The ReThink Blog

Starting from scratch in politics and science


Rethinking Gun Control, Part 3: Looking for a Trend

The Aurora shooting
The Aurora, Colorado theater where 12 people were killed by gun violence

Gun violence has certainly been in the news quite a bit in the last few years. It would be unpleasant to detail the entire list, but sufficed to say, there have been harrowing, public tragedies involving the murders of men, women, and children, and this kind of national trauma is difficult to endure. It's also difficult not to imagine that such gruesome gun violence is on the rise--it's definitely getting more attention--and many of our political leaders and pundits see this as a call to action. President Obama, for example, has not been shy about invoking the Newtown tragedy and the Gabriel Giffords shooting to push for stronger gun control legislation.

Over at Think Progress, Tara Culp-Ressler argues (in an article titled "With Gun Violence On The Rise, Hospitals Train Their Staff On How To Survive Shootings") that, "over the past several years, mass shootings have intensified instead of abating." Meanwhile, at MSNBC, Karen Finney posits that, after the horrors of Aurora and Newtown and the death of Trayvon Martin, "it seemed inevitable that America would embrace new gun safety measures," but that "powerful forces" (namely, the NRA) blocked this inevitability. During that episode of Disrupt with Karen Finney, she and her panel discuss various states' Stand Your Ground laws as though they are a loophole allowing for gun violence to explode around the country.

However, there are also many voices telling us that gun violence is actually on the decline. Conservative pundits like National Review's Charles Cooke and Fox News contributor Katie Pavlich used a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report to argue that there is far less gun crime today than there has been historically. Indeed, over at Fox News Watch, the entire panel--even the token liberal--is credulous about the notion that gun deaths are down, instead focusing their attention on why the "mainstream press" is ignoring this "fact."

When I set out to learn the truth about firearm mortality rates, I was stunned at how much noise there is out there and how many contradictory statistics can be found with a little digging. It became clear that I'd have to look at the raw data and come to my own conclusions. Since the vast majority of gun mortality statistics come from the CDC, an organization that seems as non-partisan as you can get, that's where I went. Before I started, I needed to know what I was looking for, and so I set out to answer one very simple question: are gun deaths on the rise or on the decline in America?

Granted, there are many ways to answer this question, so I had to settle on my parameters. For one thing, I am pulling only from the years 1999-2010, in an effort to determine current trends (as opposed to historical ones). The CDC doesn't have reliable figures for 2011 and beyond yet, which is why I stopped at 2010. I'm also adjusting for population size using the CDC's population statistics. Before I get into the nitty-gritty of my findings, let me just jump ahead to the conclusion and reveal that, according to my analysis of the data, gun mortality rates have been relatively stable at the 10 per 100,000 people range. In a big picture sense, there isn't really a solid trend either way.

Total Firearm Deaths
Total Firearm Deaths

Obviously, this isn't the whole story. Those arguing that gun violence is in a more dramatic flux probably aren't just pulling their numbers out of their asses (or at least, most of them probably aren't). I'll grant that my figures don't take into account firearm injuries that don't result in death, a possible area of contention, and that the above chart doesn't even begin to explain the apparent contradictions being advocated by the politically motivated. Therefore, I have to dig a lot deeper.

The CDC separates their firearm mortality statistics in a diverse number of ways. The numbers can be parsed by age groupings and by the types of death. So, for starters, I decided to look at unambiguous firearm assaults, and I wanted to see which age ranges were the most affected. (I should note that I did collect and arrange the data for age ranges below 15, but they were blessedly very tiny numbers and not worth including below, though they are included in the above chart.) I again adjusted for age differences, using population statistics from each year and, this time, each age range, in order to exclude changes brought on strictly by boom generations.

Firearm Assaults by Age Group
Firearm Assaults by Age Group

First of all, it's clear that firearm assault victims tend to be the younger amongst us, with the 15-24 and 25-34 age ranges dominating the chart. The general trend over time seems to be that assaults rose for the middle part of the decade only to fall again in the last few years. Though the 15-24 age range sees a stark difference between its end points (1044.06 in 1999 and 891.43 in 2010), this chart again seems to tell the same basic story as the first one, that there is no distinct trend either upwards or downwards.

What about suicides, then, another large source of firearm mortality? When I first started looking for statistics, I came across an oft repeated claim that suicides--especially suicides with firearms--are on a steep decline among young people. This got me thinking, because if it is true--and it is true that the general firearm mortality rate is stable--that means there must be a rise somewhere else in the data to compensate.

Firearm Suicides by Age Group
Firearm Suicides by Age Group

This chart demonstrates that the rise is in the suicide data itself, that while the firearm suicide rates of young people (and the elderly) have been on a steady decline, the rates in the middle--especially among the late middle aged--have been rising, with the trend accelerating sharply between 2007 and 2008. At first, this baffled me, but upon reflection, I can speculate that the acceleration is an artifact of the financial crisis, though I still have no real explanation for why the trend was increasing well before that.

So what happens if I take all firearm-related deaths and separate them by age groups? The CDC includes deaths by accidental discharge, by assault, by self-harm, by discharge with undetermined intent, and by law enforcement (a surprisingly low set of numbers, I should add). Taking all of them into account, this is what the chart looks like:

All Firearm Deaths by Age Group
All Firearm Deaths by Age Group

This tells the most enlightening story. It looks like the data is funnelling to a point, which means that, for younger and older age groups, the number of firearm-related deaths is going down, but for the middle age groups, the number is going up. The change in the 15-24 age group is the most startling, going in a relatively smooth slope from 1756.90 in 1999 to 1421.39 in 2010. I'm not going to overload you with more graphs detailing the CDC's other groupings, because--aside from the rise in suicides--they all tell the same stories of either a slight decline or no real change one way or the other.

What all this boils down to, then, is that you can cherry pick the data to make it seem like gun violence is on the rise or on the decline, but when you put it all together, a general trend does not appear in either direction. This is by no means an end to the controversy, nor does it address mortality rates today compared to those of earlier decades. I'd like to separate the data by region and see if I can identify a correlation between gun control laws and firearm mortality. I'd also like to compare these rates to those of other parts of the world that take different approaches to the issue. Still, this is a purely academic exercise that doesn't really address the underlying issues. Regardless of statistical trends, the advocates and detractors aren't likely to be swayed, but understanding the data gives me a more solid platform to stand on as I try to add my own voice to the political shouting match.

-e. magill 8/21/2013

  • Rethinking Gun Control, Part 1: Statement of Intent
  • Rethinking Gun Control, Part 2: The Second Amendment
  • Rethinking Gun Control, Part 4: State Track Records
  • Rethinking Gun Control, Part 5: International Variations
  • Rethinking Gun Control, Part 6: Spree Shootings
  • Rethinking Gun Control, Part 7: Registration
  • Rethinking Gun Control, Part 8: Background Checks and Gun Show Loopholes
  • Rethinking Gun Control, Part 9: Conclusions
  • 5 Logical Fallacies from the Gun Debate
  • Rethinking Anthropogenic Global Warming