The horrific slaughter of nineteen children and two teachers in Uvalde, has once again focused the attention of the nation on the toll taken on American lives by guns. As with most highly charged emotional issues, and particularly ones that fall on the partisan divide, I find there is little objective analysis of the actual data and even less perspective on what the data implies.
There are many who object to a statistical analysis of such events as being cold-hearted and that doing so minimizes the tragedy of the loss of even a single life. While I appreciate that sentiment, I respectfully disagree. To the contrary, the more consequential, or in this case the more horrific, the problem, the more urgently we need to call on our full intellectual capabilities to fashion solutions. So, after Uvalde I began to dig into the data on deaths caused by firearms and found quite a bit that surprised me.
Prior to 2015, the number of deaths from a firearm on an annual basis had moved in a fairly narrow range, averaging about 34,000, which was about 10-11 firearm deaths per 100,000 Americans or slightly over 1% of all U.S. fatalities. However, since 2015 firearm deaths have been consistently moving higher each year and then took a sharp upturn in 2020, reaching an all-time high of 45,222. Preliminary data for 2021 indicates that number was perhaps slightly lower than 2020. The rate per 100,000 Americans has moved up to 13.7.
Most gun deaths in the U.S. are either suicides (~54%) or homicides (~43%). The remaining ~3% are due to accidents, police shootings or undetermined causes. Both suicides and homicides committed with a gun have been increasing over the last two decades, but most of the significant increase in gun deaths over the last two years has been due to an increase in homicides.
The significant increase in homicides coincides with an explosion in the number of gun sales in the U.S. The home security research group, HomeSafe.org, estimates that gun sales soared by over 150% in 2020 and 2021.
However, a series of Gallup surveys found that the percentage of U.S. households that own a gun has been slightly declining since 1972. This perhaps suggests that the increase in gun sales is more attributable to existing gun owners adding to their inventory, as opposed to a large number of new gun owners.
There is no question that the U.S. is an outlier when it comes to private gun ownership compared to other countries. The Small Arms Survey, an independent Swiss research group, estimated in its 2018 report that Americans, while making up only about 3% of the world’s population, own nearly half of the world’s roughly 850 million privately owned guns. Their survey estimated that there were about 120 guns for every 100 Americans. That rate dwarfs all other countries. India came in second with just over 50. Canada was 34. The global average outside of the U.S. is about 7.
Next time, I will explore the issue of suicides and the effect that this ready access to guns in America may or may not have on the incidence of suicide.