Gun Violence as a Public Health Issue
This afternoon I was presented with this graphic on Facebook:
The accompanying comment was, “Gun control laws only affect law abiding citizens.” I replied with, “Gun-related crime is only one part of the story, though. What about all the gun-assisted suicides? What about all the gun-related accidental deaths?” It was suggested that I make a post about it, so I am.
In my opinion, there are two separate gun-violence issues. One is the issue of deliberate mayhem, where someone obtains a gun (either legally or illegally) with the express purpose of shooting other people. The other is the issue of what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, “accidental violence” – children shooting children, suicides, in-the-heat-of-the-moment killings (such as domestic violence or drunken bar brawls), and related deaths. I believe these two issues should be addressed separately, and that people shouldn’t use arguments against one issue to claim that nothing should be done about the other one.
I Googled “gun violence statistics” and found a plethora of sites. Some, such as The Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence and Heeding God’s Call, have an obvious gun-control agenda. Others, such as this article from the Pew Research Center, show that gun violence has dropped significantly in the last 20 years or so, although most of that decline took place in the ’90s. Other articles, including this one, also show a decline in overall gun violence using CDC numbers. The graphic in this article from the National Institute of Justice shows the decline in firearm-related crime from 1993 to 2011 – but interestingly, the “Firearm crimes as a percent of all violent incidents” rate has remained fairly steady, ranging from 8% to 5% (it was 8% in 2011).
I then Googled “gun violence statistics 2014” to see what might be available for the most recent complete year. As it turns out, this article on CNN.com indicates that the most recent year for which complete statistics are available is 2011. So that’s the year I chose to use, but when I found a set of tables on the CDC website that included data through 2013, I decided on 2013 instead. Table 10 shows that there were 2,596,993 deaths in the US in 2013, from all causes and for all ages. That’s everyone who died. The table then breaks out death numbers for 113 selected causes, including “injury by firearms.”
The table shows a total of 33,636 deaths through “injury by firearms.” There were 467 that weren’t listed under one of the 113 categories. The remaining 33,169 break down as follows.
Slightly more than half of the recorded suicides (21,175 of 41,149) were by firearm. The remaining 19,974 were due to “other and unspecified means and their sequelae” – in other words, firearms ALONE were used in more suicides than all other means.
Of the 16,121 homicides recorded, 11,208 were by firearm, while 4,913 were by “other and unspecified means and their sequelae”. So guns were used in more than twice as many homicides as all other weapons/methods.
281 people were killed by firearms where the intent couldn’t be determined. 4,306 deaths were due to “other and unspecified events of undetermined intent.”
505 people were killed by “accidental discharge of firearms”, of 92,619 total in the “Nontransport accidents” category.
These numbers can be spun many different ways. For instance, in the homicide category, there’s no differentiation between a mass shooting, a criminal-style execution, and a domestic-violence death. So it would be easy for some people to say, “Hey, many of these 11 thousand deaths were caused by criminals who don’t pay attention to the law anyway, so why should we strengthen the laws we have?” Other people could just as easily say, “Hey, many of these 11 thousand deaths were caused by someone having easy access to a gun and using it on the spur of the moment.” Both would likely be right.
In the suicide category, people could easily say, “Hey, many of these people would have killed themselves anyway. What difference does it make how they did it?” and other people could just as easily say, “Hey, if many of these people hadn’t had easy access to a gun, maybe they’d still be alive.” And again, both would be right.
The solution is not banning guns. Neither is the solution arming everyone. But 33,000-plus deaths through “injury by firearms” is way too many. If that many people died of a pathogenic disease, you can bet the country would be screaming for research into the causes, treatments and cures. Or, in perhaps a better analogy, look at the death rate from vehicle crashes. In 2013, motor vehicle crashes claimed 35,369 lives according to the CDC. Yes, that’s more than gun deaths, but look at all the research the government and car companies are doing to make cars (and driving) safer. Shouldn’t there be a similar push to make firearms – and gun ownership – safer? Perhaps by requiring gun owners to undergo regular training on the proper care and handling of their weapons, for instance?
In my opinion, anything that causes more than 30,000 deaths annually is, or should be, a public-health issue.