In this article, I would like to present some of the collected empiric evidence on gun ownership and gun-related death. The need for empiric evidence on this topic is to move the discussion away from opinions and beliefs, and towards what actually happens to actual people. This article will be critical of gun ownership, so gun enthusiasts may want to avoid reading this article, as it will present a lot of data that puts firearms in a bad light.
It is estimated that 40-45% of American households own a firearm, and that 30-35% of American adults own a firearm (http://www.justfacts.com/...). According to the Small Arms Survey in 2007 (http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/...), the US leads the world in firearms ownership with 88 firearms per 100 persons. Our closest competitors were the countries of Yemen (54.8 firearms per 100 persons), Switzerland (45.7 firearms per 100 persons), and Finland (45.3 firearms per 100 persons).
This data is from the CDC web-site (http://www.cdc.gov/...). During the period 2008-2009, the last year for which complete data is available, there were 62,940 deaths in the US due to firearms, for a crude (non-age adjusted) rate of 10.29 deaths per 100,000 persons. If you lived in a city of 100,000 persons, you could expect that 10 of your neighbors would die from a firearm injury that year. 1,146 of these deaths were classified as “unintentional” (an accident), and 61,289 of these deaths were classified as “Violence-related” (presumably intentional). During the same period, there were 145,390 non-fatal firearm injuries here in the US, with a crude rate of 23.8 non-fatal injuries per 100,000 persons. If you lived in a city of 100,000 persons, you could expect 24 of your neighbors to suffer an injury due to a firearm that year. Of these injuries, 35,826 were classified as “Unintentional”, while 109,565 non-fatal injuries were “Violence-related”.
For comparison purposes, I looked up the data in bicycle-related injuries and deaths, figuring that bicycles were probably at least as ubiquitous as firearms in American households. During the same period 2008-2009, there were 1,013,739 non-fatal bicycle-related injuries here in the US, many more injuries than were caused by firearms that year. But, there were only 785 fatal bicycle-related injuries, for a crude rate of 0.26 bicycle-related deaths per 100,000 persons. Here I will offer an interpretation: bicycles are less deadly than firearms because firearms, unlike bicycles, are built with the purpose of killing people. When discussing injury or death due to bicycle use, the classification of events into “intentional” vs. “accidental” is irrelevant, because bicycles are not designed to be people-killing machines.
The FBI released information that showed in 2008, there were 16,272 murders in the US; and that firearms were the cause of 10,886 (or 67%) of these murders (http://www.fbi.gov/...). Far and away, a firearm is the preferred tool of those who commit murder, precisely because firearms are designed expressedly for the purpose of killing people
This data is from a peer-reviewed article published in the International Journal of Epidemiology in 1998 (Krug EG. Intl J Epidemiology. 1998; 27:214-22). The authors collected data from 36 countries they identified as “high income” (countries as wealthy as the US) and “upper-middle income” countries with populations of greater than 1 million persons. Total firearm deaths in the US were found to occur at a rate of 14.24 per 100,000 persons, the highest rate of all countries studied, and a rate that was eight-fold higher than the combined rate of firearm deaths in all economically similar countries, and 1.5 times higher than the combined rate for the “upper middle income” countries. The three countries with the next highest firearm death rate after the US were Brazil (12.95 firearm deaths per 100,000 persons), Mexico (12.69 firearm deaths per 100,000 persons), and Estonia (12.26 firearm deaths per 100,000 persons). For all countries studied, the combined death rate due to firearms was 6.9 per 100,000 persons, less than half the death rate due to firearms found in the US. The take-home message here: the US has more killings due to firearms than any other industrialized country in the world.
This is data from a report released by the CDC in 1997 (http://www.cdc.gov/...). The CDC collected data from the US and 25 other wealthy, industrialized nations on rates of childhood homicide, suicide, and firearm-related deaths. Pooling the data from all the countries, 86% of all firearm-related fatalities in children under the age of 15 occurred in the US. The overall firearm-related death rate among US children under the age of 15 years was nearly 12 times higher than among the children of the other 25 nations combined. The firearm-related homicide rate among US children was nearly 16 times higher than for children in all other countries combined. The firearm-related suicide rate was over ten times higher for US children than for children in all other countries combined. And the accidental (unintentional) firearm-related death rate for US children was nine times higher for US children than for other children combined. Children here in the US are on average ten times more likely to kill themselves using a gun, and nine times more likely to die by accidental firearm injury than children in other wealthy, industrialized nations.
Owning a gun at home substantially increase the risk of death by firearm to everyone in the home. It turns out that suicide is the leading cause of death for Americans who have purchased a handgun within the previous year. (data published in the New England Journal of Medicine – Wintermute GJ. NEJM. 2008; 358:1421-4). Like cigarette smoke, owning a firearm has deleterious effects on everyone in the home, not just on the one who purchased the gun. Writing in the peer-reviewed journal Annals of Emergency Medicine, Dr. Wiebe reported on a case-controlled study in which household were matched on a number of demographic factors, and then incidences of gun violence were compared. They found that people who keep a gun in their home are almost twice as likely to die in a gun-related homicide, and that the risk was especially greater for women: women living in a home where there is a gun are almost three times more likely to die in a gun-related homicide than men similarly situated. The risk of killing oneself using a gun was almost 17 times greater for persons who live in a home where there is a gun, compared to those in homes without guns. (Wiebe D. Annals of Emergency Medicine. 2003; 41:771-82).
Gun enthusiasts like to claim that keeping a gun handy protects them and their family from violent intruders. The study by Wiebe shows that having a gun at home is associated with an increased risk of dying by gunfire, so gun ownership does not appear to be protective of violent firearms-related killings. But the Wiebe study was also able to compute the likelihood of dying by violence other than gunfire. They found there was no relationship between owning a gun and homicide by means other than a gun. In other words, having a gun around is not associated with a decreased risk of homicide of any sort. The study could find no empiric evidence that owning a gun confers some protection on a household from homicide. To my knowledge, there is no peer-reviewed study published anywhere that provides evidence that guns or gun ownership protects individuals from death or injury. If anyone reading this knows of such a study, I hope they will tell me so I can go read that study.
What I have presented here is some of the evidence linking guns to firearms-related death. This is not all of the data on guns and death; there are other studies for readers interested in knowing the data. Unfortunately, this and other empiric data on guns and killing will be largely ignored and/or viewed as irrelevant by gun advocates and enthusiasts, because the data does not match their opinions and beliefs. Just as conservatives ignore the world-wide community of environmental and climate scientists who now have repeatedly replicated and confirmed studies of global climate change and the evidence that human activity is accelerating that change, gun enthusiasts (no matter what their political leanings) will ignore the empiric evidence linking guns to increase fatalities in favor of their personal beliefs regarding the importance of guns.
Arguments for greater gun availability generally fall into two broad areas: 1) crime is common here in the US, and guns can protect persons from being victimized by criminals; and 2) the Second Amendment of the US Constitution permits gun ownership. Gun advocates are correct that crime is common here in the US. However, this should properly be an argument for more and better policing and social policies than an argument for more guns. Strangely enough, those who advocate for more guns as an answer to greater crime are also most commonly the ones calling for reducing the size of government, which of course, creates a higher barrier to more and better policing and social policy. To suggest instead that each person should arm themselves and become their own police force is to advocate for greater social unrest and (and as the data shows) greater violence. Indeed, it is unlikely that owning a gun would have protected Ramarley Graham, the unarmed NY teen who was shot in his own home because police thought he had a gun. And I have heard no one suggest that the Treyvon Martins of America be given more guns to protect themselves from armed racist vigilantes.
The second broad argument used by gun enthusiasts is that gun ownership is a protected right under the US Constitution, and our civil rights are sacrosanct and guns are necessary to protect our civil rights. Anyone paying attention should have by now noticed that American citizens have recently seen an abridgment and restriction on their rights to free speech, their rights to be free of unreasonable government search and seizure, their right to a trial by a jury of their peers, their rights to have legal representation when accused of a crime, their right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment, and all of this at a time when there are more guns here in America than at any time in our history. Clearly, increased gun availability has not protected the civil rights of Americans. Increased gun availability has protected the profits of an active gun industry, who use those profits to lobby state and federal legislatures for relaxation of gun ownership restrictions and de-criminalization of gun use.
As the data presented in this article shows, guns are associated with a greater risk of death by a firearm. Both Treyvon Martin and Ramarley Graham would probably enjoy exercising their constitutionally-protected civil rights. Now that they are dead of gun violence, they will not have the opportunity to do so.