Guns kill 35,000 Americans a year. They’re a threat to public health. Let’s act like it.” A bold claim by Dylan Scott of Vox. To make matters worse, we are told, “Congress has made it effectively impossible for federally funded researchers to study gun violence.” Taken at face value, these remarks make it appear that tens of thousands of Americans are murdered every year with guns, all while the federal government refuses appropriately to address this menacing threat to public health.
Scott doesn’t spend a lot of time digging into that 35,000 number, however, he just uses it to set a very unsettling premise and build around it. To his credit, Scott is sort of right, but he rounds up the number. There were indeed a total of 33,636 firearm deaths in 2013. Of that number, 21,175 (63 percent) gun-involved deaths were suicides, according to the CDC. Most gun-involved deaths in a given year are the result of suicide and, for the most part, gun-involved homicide has dropped sharply. The Pew Research Center reports:
Since the CDC began publishing data in 1981, gun suicides have outnumbered gun homicides. But as gun homicides have declined sharply in recent years, suicides have become a greater share of all firearm deaths: the 61% share in 2010 was the highest on record. That year there were 19,392 suicides by firearm compared to 11,078 homicides by gun (35% of all firearm deaths). The rest were accidents, police shootings and unknown causes.
I say “for the most part,” because backlash in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S. has resulted in the “Ferguson Effect,” where police have backed away from actively policing in high-crime areas, which in turn has resulted in an increase in violent crime in those communities.
What about the rest of the deaths in Scott’s claim? Do gun-involved murders account for the difference? Not quite.
It is true that in 2013, 11,419 Americans were firearm homicide victims. As the CDC notes, “homicide” is the killing of a human in any case, including those instances justified in self-defense and police shootings. The FBI data shows that that defensive gun uses (DGU) occur an average of 67,740 times per year, though not every DGU results in death. Note that there are far more DGUs than there are gun-involved deaths, and this might make a good case for responsible firearm ownership and proper use as an effective means of self-defense, one that does not regularly result in the death of the victim or their assailant.
That number of 11,419, what’s left of Scott’s initial claim, can be further broken down into justifiable homicide (self-defense, police shootings), manslaughter (accidents involving a firearm, such as a negligent discharge resulting in death), and murder. The actual number of gun-involved murders in Scott’s original claim is 8,454, according to available FBI statistics. That number dropped to 8,124 gun-involved murders in 2014, while murders specifically involving a rifle accounted for 248 deaths, “fewer than the number committed with knives, blunt objects, and fists or feet. Three percent of gun murders involved rifles.”
There are real public health crises and there are manufactured ones. Consider that in 2016, 64,000 Americans died of legal and illegal drug overdose, making overdose “the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., surpassing peak annual deaths caused by motor vehicle accidents, guns, and HIV infection.”
The social and cultural issues that have correlated with an epidemic of drug addiction and overdoses, particularly single-parent households, are related to increasing crime and suicide rates as well, but there is noticeably less concern for one over the other. I presume there’s little point in misleading readers about an issue like opioid addiction, the way the media often does with shooting statistics, if it can’t be used against the president.