reasoned thought for an age of uncertainty
In the wake of the Newtown shootings, the political uproar over gun control has reached a (justifiably) feverish pitch, and the gridlock in Washington got me wondering–what do gun violence statistics tell us? Using data culled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), I ran some analyses on America’s murder and gun violence statistics. What the data tells us is both vindicating and surprising for gun control advocates.
Many arguments in favor of gun control are predicated on the idea that the United States suffers from higher rates of violence than other developed countries. So, does the United States really have a murder problem? According to data prepared by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, the homicide rate in the U.S. is around 5.0 persons per 100,000 (note that the U.N. data, which is based on FBI crime statistics, is about 0.5 per 100,000 lower than the statistics kept by the CDC).
As the data shows, the murder rate in the United States is about five times that of most developed nations (and China), which are converging around 1.0 homicides per 100,000. So, as it turns out, the United States does in fact have a problem with violence. Even Canada, which is often touted as a “good” example for responsible gun ownership, has a homicide rate about twice the average of other developed nations. It is a troubling fact that gun violence rates are converging among developed nations at a much lower rate than they exist in the United States. This indicates that something statistically out of the norm is occurring in the U.S.–we have a murder problem.
According to the CDC’s gun violence statistics, the number of homicides in the United States has varied roughly between 16,000 and 18,000 deaths per year, with about two-thirds of all murders over the past 10 years in the United States being carried out with a firearm (about 11,000-12,000 persons per year). That amounts to 32 gun homicides per day, every day for the past ten years. To put this in perspective, that is about 60 times the rate of U.S. military deaths in all U.S. wars over the past 10 years, and over 3 times the average of all murders in most developing nations. As far as murders go, guns are the weapon of choice. This overwhelmingly supports the notion that the United States’ murder problem is also very much a gun problem.
Another very interesting piece of information in the CDC statistics, and this has received some coverage in the press, is that the number of gun homicides every year pales in comparison to the number of gun suicides. The number of gun suicides every year hovers around 17,000, which accounts for about half of all suicides. This statistic is vitally important to the debate about mental health, because mass shootings and violent crime are often carried out as a murder-suicide. The number of murder-suicides every year is estimated at 1,000 to 1,5000 persons, and there have already been several shocking murder-suicides this year, including the Newtown shooting and the Webster shooting. In both of these instances the gunman committed suicide after murdering unarmed victims. This supports the idea that limiting access to guns should be part of any mental health initiative addressing gun violence. Implementing universal background checks (non-retail dealers are not required to perform background checks) with a centralized database on mental health and criminal history is an important way to address this issue, though additional measures would be necessary to target the black market in firearms.
One final piece of the gun violence statistics puzzle is the source of guns. Where do violent offenders’ guns come from? In the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Justice surveyed prison inmates on exactly this question. What they found out is that almost half of all automatic and semi-automatic weapons used in crimes came from illegal sources. There is a very active underground market in guns, and this market is wreaking havoc on society. The high rate of black-market gun sales underscores the fact that existing gun regulations are not being adequately enforced. Whether this is a matter of resources or just lax enforcement is unclear. But what is clear is that much gun violence could probably be stopped just by keeping already illegal weapons off the streets. (Mayors such as Michael Bloomberg have made this a centerpiece of anti-gun-violence campaigns.)
On the other hand, the most popular source of single-shot firearms was a family or friend. There is no easy solution to the dilemma posed by this statistic, which reflects the cultural problem that we have with guns. As a society, we have too many guns that are too accessible to people contemplating criminal acts. In order to reduce gun violence, any government initiatives would have to include some component to reduce the number of legal firearms kept in a household. There are a number of solutions to this, such as public service ads (think of the anti-smoking campaigns) or through enhanced liability or insurance requirements.
While policymakers must contend with the gun lobby in enacting policy changes, the politics of guns obscures very obvious solutions to violence in America. Gun violence statistics provide a clean snapshot of many dimensions of our gun problem and some obvious areas we can address. The United States does has murder problem and guns make up the lion’s share of that problem–let’s hope Washington can come to grips with that reality.
For a breakdown of gun murders by state, see my next post on gun violence statistics.