A Bird’s Eye View Of Gun Violence In America

Gun reform is one of the most important debates of our time. It's important we understand the full scope of the gun violence epidemic in America.
(Michael Murphy)

(Michael Murphy)

Part 1 of a Rantt Series on gun violence in America.

No one can dispute that 2019 has been a bad year for the United States in terms of mass shootings. There are different definitions of mass shootings: federal legislation has considered three or more deaths to qualify, while the Federal Bureau of Investigation uses four or more deaths. It is high-profile mass shootings, however, that have brought America to what appears to be a critical juncture in considering the significance of these events and the urgency of preventing them.

There is a momentum building toward a real opportunity to enact laws that could reduce the level of gun violence in the US. Congress, back from recess this week, is looking at possible bipartisan measures such as “red flag” legislation permitting judicial confiscation of guns from persons deemed to be a threat to others or themselves and strengthened background checks for gun purchasers. Democrats are pushing for a ban of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Those measures have support from the majority of Americans, but not from Republican lawmakers who are backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA).

The Trump Administration’s Department of Justice is drafting a package of proposals including an expedited death penalty for mass shooters, and “red flag” legislation. Democratic 2020 presidential election candidates are announcing proposals for universal federal licensing requirements, gun buybacks, universal background checks, restoring the assault weapon ban that expired in 2004, and other approaches.

A Look At America’s Mass Shootings In 2019

The high level of current attention to American gun violence is being driven by the high-profile mass shootings that have occurred in just the first eight months of 2019. Mass shootings are widely publicized when they have a high body count, an ethnically or racially targeted victim group, a venue that makes us feel that nowhere is safe, or a combination of these. The victims of the high-profile mass shootings that have occurred so far this year were working, shopping, enjoying a food festival, or otherwise simply out in public, doing normal things.

The shooter in El Paso on August 3 drove from Dallas to kill 22 people and injure over two dozen more at a Walmart, in an apparent attempt to take action against what he viewed as a “Hispanic invasion.” He succeeded in killing 13 American citizens, 8 Mexican nationals, and 1 German national. On May 31 this year, an angry public utility worker in Virginia Beach killed 12 of his coworkers and injured others. Workplace violence has been a recognized issue since 1986, when an Edmonds, Oklahoma postal worker killed 14 of his coworkers and injured 7 others.

Other high-profile mass shootings this year seem to have happened for no reason at all. On July 28 at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in Northern California, a shooter killed 3 people (including 2 children) and wounded 12 others. In Dayton, Ohio, a shooter killed 9 people (including his own sister) and wounded 27 others on August 9. On August 31, a shooter killed 5 people in the Odessa, Texas area, and wounded 21 others, his spree starting with the shooting of a state trooper during a traffic stop.

These mass shootings have made Americans afraid, because the victims were largely innocent civilians who could easily have been any one of us. NASCAR’s apparent denial of gun-related ads showing assault or sniper-style rifles this year is symptomatic of that fear. So is the recent addition of CVS, Kroger, Walgreens, Walmart, Wegmans and others to the list of U.S. retail chains with policies discouraging customers from displaying firearms when in their stores.

While to some it might seem like common sense not to display a firearm in a store, most states permit the open carrying of at least some firearms, in at least some circumstances. Only California, the District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, New York, and South Carolina have a general prohibition of the open carrying of handguns. Only California, the District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New Jersey generally prohibit the open carrying of long guns.

It may appear that real progress against America’s gun violence is just around the corner. But the policies being adopted by retail chains and NASCAR are aimed only at the display of guns, which might make customers uncomfortable and chill sales or race attendance. The retail chain policies do not address the concealed carrying of firearms. Adhering to the axiom “out of sight, out of mind,” the policies really only seek to convince us that we are safer than we are. Focusing only on high-profile mass shootings is likely to accomplish the same thing.

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Gun Violence Statistics

While we know the names of a handful of 2019 mass shootings that have occurred in the U.S., a total of 293 have happened as of September 9 according to data collected by the non-profit Gun Violence Archives (GVA). GVA defines mass shootings as incidents in which 4 or more people are killed or wounded, not counting the shooter. GVA reports that as of September 8 this year there have been 38,742 incidents of gun violence, mass and otherwise (but not including suicides). These incidents have resulted in 10,225 deaths and 20,444 injuries. The dead or injured include 481 children under twelve years of age. The total number of gun violence events includes 1,149 that were accidental.

In 2017, 6 of every 10 gun deaths were suicide, and suicides were trending up. GVA does not include suicides in their gun violence tally. If one assumes that the 10,225 gun deaths recorded by GVA in 2019 as of September 8 comprise 40% of all gun deaths, then there were likely at least an additional 15,337 suicides by gun. That’s a minimum of 25,562 gun-related deaths by the beginning of September.

By their inherent nature, more guns can only make us more unsafe. When anger turns violent, access to a gun makes it more likely that the violence will be deadly. Once an individual shoots a gun at another human being, the bullet cannot be taken back. Road rage, parking rage, and just plain rage can more easily result in someone’s death. Parents shoot children. Children shoot parents. People of all ages become collateral damage of drive-by shootings or gang-related shootouts.

Culled at random from 2019 GVA records: on March 25, a ten-year-old in Harvey, Illinois died from injuries sustained in a car-to-car shooting while he was riding in his father’s car on March 23. On July 12, a 43-year-old Elmhurst, Illinois mother shot and killed her two teenage sons, then shot herself to death. On March 19, a 29-year-old at a house party in Phoenix, Arizona became angry when his wallet was stolen: he went home, took his sleeping roommate’s handgun, returned to the party, and randomly killed 2 people and injured 4.

On July 29, a 17-year-old accidentally shot his 19-year-old friend in the throat while playing with a handgun in Columbia, Pennsylvania. On May 17, in Kansas City, Missouri, a three-year-old picked up a gun and accidentally shot himself to death. On August 23, 3 people were killed and 2 wounded in Houston, Texas during a shootout between rival gangs. On September 2, a 14-year-old Elkmont, Alabama boy killed all 5 members of his family—his father, stepmother, and step-siblings aged 6 years, 5 years, and just 6 months.

The deaths and injuries build up rapidly. As of 12:00 p.m. on September 8, during the prior 72 hours, 81 people had died and 133 had been injured from gun violence in the U.S., not including suicides. Those are not negligible numbers. But they did not happen in a single shooting event that made national news. By focusing only on high-profile mass shootings, we ignore the health crisis that gun violence really is. In 2017, 44% of Americans reported that someone they personally knew had been intentionally or accidentally shot.

Analysis in 2018 suggested that the lifetime odds of any individual being killed by assault with a gun were 1 in 315. The lifetime odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident were admittedly almost three times higher (1 in 108). But motor vehicles are not lethal by design, and have an importance to us for transportation that leads us to accept the risk they present. Guns have only one function—to harm or kill—and they are so effective and easy to use that toddlers can pick up loaded guns and accidentally kill themselves. It is not the shooters or the guns that are responsible for gun violence: it is both.

The U.S. has a lot more firearms available to civilians than any other country in the world. Data compiled for 2017 estimated that there were more than 393 million guns in the United States—more guns than people. In fact, 120.5 guns for every 100 people. The numbers have almost certainly increased since 2017, and do not consider the number of unregistered, “ghost” guns in the country. The U.S. 2017 population, just 4% of the global population, owned 46% of the global civilian firearm stock.

42% percent of households reported to Gallup that they owned a gun. The country with the highest per capita number of firearms after the U.S. was Yemen, with only 52.8 guns for every 100 people. The country with the next highest total number of guns was India, with only 71.1 million guns. Among wealthy nations, the U.S. has three times as many firearms per capita than the nation with the next highest per capita rate, Canada.

In the face of all the data, it is difficult to say that the gun culture in America is not out of control. Whether guns are open carried, concealed, or illegal, they are everywhere. Based on data on registered firearms published in 2017 by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the ten states with the highest number of guns per capita are not necessarily the “usual suspects.” Wyoming, the District of Columbia, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Virginia, Alabama, Idaho, Arkansas, Nevada, and Arizona occupy first through tenth places, in that order. The ten states with the highest total number of registered guns, first to tenth, are Texas (588,696 guns), California (344,622), Florida (343,288), Virginia (307,822), Pennsylvania (236,377), Georgia (190,050), Arizona (179,738), Ohio (173,405), Alabama (161,641), and North Carolina (152,238).

Some Americans might glean a measure of comfort from a Pew Research Foundation report that 72% of American gun owners own handguns, including 62% of single-gun owners. Owning a rifle was reported by 62% of American gun owners, and owning a shotgun by 54%. It is more difficult to determine how many “assault weapons” there are in the U.S. The definition of “assault weapon”—and whether the AR-15 rifle, for instance, fits the definition—is the subject of passionate debate.

It may not matter. A study by George Washington University’s Center for Trauma and Critical Care analyzed autopsies from 23 mass shootings between 2000 and 2016. The study concluded that handguns are more lethal than rifles during such events. Mass shooting events involving handguns resulted in a higher percentage of victims being killed rather than only wounded. When handguns were used, 26% of victims had more than one fatal wound. When rifles were used, only 2% of victims had more than one fatal wound. Brain and heart wounds were more likely to be caused by a handgun.

The assault rifles we tend to think of as requiring restrictive legislation are not the only problem in the U.S. All guns are implicated in American gun violence. The question is whether this year we will say that enough really is enough.

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