Gun Violence in the U.S.: The Numbers Behind the Madness

 Can a look at the raw data of gun violence in America point to any solutions?

Published on LinkedIn Pulse December 15, 2014

By Brian E. Frydenborg 4/3/2013

Updated 7/9/2016 to correct and expand math

Originally published here on American Gun Laws thanks to Jason Rogers

Other articles in this series:

How Not to Stop Terrorism & Gun Violence: Lessons from the Republicans

Development: The Fix for Terrorism & Violent Crime 

American Guns: Not Just Killing Americans (See Mexico)

Why Is the U.S. So Good at Gun violence?

The Irrelevant Second Amendment

When I was in college, there was a professor who had the following slogan posted on his door: “In God we trust; all others bring data.” I will leave it to you whether or not you trust in any kind of a g(G)od(s) or not, but data should be the main driver of any policy debate. And the data on gun violence in the U.S. is very telling. It is also readily available, and one thing I find striking is that these numbers are not used more in the ample airtime that has been given to the issue of gun violence/control on television and radio.

Let us take a look at the statics we have available for the last full year, in 2011, compiled by the FBI. Overall, there were 12,664 recorded murders in the United States in 2011. Out of known murders, 8,583 (nearly 67.8%) were known to have involved firearms. That is more deaths—over 28.6% more–than the 6,673 known U.S. Military and Department of Defense (DoD) deaths in all operations related to Iraq and Afghanistan spanning over a decade of combat operations starting in late 2001 through April 4th, 2013. For the same time period of those gun deaths in the U.S.—just the one year of 2011—there were only 367 deaths for the U.S. Military and DoD in those conflicts; that means that in 2011 there were almost 2,339% more people killed in the U.S. by guns than as a result of military/defense service in America’s wars.

A closer look yields additional interesting trends. A whopping 6,220 gun murders, or almost 72.5% of all gun murders, were known to have been committed using handguns. That is almost more than all the combat casualties since 2001 detailed above. It should also be noted, though, that over 18.5% of gun deaths were from “firearms, type not stated,” so it is very likely that significantly more than 72.5% of gun murders were committed by handguns and this could be confirmed if there was more data at the crime scenes. Even discounting this last point, the overwhelming majority of gun murders, and nearly half of all murders in the U.S., were committed using handguns.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, there has been much focus on assault weapons, especially the infamous AR-15—the M-16 knockoff—and yet little discussion about handguns. The Atlantic has a good presentationof some of the general issues of gun violence, and in particular cites a study done by Mother Jones of all “mass murders” (defined by the FBI as a murder in which four or more people are killed in one occurrence) from 1982-2012. This study details sixty-two incidents over the course of thirty years. Handguns were used in 75% of the mass incidents, assault weapons in 40% (using one does not exclude use of the other, and both Sandy Hook and Aurora serve as examples of this multiple-weapon-type assault). The rate of use of handguns in these incidents is close to the handgun-use rate for gun violence in general in the U.S., but the rate of use of assault weapons in mass shootings is much higher than the general rate use of assault weapons in all gun-related crimes, which one Department of Justice-authorized study from 2001 shows was then at about 2%. In mass shootings, guns were bought legally 79% of the time, and in only two out of the sixty-two incidents did shooters have any previous diagnosis of a mental illness, even though many of these mass shooters were mentally ill.

In general, murder in has been declining modestly in the last few years, including firearms deaths, though handgun deaths have gone up slightly from 2010-2011. Still, the numbers are pretty bad and as one of my earlier articles notes, gun violence is still awful in the U.S. compared to almost the whole rest of the developed world. Gun murder rates in many U.S. cities are comparable to developing nations with the highest gun murder rates in the world. The overall “murder and nonnegligent manslaughter” rate is roughly 180 or 190% higher in America’s cities than in “nonmetropolitan counties” and “suburban areas,” respectively (5.5 vs. 3.2 and 2.9 per 100,000 people, respectively). In large cities of one-quarter of a million people or more, the rate ranges between roughly three and four times the rural/suburban rates (8.8 to 11.7 per 100,000 people vs. 3.2 and 2.9 rural and suburban, respectively). Yet cities with a modern economy and an educated population are ahead of the curve: the correlation is more tied to “inequality, concentrated poverty, and heavily damaged social infrastructures” (and these issues very disproportionately affect blacks compared with whites). Even within cities, there is a wide gap between less-poverty stricken, more developed areas and those which have social structures that have collapsed. In addition, a study published in March 2013 by the academic medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine showed that there was a correlation between both higher gun ownership rates and fewer gun control laws with higher rates of gun deaths.

(this paragraph updated 7/9/2016 to correct and expand math) Out of all murder victims, nearly 46%, or 5,825, were whites, who were about 78.1% of the overall population as of 2011, or about 243.5 million people, while almost 50% of murder victims, or 6,329, were blacks, who were roughly 13.1% of the overall 2011 population, or 40.75 million people. If you do a little math, this comes out to a murder death rate of about 15.5 per 100,000 people for blacks while whites only had a murder death rate of about 2.4 per 100,000 people. The murder death rate for blacks, then, is a dramatic (nearly) 649.3% higher.  That means blacks are almost 649.3% more likely to be murdered in the U.S. than whites. Remembering that about 67.8% of all known murders involved firearms, we can roughly assume that this method is spread evenly among different groups and estimate that roughly 3,948 whites were murdered with guns and roughly 4,289 blacks were murdered with guns, giving us gun death rates of 1.6 for white Americans and about 10.5 for black Americans, still almost 650% higher for blacks.  And the vast majority of whites in single-victim crimes were killed by other whites (over 82.9%), while the vast majority of blacks in single-victim crimes were killed by other blacks (about 90.8%). Also in terms of single-victim crimes, the vast majority of both men (about 87.4%) and women (91.2%) were killed by men. And using statistics from the CDC from 2010, gender plays an interesting role: black men had a dramatically higher rate of being gun murder victims, over seven times higher, than white men, while black women were well over twice as likely to be gun murder victims than white women. These are very sobering statistics for anyone concerned by racial issues in the U.S.

Apart from guns deaths that are murders, suicide is also important to examine. For the year 2010, there were 38,364 documented suicides. 50.6% of these people, or 19,392 people, killed themselves using a firearm. That is almost 225.9% more deaths from suicide than from people killing other people. And this problem is overwhelmingly rural and white. About 71.5% of all suicides were white males, and whites have a much higher rate of suicide than blacks. When isolating suicide by guns, the same rough proportional racial differences with overall suicides are intact, with both black men and women committing suicide by guns about 1/3 of times that white men and women do. White men were over seven times more likely to kill themselves with a gun than white women, and black men were over nine-and-a half times more likely to kills themselves with a gun than black women. Also, states with lower gun ownership rates have lower suicide rates. This is also confirmed by the same study that showed a correlation between both high gun ownership rates and fewer gun-control legislation in states with higher rates of gun-murders.

A further 606 people were killed by an “accidental discharge of firearms” while a further 252 were killed by a “discharge of firearms, undetermined intent.”

Overall, the CDC gives a figure of 31,672 people dying from some sort of injury related to firearms in 2010. That makes guns more deadly in the U.S. than alcohol (25,692 deaths) but less deadly than drug-related deaths (40,393). It is perhaps surprising, then, that within the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) budget there is a lopsided amount of funding in favor of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which gets about 8% of DoJ’s budget, or $2.04 billion, for its current budget, while Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) gets 4% of the DoJ budget, or about $1.15 billion, for its current budget. So DEA gets about twice the funding as ATF even though there are only a little over 27.5% more drug-related deaths than gun-related deaths. Furthermore, considering the fact that within the current ATF budget, alcohol and tobacco activities account of only 2% of the budget, while firearms activities account for about 76% of the budget, it is more like $2.04 billion for the “war on drugs” vs. about $0.874 billion for the “war on guns,” or about 233.4% more funding for only a 27.5% higher number of deaths.

Where do the guns that do the killing come from? This is tricky, as some rather strange laws limit how the ATF can publish national statistics on gun sales. The last time the ATF were allowed to publish this type of data, it found that just 1.2% of dealers accounted for more than 57% of crime guns. And 85% of dealers had no crime guns traced to them. Furthermore, 30% of guns seized used in criminal activity in a study from a few years ago came from a different state from where they were seized. Not surprisingly, states with stricter gun sale laws were among the best at keeping their guns from being used to commit crimes in other states, while those states that were the most lax with gun sale laws tended to contribute the highest levels of guns used in crime beyond their borders.


It is the job of the policymaker to ask, “What are realistically possible actions which can do the most to bring down the number of gun-related deaths?” Sadly, the real answers to this problem are generally absent from the national discussion, though not entirely.

Let us break down some lessons that can be drawn from the data examined above.

1.) Handguns are the real problem. Assault weapons are certainly a major factor in mass shootings, but kill only a tiny fraction of gun victims in the U.S. each year. And even in mass shootings, handguns are a major factor. We know at least 72.5% of documented gun murders in the U.S. come from handguns. Legislating against assault rifles may be necessary and may help to reduce mass shootings’ lethality and frequency, but such action will not make much of a difference in the overall murder rates or save anywhere near as many lives as dealing with handguns would. And of late more and more gun control advocates and legislators are talking about finding ways to reduce the capacity of high-capacity gun magazines—affecting how many bullets can be fired before reloading—as opposed to banning certain types of weapons.

2.) Gun violence victims are overwhelmingly male, and, in respect to their proportion of the overall population, overwhelmingly black. These crimes are overwhelmingly so-called “black-on-black” crime. Yet most murder victims in the U.S. are killed by members of their own race, a phenomenon that needs to be examined further. There are a variety of contentious factors that contribute to this sad fact, but the numbers are indisputable. White and black murders account for about 94% all U.S. murders, and factoring out black murder victims would lower the U.S. gun murder rate by more than half, but it would still be over twice the average for nearly thirty other developed countries. Still, the problems of the black community are clearly significantly tied to the issue of gun violence. Addressing the plight of blacks in the U.S. would make a huge difference, then, in overall U.S. gun violence.

3.) Gun violence overwhelmingly occurs at a higher rate in urban vs. rural environments. Thus, when considering national-level legislation, some regard for different tiers of laws for rural vs. urban areas should be considered. In particular…

4.) How guns move from one location to another to be part of crimes must be examined and dealt with, both across state and international borders, and from rural to urban locations as well. A hunter’s right to enjoy hunting in the countryside must be balanced by the fact that making it too easy for people to buy guns in the countryside has contributed to more deaths in urban environments when the weapons end up there.

5.) Acknowledge suicide is part of the problem, a big part. People—in this case, mainly white men living in rural areas—die far more at their own hands than from being shot by someone threatening them. That there are more gun suicides than murders cannot be ignored. Any serious effort at stemming gun violence needs to factor in how to deal with suicide also. While self-inflicted wounds are not thought of as violence in the traditional sense, these deaths mean that guns killing people is not just a major problem in urban areas, even if these people are killing themselves and not others.

6.) More so than the urban-rural divide, poverty, inequality, and weak social structures/institutions contribute to gun violence. The lesson here is simple: there is no silver bullet. A city like Detroit of Chicago’s South Side will never have their gun violence problems solved by one or two policies. When gun violence is tied to poverty, inequality, education, structures and historical issues concerning race, a comprehensive approach is necessary.

7.) Resourcing is certainly an issue. Our analysis of the Department of Justice’s resource allocation showed that drug-related activity received 233.4% more funding over firearms-related activity even though drugs only killed 27.5% more people according to available data. Clearly, a more balanced approach or would make a difference in favor of reducing gun violence. This is related to the gun economy…

8.) How guns are sold is a crucial aspect of gun violence. If somewhere around 85% of gun dealers are being responsible, a large amount of additional resources directed at the other 15%, and especially the 1.2% that are responsible for over 57% of crime guns seized by authorities, would make an astronomical difference. I will not even discuss closing the gun show loophole because that is so painfully obvious a step to take that there is nothing more that needs to be said on that subject. There needs to be tracking of the worst offenders among the gun dealers, and with 1.2% being particularly bad, any effort regarding them would have great “bang for the buck.”

All of these recommendations and issues to explore are not going to be insurmountable challenges, nor will they be easy projects. Sure, some laws will have to be changed, fights will erupt, and traditional views must evolve in a society that hopes to be serious about its problems instead of just paying lip service to them. But the data is clear: focus meaningfully on a few key areas to make a major difference now, or the blood of future gun victims will be on all of our hands.