No good can come of this, but I’m going to talk about guns. Specifically, deaths by gunshot. In America. In trying to grasp what’s going on, I want to look at the numbers. How do we measure life, and death, and where do we put our value? I’m not sure why I feel the need to do this, but it reminds me of a line from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: “The scientific approach to the examination of phenomena is a defense against the pure emotion of fear.”
It’s weirdly hard to find a reliable list of causes of death in the US - most are reduced to talking points. This page seems pretty good - it’s looking at drug use, but covers guns and other causes of death.
(I’m not showing links to every stat, by the way: you’ve got Google. The numbers I’ll cite seem to match across sources, but I am sure there is room for debate. And I am aware that there is resistance to actually studying gun statistics, which is a whole other can of worms I won’t go into.)
So, every year in the US about 2.5 million people die. That’s less than one in a one hundred of us! That’s lower than I expected. So what’s killing us?
Heart disease is number one - at around ¾ million, that’s ⅓ of all deaths. Cancer rings in at half a million, and respiratory diseases around 150,000. So the top three causes of death amount to over half of all deaths - not coincidentally, those are largely, but by no means entirely, diseases of old age. We’re not going to eliminate old age, just shift the mortality rates around in that bracket.
I read somewhere that medical mistakes should fall at number three. I believe that, but I assume that is spread across the top ten causes of death, which include Alzheimer’s (85,000), Diabetes (75,000), and the flu+pneumonia (57,000). There’s a sense in which medical mistakes just translate to “we failed.” I skipped accidents, #4 on the list, at 130,000 - the first cause of death that hits younger people hard. Obesity is presumably another meta-category across many of these areas.
So where does death by firearm come in? This table puts it at 33,000 people per year, roughly #13. Over 1% of all deaths, less than 2%. That just beats out alcohol, and is around the same as death by automobile.
How do I feel about that? Not great. I mean, it’s not on the top ten list of things to be afraid of, but “better than cancer” is not going to be anybody’s idea of a good marketing slogan. It’s also the first item on the list that feels… how do I put this? Preventable. It feels fixable in a way that, say, Alzheimer’s doesn’t. It’s also fewer than deaths by drug overdose - and no, I don’t know why that feels less preventable to me. It’s the first item on the list without an entrenched mechanism to try to reduce it - there’s no war on guns the way there’s a war on drugs.
But let’s dig in a little. Of the roughly 30,000 gun deaths in a year, about 20,000 are suicides. That’s half of all suicides. Let’s think about that for a second. The average person in the US has a 1-in-30,000 chance of being shot and killed by someone else each year. Those are the homicides. But gun suicides are committed by people with access to guns - about 40% of households, give or take. That’s 20,000 deaths across only 120 million people. That’s… 1-in-6,000. Whoa.
If you have a gun in your house, your chance of shooting yourself is about five times higher than your chances of being shot - or, since every shot has a shooter - shooting someone else. Ditto goes for the rest of your family.
There’s a lot missing from my back-of-an-envelope math. Are you less likely to kill yourself with no gun in the house? Maybe slightly - half of suicides are by gun, but fewer than half of households have guns. Certainly you’re more likely to succeed with a gun. Guns do what they say on the label: they kill people, and they are pretty good at it. And I am not breaking out justifiable homicides, which seem to be in the 300-per-year range (Or 1% of gun deaths.)
I am ignoring a central issue by assuming that gun deaths are evenly distributed across an homogenous population. They aren’t: they cluster according to poverty, and race, and other factors. (As, I presume, do deaths due to lack of healthcare, shelter, etc.) This isn’t a trivial issue: the ratio of gun suicides to gun homicides among Black Americans is roughly reversed, with homicides outnumbering suicides by more than 2-to-1. The rate of gun deaths is different as well - about twice as high as for whites overall, or three or four times in some states. If the other causes of death remain the same - which they probably don’t - that pushes gun deaths to around #7 for Black Americans, ahead of the flu. Gun deaths would seem to be one of the many symptoms of poverty (the poverty rate for Blacks being over twice that of whites, suspiciously close to the gun death figures). So if you don’t “get” where a movement like #blacklivesmatter comes from, it’s because you’re living in a very different world.
(If you’re wondering, people are mostly murdered by people by their own race, and mostly by criminals.)
Overall, guns make up about ⅔ of homicides: 10,000 out of 16,000. Again, they do what they say on the label. Would there be fewer homicides with fewer guns? I am honestly not sure - the lack of rigorous study makes it hard to know. I suspect that guns make for more successful murders, through. In any event, there are more gun deaths in the US each year than there are murders. There are more gun suicides each year than there are murders by any means. Murders make the news, but if we’re being honest, we should be getting rid of guns to protect ourselves against our own worst enemy… ourselves.
And what of guns’ immediate competitors when it comes to getting rid of us? Cars, for example? There are around 250 million cars in the US, which means it takes about 7,500 cars to kill one person. By comparison, it takes 10,000 guns to kill one person a year (We’ve got one gun per American!). Cars have the edge - but I spend thousands of hours per year with cars, and about 0 hours with guns. So there’s that.
By the way, dogs kill about 20-30 people each year. It takes 3 million dogs to kill a person. (We kill about 1 million dogs each year, so it takes 300 people to kill a dog. A human is 10,000 times more likely to kill a dog than the reverse, statistically speaking.)
While we’re arguing about who’s killing whom, let’s look at the flu - it’s about on par with guns, 20-30 thousand deaths most years. Between 5% and 20% of Americans get the flu each year… say, 30 million people. If only people with the flu spread it to other people, than for every 1,200 people who get the flu, one person dies. I am suspicious of my math, but it looks to me like if you want to be a hero and save a life, you’re better off getting a flu shot than buying a gun.
I’m pretty sure that my ham-handed approach misses the main story - the story of race and poverty, of the disparities that focus gun deaths in some areas and not others. I’m not going to work that out on the back of a napkin, but it’s there. We can’t ignore it and hope to tell the real story.
A gun death isn’t a twist of fate, like cancer, or a behavior, like smoking. It’s a decision. From the moment a gun is made to the second somebody pulls the trigger, it has one purpose - to take a life, and one in 10,000 will do so. That, more than the odds, are why guns scare us. They are instruments of destruction.
Oh, I’m sure guns have saved lives - and maybe there is a hidden statistic of crimes prevented by guns. (84,000 people are injured non-lethally by guns - which suggest that if a bullet hits you, it has a 1-in-4 chance of killing you.) But just looking at the available numbers, that’s not how it seems. Add a gun to your life, and 9,999 times out of 10,000, it will have no effect. That one other time, it’s more likely to kill a member of your household than it is anybody else.
So where did I end up with all this? In a weird place. I’m still angry, but I am angriest at the homophobia, the bigotry, the cult of violence. The dead are the surface, the visible bruise hinting at the deeper injuries of prejudice, poverty, abuse, and sheer disregard for each others’ lives. The refusal to take responsibility. The guns are almost a sideshow. Almost. Because the main argument for guns is also clearly wrong: guns don’t make people safer.
A lot of these numbers surprised me - it’s perspective I didn’t have. Among other things, it reveals how far our national discourse is removed from the actual stuff of our lives - and our deaths. I wish I could say I was surprised.