There are people who insist that guns are nothing but liabilities, for owners and communities. Beyond the moral and ethical dilemmas of mandatory disarmament, these perspectives are often not statistically well-informed. In the United States, unending media coverage of every gory incident has led many Americans to wildly overestimate the statistical hazards of firearms and under-estimate their utility. One of the most telling assessments comes from the National Academies of Sciences, who concluded that ‘defensive gun uses’ prevent anywhere from 100,000 to 2.5 million crimes annually. That alone merits a second look at the raw data behind firearms injuries, so lets take a fresh look at firearm injury statistics inside of the United States (Unless otherwise noted, this data refers to the United States in 2019. We’ve rounded some numbers for the sake of simplicity but not enough to create significant statistical differences).
There are around 29,000,000 people who visit an ER after being seriously injured in the USA every year. About 32,000 of those misadventures are firearms related. That works out to 0.001% of all injuries nationwide across all age groups and demographics. In 2019, there were about 430 firearms fatalities due to misadventure, or just 0.003% of all injury-related fatalities nationwide. Nearly all such injuries are a direct product of complacency by the gun owner. The five rules of firearms safety are universal bedrocks of instruction, and it generally takes not just breaking one, but breaking two or more rules, for serious injuries to happen.
Parents in particular should take prudent measures to hinder access. Best practice is multiple layers of security, including storing arms separately from ammo/magazines, keeping weapons in safes or electronic lockboxes, or even storing firearms disassembled. A firearm should be worn on the person or locked away, not stowed in a purse or glovebox where a child can potentially reach it. Smart children tend to be very curious and mobile. Height, boxes, and locks do not guarantee a significant impediment. Parents are often surprised where their kids can turn up.
Toddlers and even some infants can use their hands and feet to pull heavy revolver triggers. Kids under the age of 10 can figure out how to work a slide or even load live ammo in relatively short order. Children don’t understand that firearms are dangerous. They repeat behavior they see on TV and in games. Even if your child has not seen firearms in media, someone else’s child likely has– and kids mimic each other just as eagerly as they do adults. For children, some very successful safety programs like Eddie the Eagle establish a basis of understanding for firearms. Instead of guns being something unknown, and therefore interesting, kids are taught to avoid touching any firearm they find and to find an adult immediately to take it for safekeeping.
With adolescents, the most significant risk factors are males between 15-20 years old, often in urban regions, who are at a friend’s house handling an unfamiliar firearm and likely consuming drugs or alcohol. Firearms represent a significant temptation for young men. They create the illusion of instant power as well as being emblems of “masculinity” in pop culture. Teens who have been taught to safely handle firearms tend to be less impressed by the mysticism of these emblems and are more willing to correct and avoid reckless behavior from their peer group. Still, peer pressure is very powerful at any age– and for adults, too. Those conversations can be tough to have even with other gun-loving adults. Parents don’t want their teens getting unsafe advice on the range; it’s prudent to ensure they aren’t getting exposed to unsafe gun practices at their friend’s homes.
Mass shootings are on the minds of many people, and the statistics seem very grim. The intense media coverage of mass casualty events creates a cause célèbre which inspires copycats to commit similar offenses. Much like homicide numbers, the actual count is exceeded by people’s rough estimates. 434 mass shootings were documented in the US in 2019, with little distinction between crimes of passion or deliberate criminal enterprise. In some cases there were significant injuries, but no fatalities. Many of them were drive-by shootings, where groups of people were targeted haphazardly or poor marksmanship injured bystanders. Gang activity is a significant contributor these incidents. It drives home that the most effective way to avoid getting harmed by gun violence is to avoid criminal activity.
Many tallies of “school shootings” are similarly skewed; they may include incidents where altercations between non-students occurred outside school hours. Some lists even include people injuring themselves in the parking lot with a negligent discharge. There are relatively few events that match what most people think of as a “mass shooting”: a spree attack perpetrated against indiscriminate and unrelated individuals, for the purpose of causing terror.
Some spree killers are motivated by a sense of weary desperation that is psychologically similar to suicidal ideation. Others are bullied or abused, and project weakness onto others in a desperate bid for control over someone else. And some particularly twisted, rare individuals, lack any empathy or remorse. The constant inundation and coverage of mass shootings desensitizes potentially violent people to contemplate an action that would otherwise be absolutely unthinkable. With 325 million residents in the United States, even a ‘one in a million’ psychopath capable of doing calculated, deliberate harm is going to have at least 300 friends just like them– and thanks to the Internet, lots of “fans” eagerly manipulate their anger and cheer them on.
Some shooters are insane, some are desperate, some just don’t have a heart, and there are some who legitimately don’t seem to have a soul. There is no quick fix for all these broken personalities. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell something. Politicians proclaim they’ll find a cure for violence; few of them follow through. Lower-stature projects like mental wellness facilities or youth community programs have a significantly high long-term return on investment, but politicians are more interested in using gun control debates as a means of self-promotion. Outreach for at-risk youths with community support has significant long-term impacts on reducing violence. And even just a 5% percent reduction in suicides nationwide would save more lives than are lost in all mass shootings, by any definition, in the course of that same year.
Many reporting estimates put the total number of firearms fatalities in 2019 at around 40,000. Crucially, 24,000 of those fatalities are suicides. Treating suicidal ideation requires significantly different resources and a different approach than violent crime. Roughly 80% of suicide fatalities are white males over the age of 40. Many gun owners hesitate to discuss suicidal ideation with their medical providers. This is partially due to concerns about being declared a risk to self, as well as deep-running cultural taboos on the topic. Adolescents struggling with mental wellness are at risk if firearms are not properly secured in the home. Groups like Hold My Guns offers people a safe and legal means of storing personal firearms. Instructors in carry classes are choosing to address suicide candidly and share ways that gun owners can help each other with temporary measures during the moments of highest risk. Most suicides are an act of one-time impulse. 70% of survivors will not attempt again. If a firearm is employed in the suicide, the survival rate drops very precipitously.
Homicides are obviously a major concern for many Americans. There were 16,425 homicides in 2019. 720 of those are considered justifiable homicides. 13% were committed by family, 28% by friends and acquaintances, and 10% by strangers. Data is not available for the remaining 50%.
This gap in data can be filled out by looking at the victims of homicide. Half of firearms offenses were single offender/single victim altercations. Most of them were a result of an argument or disagreement that got out of hand. Men make up 78% of victims and 88% of offenders. Typically the offender is 17-35. Of the causes of the offenses, only 24% were definitively linked to other felonies. Arguments and altercations are the cause of over 6,000 of these incidents.
Identifying risk factors is important. The people who are most likely to be a victim of sporadic crime are those who live and work in dense urban districts. Most experienced urban residents know that just one or two districts can be the source of a significant amount of crime in a city. Some can even tell you specific streets to avoid crossing.
Survivors of violent crime are usually trapped in the same cyclical economic depression as their attackers. Or they are minorities that have historically received inadequate protection from community services. A recurring them in gun control circles is to creates laws that significantly impede lawful gun owners, have minimal predicted impact on firearms crimes, and are enforced with the heaviest hand against minority communities of color. Spree shootings generate vocal support from suburban white voters and donors. Many of them seem unaware that Cook County, IL had more firearms fatalities recorded in 2019 than were caused by the broadest definition of ‘mass shooting’, across the entire United States, in that same time period.
Every nation has to deal with violence and with firearms. China uses large-scale social engineering and exports their minorities to gulags. England has embraced near-universal surveillance. Gun control advocates compare America to places like Sweden, Australia, and Japan. The United States has more gun deaths total, and more per capita, than any other 1st world nation. But this is not due solely to a perceived “lack” of gun laws. Like mass shootings, the issue is much more complicated.
We are one of the most diverse nations in the world. We don’t have cultural or tribal homogeneity like Sweden or Norway. There are eleven (or more) “cultural nations” of common values and beliefs, spread out across 50 legislative states with vastly different challenges in terms of economics, population, and infrastructure. Our Constitution places strongly worded limits on how our elected officials can operate the government. Americans speak broadly about topics that would provoke arrest in other countries. Mass surveillance and espionage are frequently defeated in the court. And most crucially, we recognize that the right to keep and bear arms is an affirmation of the right to self-defense for the individual. A cowboy in Utah has as much right to defend themselves as a single mother in New York or a lesbian couple in California.