The Real Facts About Gun Deaths in America

Numbers don’t lie, but statistics can mislead us. What are your real chances of being a victim of a firearms-involved homicide?

by posted on April 26, 2024
Deering Gun Deaths Lede

When Mark Twain famously said “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics,” he was warning us that the accuracy of statistics and the picture they paint can vary widely based on who is presenting the data, what facts they choose to present and what they choose to leave out, and what their agenda might be. This is absolutely true when it comes to the statistics regarding gun deaths and defensive gun uses in America. Anti-gun politicians rant about “an epidemic of gun violence” and the media screams about “mass shootings,” but what is the real truth? And on a personal level, how likely are you to become a victim of a shooting?

First, let’s look at defensive gun uses. These numbers are particularly difficult to pin down, as we have no way of knowing how many people each year draw their gun in self-defense and never fire it or report the incident. Many studies have been done, with estimates that Americans use a firearm in self-defense between 500,000 and 3 million times a year. In 2021, a comprehensive study on the issue found that the number is probably around 1.6 million defensive gun uses (DGU) a year. We have no way to know how many lives those DGUs might have saved, but it’s an important figure to keep in mind as we dig into the rest of the data.

Now, about gun deaths. The most recent year for which complete data is available is 2021, and Pew Research reports that in that year, 48,830 people died from gun-related injuries in the U.S., which is relatively high due to a pandemic spike (it was 39,707 in 2019; 44,310 in 2022). The total U.S. population in 2021 was about 332 million, which puts the percentage of the U.S. population killed by a firearm that year at .0147%. The percentage is small, but we can all agree that 48,830 is still a lot of people. To compare, about 43,000 people a year are killed in car accidents in the U.S.; 610,000 people die from cancer each year; and 695,000 people die from heart disease each year.

Now, what the media is less quick to tell you is that more than half—about 55% to 60% depending on the year—of those firearm deaths are suicides. In 2021, that number was 54%, or 26,328 people. A total of 549 firearm deaths that year were accidents, 458 had undetermined circumstances, 537 involved law enforcement. A total of 43% were classified as murders—20,958 people in 2021, according to the CDC. And it should be noted that the murder rate in the U.S. peaked in the 1970s and remains below that peak, although as mentioned, it rose sharply during the pandemic (experts think that’s tied to domestic violence). There are several hundred “justifiable homicides” per year committed with firearms, and it’s unclear where in the numbers those incidents are included.

So, if we presume you’re not suicidal, you follow the rules of gun safety to prevent accidents, and you don’t involve yourself with law enforcement (safe to assume the overwhelming majority of those were criminal encounters), the average U.S. citizen’s average risk of gun-related murder in 2021 went down to 0.0063%.

But that’s the average U.S. citizen, and you’re not average, are you? For one thing, murder is very geographically concentrated in the U.S. In 2020, more than half (56%) of murders were committed in just 2% of America’s counties—73% of the country’s murders were concentrated in 5% of the counties that contain 47% of the U.S. population. Even in those dangerous counties, murders are still heavily concentrated to specific zip codes. An important research paper (linked above) uses Los Angeles County, California, as an example. There, the worst 10% of the zip codes account for 41% of the murders and the worst 30% of the zip codes account for a whopping 82% of the murders. So, if you don’t live in one of America’s top 5% most dangerous counties, you’ve knocked your murder risk down by an overwhelming margin.

Second—and all of these risk factors are related and overlapping (further evidence that statistics need to be taken with a grain of salt)—homicides don’t happen equally along racial and gender lines. Clinical research from the American Journal of Medicine cites a study from 2010 to 2012 that concluded males were six times more likely to die from firearms than females were. Specifically, for 2018, the research concluded that Black males had a 2.61% lifetime risk of death from firearms, while white females had a 0.27% lifetime risk. The same study found the risks of death from firearms for the following groups: All Americans on average, 0.93%; Asian-American females, 0.08%; Black females, 0.35%; Hispanic females, 0.12%; Native American females, 0.24%. You can see full data in the chart on page three here, but the point is, your risk of death by firearm is far below average just based on the fact that you’re a woman.

In addition, we must take into account substance abuse and gang violence. FBI data indicates that on average, about 13% of all homicides annually are gang-related. Perhaps overlapping, but with no real way to tell, studies show that about a third of the people who are killed by guns have been drinking heavily at the time of their death. About one-fifth of murder victims have cocaine in their system at the time of death, and about 4% have opioids in their system when they are killed (this data is from 2011, so the percentages might have changed since, but the point remains). One study concluded that “Substance abuse is closely linked to gun violence,” usually starting with drug dealers in a neighborhood and trickling down from there. We just don’t know exactly how much.

Because of the potential overlap in counties, gangs, crime and substance abuse, there’s no way to put a true number on how your risk of being involved in a firearms-related death goes down if you avoid these things—but it’s safe to say it’s a massive reduction in risk.

One final thing that NRA women need to be aware of is domestic violence. According to the Bureau of Justice, in a 2007 study, only 10% of female murder victims (all murders, not just gun-related) were killed by a stranger. 24% were killed by a spouse or ex-spouse, 21% by a boyfriend or girlfriend, 19% by another family member, and 25% by someone else they knew. Bottom line: Avoiding relationships of all types with unstable people goes an incredibly long way toward keeping you safe from violence.

To wrap up, keep in mind that while numbers don’t lie, statistics can be incredibly misleading. While the number of firearm deaths in the U.S. each year is listed at 48,830 (for 2021), representing an average risk among the general population of 0.0147% for the year, the truth is that a tremendous number of those deaths—nearly all—are related to factors you have at least some control over. In reality, if your mental health is stable, you handle your firearms safely, you have healthy relationships and you don’t do drugs, get involved in gang activity or spend time in areas where drugs and gangs are a problem, your chances of being shot to death are insanely small, statistically speaking.






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