Putting Gun Death Statistics in Perspective

Gangs Remain Key Unaddressed Problem in Gun Debate

A gun rights activist carries an AR-15 at a rally and march at the Utah State Capitol. George Frey / Getty Images

There are roughly 32,000 gun deaths per year in the United States. Of those, around 60% are suicides. About 3% are accidental deaths (between 700-800 deaths). About 34% of deaths (just over 11,000 in both 2010 and 2011) make up the remainder of gun deaths and are classified as homicides. Sometimes the 32,000 and 11,000 figures are used interchangeably by gun control advocates. Clearly, the 32,000 figure is a far more dramatic number and it is often used for impact by anti-gun activists.

These numbers are also regularly compared to other countries' gun statistics. But is it a fair comparison? Here, we will examine some of the most common gun control arguments used and put those figures into perspective.

Gang/Drug Violence Driving Force of Gun Deaths?

According to the FBI, almost four in ten homicides are classified as "unknown" while arguments are, predictably, the top cause of known homicides. It is unclear what percentage of gun deaths are gang-related nationally and even from one city to the next. So while Detroit logs some 350 homicides annually, there is no hard statistic to grasp the exact percentage that is gang-related or involving gang members. In New Orleans, between 35-55% of homicides are classified as gang-related. In Chicago, an estimated 80% of homicides are gang-related. And in Baltimore, the police commissioner states that 80% of homicides are drug-related.

(But again, most of this depends on methods of keeping records, and, often, personal opinions.)

When comparing cities plagued by gun violence and looking at "the most dangerous" cities in the United States, the most commonly cited cause of violence is gangs. It is no coincidence that the murder rate and gun violence rate spikes in large cities with large gun populations.

  Solve the problem of gang violence, and a huge chunk of the gun homicide and violence problem is solved. And what national gun control measures would slow the gang violence problem, when local gun control laws have failed in cities like Chicago? If politicians were really worried about gun deaths, wouldn't they be specifically targeting where a majority of the problems exist?

Gun Homicides Per Year Beyond Gangs

Most of the gun laws are aimed at a segment of the population that is mostly law-abiding and outside of the gang culture and would likely do little to stop any of the violence.

The United States is one of the most gun-friendly countries in the world. Roughly half of American households have a gun. There are almost as many guns in America as people. It's common sense to know that, yes, the United States will probably have more gun murders than a country with almost no guns and no households with guns. I would also assume that Florida will have more swimming pool drowning deaths than, say, Michigan. But unlike swimming pools, guns can also be used for self-defense reasons. The reality remains that in a country of 315 million people (and almost as many guns) very few of the guns are ever used in any crime.

If arguments that the mere existence of guns made people more violent, more likely to murder, and more likely to commit a crime, than the gun problem in America would be much worse.

Suicide Rates

Suicide is often a secondary reason gun control advocates use for wanting to "control" guns. It is true that roughly half of suicides in America are done by use of a firearm. Gun control advocates argue that suicides are often a momentary impulse and the availability of a gun makes people more likely to act on those impulses. Japan is probably the opposite of the United States in regards to a gun culture. With few guns and gun-related deaths, Japan is one of the most heavily cited countries by gun-control advocates. But while the cultural differences between Japan and the USA (and resulting gun violence comparisons) make a gun control argument hard to realistically swallow, one thing stands out: the suicide rate in Japan is more than twice the United States' suicide rate.

The US suicide rate is about the same as Great Britain, Canada, Denmark, Switzerland, and Iceland and well below France and Greenland. In reality, suicide rates seem to have little to do with the availability or accessibility of guns. It just so happens that in the US guns are the suicide weapon of choice, while in Japan it might be jumping in front of a train or poisoning. The method of "jumping" is so common in Japan that the families of train-jumpers are often charged a fine for clean-up.

Mass Shootings Remain a Rarity

The reason that horrible tragedies like the Newton, Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado shootings are so gut-wrenching and shocking is rooted in a reality that such incidents are extremely rare. Unfortunately, politicians often aim to stir up emotional reactions and exploit these tragedies for political gain. With the incredible number of statistics that get thrown around and abused, it's important to sometimes step back and actually look at what the numbers say. Are the gun laws being proposed anything more than window dressing and "feel-good" legislation that will have little actual impact? Should more efforts actually be used in a results-oriented way, targeting the actual concentrated areas where gun crime occurs? Politics is often a processed-based and not results-oriented exercise, where "doing something" is often rewarded more than actually ever accomplishing anything.

(Note: An early edition incorrectly quoted that 80% of non-suicide homicide gun deaths were gang-related. The true number is unknown as a large percentage of homicides are not categorized whatsoever.)