Understanding the numbers on gun-related deaths
By Linda Prussen-Razzano
In an effort to understand how the statistics play a part in the promotion of, or refutation of, calls for additional gun control, it became important to examine the numbers in their raw form. Using numbers provided by the US 2010 Census, the 2010 FBI Uniform Crime Report, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms State Laws and Published Ordinances – Firearms, 30th Edition, 2009-2010, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement 2010 Firearm Involved Violent Crimes Report, the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center 2010 Crime Report, the Center for Disease Control National Vital Statistic 2010 and 2011 Reports, and the admittedly outdated 2001 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Report on the percentage of people in each state who own firearms, we have a relatively clean set of data to review. Not surprisingly, these raw figures, when compared with media reports on the same numbers, did not align; the media changed many of the numbers from the original reports.
Almost all of the summary reports on gun violence covered by the media normalize the data to the "percentage of 1,000" ratio. It appears as though they have to, since the unadjusted numbers would be far under 1% in most cases. For example, Rhode Island had 16 gun-related homicides in 2010. With a population of 1,052,567, the unadjusted total number of gun-related deaths relative to the State's population would be 0.0000152. By using the "percentage of 1,000" ratio, it now shows Rhode Island's gun-related deaths as 1.52/1K. How it is presented, as a matter of public perception to drive opinion, is very different.
The "percentage of 1,000" ratio is also used to skew the statistics heavily against sparsely populated states. Alaska had only 19 gun-related homicides in 2010; with a population of 710,231, its adjusted total is 2.7 gun-related homicides per thousand (2.7/1K). Meanwhile, in the first two months of 2010, the City of Chicago had 27 gun-related homicides (Crime Summary Chicago 2010, January-February, 2010, Research and Crime Division, Chicago Police Department). Despite the fact that more people were killed in the first two months in one Illinois City than in the entire State of Alaska for the full year, Illinois' adjusted gun-related homicide total is only 2.8 per thousand (population of 12,830,632 with 364 gun-related homicides). The "percentage of 1,000" makes densely populated states appear more safe, despite substantially higher gun-related homicide totals, and sparsely populated states as unsafe.
Of particular interest is the oft-repeated 30,000 figure for gun-related deaths. Approximately 18,000 were suicides using a firearm. Also included are people accidentally killed in police action, or through accidental discharge of a firearm. According to the FBI and state agency sources, the actual number of people murdered by a firearm in 2010 was 11,533 (0.0000381). The total number of murders (including knifes, blunt objects, person's hands/feet, etc.) is 14,504.
Concerning the number of guns, or the availability of guns, as a potential cause for higher gun-related homicides, using the BRFSS figures to calculate the number of gun owners by state was very revealing. The extrapolated figure was 92 million guns, versus to the official 80 million estimated, and could account for guns that are neither registered nor reported because they have been owned for many years.
The BRFSS estimated that 21.3% of Californians own guns. With a population of 37,253,956, this extrapolates to 7,935,093 gun owners in California. The BRFSS estimated that 35.9% of Texans own guns. With a population of 25,145,561, this extrapolates to 9,027,256 gun owners in Texas. Gun control advocates postulate that the accessibility of firearms leads to higher crime rates. With an estimated one million more guns in Texas, their gun-related homicide rate should be higher (even if nominally so). This is not the case; in 2010, California had 1,257 gun-related homicides, while Texas had 805 gun-related homicides.
This differential is found even among states that have an estimated gun-ownership ratio and population figures that are extremely close. In Utah, (population 2,753,885), an estimated 43.9% of citizens (1,208,956) own guns. In 2010, Utah had 22 gun-related homicides, 0.0000080. Meanwhile, in Kansas (population 2,853,118), an estimated 42.1% of the citizens (1,201,163) own guns. In 2010, Kansas had 63 gun-related homicides, or 0.0000221.
It is seen again in Louisiana and Wisconsin. Louisiana has a population of 4,533,372, with an estimated 44.1% of gun owners (1,999,217), reporting 351 gun-related homicides at 0.0000774. Meanwhile, Wisconsin has a slightly higher population of 4,586,986, with an estimated 44.4% of gun owners (2,036,622), reporting just a mere 97 gun-related homicides at 0.0000211.
Gun control advocates also point to registration and permitting as a method for reducing gun-related homicides. Of the 34 states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wyoming) that allow conceal carry with a permit, the rate is 0.0000417.
In the 11 states (Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina) and District of Columbia that have a mild to stringent permitting process to carry a weapon (and do not allow conceal carry), the rate is 0.0000305.
In the 5 states (Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, Vermont, Wisconsin) that do not require a permit for purchase or carry, the rate is 0.0000259, the lowest of them all.
The one area that does seem to have a noticeable impact is a mandatory waiting period. In the 35 states, representing 156 Million people, that have no waiting period, approximately 60.2% of all gun-related homicides occurred. In the 15 states and District of Columbia, representing approximately 150 Million people, with mandatory waiting periods ranging from 24 hours to as long as 6 months, 39.8% of all gun-related homicides occurred.
Of the states using the NICS, or FBI-related sources from Criminal Background Checks, the gun-related homicide rate is an average of 0.0000463. Of the states that act as the point of contact (POC) for Criminal Background Checks, the rate is 0.0000295. Of the states that act as a partial point of contact for NIC, the rate is 0.0000311. These numbers suggest that having the states act as the points of contact are more thorough in screening for potential problems.
Ultimately, though, all of these numbers, however troubling they may be for victims of gun-related crimes, need to be put into perspective. According to the Center for Disease Control, the 10 Leading Causes of Death in 2010 were:
Heart Disease 597,689
Of the 2,468,435 people who died in 2010, less than 4/10th of 1%, or .004%, died as a result of a gun-related homicide.
Linda Prussen-Razzano is a long-time contributor to Enter Stage Right and a number of other online magazines.