. Michael Planty and Jennifer Truman of the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that between 1993 and 2011, gun homicides fell 39 percent, and non-fatal firearm crimes fell 69 percent.
Americans seem unaware that things are getting better. In 2013, Pew found that 56 percent of people think gun crime is more common than it was 20 years ago, with only 12 percent correctly saying it's less common.

Places with more guns have more homicides

Protestations of gun rights supporters aside, public health researchers who study firearms generally agree that increased firearm ownership rates are associated with higher rates of homicide.
The Harvard School of Public Health's Injury Control Research Center is a great resource here. It notes that a wide variety of methodologies show guns as a risk factor for homicide in the US and other high-income countries. Developed countries with more guns generally have more homicide; states within the US with more guns have more homicide; people with access to guns — particularly women — are more likely to be victims of homicide than those without access.
It's important to note, however, that all these studies show an association, rather than causation. It could be that areas with more guns are more prone to murder for other reasons. But the fact that the finding holds up no matter how you approach it is suggestive, and most experts think the relationship is at least partially causal. "Within the United States, a wide array of empirical evidence indicates that more guns in a community leads to more homicide," David Hemenway, the Harvard Injury Control Research Center's director, wrote in his book Private Guns, Public Health.

There are more gun suicides than gun homicides in America

Gun homicides get far more attention in the popular press, but most gun deaths are the result of suicide. In 2013, the last year for which the CDC provides numbers, 21,175 people committed suicide by firearm, while 11,208 people died in gun homicides. Historical data shows it's been this way for a while:
gun suicide gun homicide
In total, 33,636 people died of firearm injuries in 2013. A relatively small number (505) of those were due to accidental firings. Another 281 resulted from discharges of "undetermined intent," and 467 resulted from "legal intervention/war."

Suicide is more common in places with more guns

The relationship between gun prevalence and suicide is stronger than the relationship between guns and homicide, as the Harvard Injury Control Research Center's Means Matter project shows. People who die from suicide are likelier to live in homes with guns than people who merely attempted suicide, and states with higher rates of gun ownership have higher rates of gun suicide.
This isn't proof of causality, but many of the complicating factors that would disprove a causal relationship — say, the possibility that people in rural areas are both likelier to own guns and likelier to be depressed — don't check out; depression actually isn't higher in rural areas, for example. And the causal mechanism by which guns would increase suicide rates is plausible. Studies suggest that suicide attempts using guns are fatal in the vast majority of cases, while attempts using cuts or poisoning are only fatal 6 to 7 percent of the time.
Furthermore, there's evidence that gun control can reduce suicide rates. A buyback program that wound up taking a fifth of Australia's guns off the street wound up reducing firearm suicides by 74 percent without affecting non-firearm suicides. When the Israeli Defense Forces stopped letting soldiers bring their guns home over the weekend, suicides fell 40 percent, primarily due to a drop in firearm suicides committed on weekends. Firearm suicides are less common in US states that check if potential gun purchasers are mentally ill or criminal fugitives.

Living in a house with a gun increases your odds of death

Guns can kill you in three ways: homicide, suicide, and by accident. Owning a gun or having one readily accessible makes all three more likely. A recent meta-analysis "found strong evidence for increased odds of suicide among persons with access to firearms compared with those without access and moderate evidence for an attenuated increased odds of homicide victimization when persons with and without access to firearms were compared." The latter finding is stronger for women, a reminder that guns are also a risk factor for domestic violence.
The same thing is true for accidents. States with more guns see more accidental deaths from firearms, and children ages 5 to 14 are 11 times more likely to be killed with a gun in the US compared to other developed countries, where gun ownership is much less common. About half of gun accident fatalities happen to people under 25, and some recent analyses suggest that the official count of gun accident deaths among children is understated.
"When 34 injury prevention experts were asked to prioritize home injury hazards for young children, based on frequency, severity, and preventability of the injury, the experts rated access to firearms in the home as the most significant hazard," Harvard gun expert David Hemenway writes. The American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that "the absence of guns from children's homes and communities is the most reliable and effective measure to prevent firearm-related injuries in children and adolescents."

Guns contribute to domestic violence

While everyone is at a greater risk of dying by homicide if they have access to a gun, the connection is stronger for women. In a survey of battered women, 71.4 percent of respondents reported that guns had been used against them, usually to threaten to kill them. A study comparing abused women who survived with those killed by their abuser found that 51 percent of women who were killed had a gun in the house. By contrast, only 16 percent of women who survived lived in homes with guns.
Jacquelyn Campbell, a Johns Hopkins professor responsible for much of what we know about guns and domestic violence (and domestic violence in general), developed a set of screening questions to ask abused women to determine who's at the most risk of being killed by their abuser. Among the questions in the screen, which has been adopted by Maryland police and appears to be working, are a couple about the abuser's access to guns, emphasizing that gun access is a risk factor for homicide in abusive relationships.

Mass shootings aren't getting more common — and are a tiny share of all shootings

There has been a rash of heavily publicized mass shootings in recent years. But those incidents, while tragic, are a tiny sliver of America's gun homicide problem. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, analyzing FBI data, found that fewer than 1 percent of homicide victims in 2010 were killed in incidents where four or more people died.
A Congressional Research Service (CRS) report from 2013 identified 78 "public mass shootings" between 1983 and 2012, which claimed 547 lives. For context, 11,068 people (more than 20 times the mass shooting toll over three decades) died in gun homicides in 2011 alone— and murder is, in general, on the decline, so that number was higher in the 1980s and '90s. "While tragic and shocking, public mass shootings account for few of the murders or non-negligent homicides related to firearms that occur annually in the United States," CRS concluded.
Also, mass shootings are, contrary to popular perception, not actually increasing. James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, has found that the number of mass shooting victims, perpetrators, and incidents didn't change much from 1980 to 2010:
no mass shooting increase
In 2012, Mother Jones put out an analysis coming to a different conclusion, arguing that mass shootings were on the upswing. As Brad Plumer explained, they were just looking at different numbers than Fox, and Mother Jones's numbers excluded certain types of mass shootings. "Fox is looking at all mass shootings involving four or more victims — that's the standard FBI definition," Plumer wrote. "Mother Jones, by contrast, had a much more restrictive definition, excluding things like armed robbery or gang violence."

A tiny fraction of gun violence is committed by the mentally ill

In discussions of mass shootings, the topic of mental illness regularly comes up, often paired with pleas to improve mental health services instead of or in addition to gun control measures. While the mental health care system in the United States is abysmal and in desperate need of more funding, this is a bit of misleading connection to draw.
For one thing, mass shootings are a tiny percentage of the overall homicide problem and should not be blown out of proportion. But more importantly, our violent crime problem really has little to do with mental illness. Columbia's Paul Appelbaum and Duke's Jeffrey Swanson concluded that "only 3%-5% of violent acts are attributable to serious mental illness, and most do not involve guns." Similarly, a study in Sweden found that only 5.2 percent of violent crimes were committed by people with serious mental illness.
That doesn't mean that certain types of mental illness aren't risk factors for violence. A National Institute of Mental Health study found that 16 percent of people with serious mental illness (such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder) commit a serious act of violence in their lifetime, compared with 7 percent of the general population. But anxiety disorders didn't increase one's risk of committing violence at all.
Much more important as a factor is drug and alcohol abuse; Cornell psychiatrist Richard Friedman notes that the same NIMH study found that "people with no mental disorder who abused alcohol or drugs were nearly seven times as likely as those without substance abuse to commit violent acts." A Mayors Against Illegal Drugs analysis of mass shootings found a much stronger connection to domestic violence than to mental illness.

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