Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What the Numbers Actually Say About Gun-Related Deaths and Gun Control

Since the terrible occurrence at Sandy Hook, we've all seen the news reports and heard the opinions and proposals from both sides of the gun control issue about how to prevent such disasters in the future. Often, the talking heads cite statistics and polls that seem to say one thing, then others say its exact opposite. Somehow, by coincidence, the stats and polls they refer to are consistent with the bias of whichever person happens to be talking at any given moment.

For example, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup poll, "58% of Americans now say they favor stricter gun laws." So says the mass media press, which is supposed to be neutral. For comparison, on the January 2, 2013, RT news show "Lone Liberal Rumble," Francesca Chambers, editor and publisher of the republican publication Red Alert Politics, cited a CBS poll that reportedly said 50% of Americans are against more gun control, then another poll that reportedly said 54% of Americans have a positive opinion of the NRA. Granted, a discerning viewer normally would know to assume Chambers would be biased, since she's from a partisan organization, but those who get their news only from such sources, directly or indirectly, are not going to be aware of other polls that yielded different results. So, theoretically, we have this national split of two sets of people, both of which think they're informed, but they've been informed of opposing or at least inconsistent "facts."

As is often the case with the news, the question is, what are the actual facts? Well, the polls I've mentioned above aren't that terribly divergent, but I've heard other results that vary more widely. Regardless, if you know how polls are conducted, then you know that their results can be highly variable and unreliable. For example, telephone polls tend to lean toward land-line phone numbers, and they rely on people being at home or willing to answer their phone at a specific time on specific days. Hence, they are inherently limited in the demographic of the people they survey—for example, to people who don't have cell phones and like to stay home on Tuesday nights. According to the Gallup organization itself, which says it is trying to improve its access to citizens with cell phones, "people in cell phone-only households tend to be younger, are more likely to be racial and ethnic minorities…."

If we can't get a clear reading on people's opinions about gun control, then what can we do? Fortunately, there is data out there that is based on official records and can provide some insight into the issue. It won't tell us what people's opinions are, but it can tell us how many people have died from guns, where gun-related deaths are happening, which states have weaker or stronger gun control laws, and if there appears to be any correlation between the strength of gun control laws and the number of gun-related deaths per capita.

Based on information collected from actual death certificates, the CDC reports the following in its National Vital Statistics Reports (page 11): "In 2009, 31,347 persons died from firearm injuries in the United States, accounting for 17.7% of all injury deaths that year. The two major component causes of all firearm injury deaths in 2009 were suicide (59.8%) and homicide (36.7%)." According to tabular data in that publication (pages 81-82, Table 18), the number of homicides was 16,799. The number of homicides attributed to guns was 11,493 people, which represents 68.4% of the homicides. The number of suicides attributed to guns was 18,735, or 50.1% of all suicides (the next greatest numbers were from suffocation—9,000—and poisoning—6,398; the remainder of gun deaths were due to accidents, etc.). For comparison, 1,874 homicides were committed by someone using a knife or other cutting or piercing object, which amounts to about 11.2% of all the homicides for that year. Six times more homicides were gun related than knife related. (Note that variations in counting and calculation methods will cause slight variations in the exact numbers, so the percentages and numbers may not match exactly. However, they are accurate to within a fraction of a percent.)

For overall death by firearms (page 87, Table 19), which can include homicides, suicides, accidents, etc., the three states with the greatest numbers were California (3,094), Texas (2,691), and Florida (2,324). On the other extreme were Hawaii (47), Rhode Island (56), North Dakota (59), and Vermont (60). According to the United States Census Bureau, California, Texas, and Florida ranked 1, 2, and 4, respectively, for population as of July 2009. Hawaii, Rhode Island, North Dakota, and Vermont ranked 42, 43, 48, and 49, respectively. That would indicate that, overall, a lower population means fewer gun-related deaths. That makes sense; there are fewer people available to kill or be killed using whatever means, including guns.

However, although New York ranks third for population, it had fewer gun-related deaths than Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, and North Carolina, whose populations ranked 7-10, respectively, and even Tennessee, ranked 17. According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, New York has stronger gun laws than all five of those states. California, too, has strong gun laws, and it should be noted that although its population is 50% larger than the next most populous state, Texas, its rate of gun deaths is only 15% greater than the rate for Texas, and Texas rates in the lowest percentile for the strength of its gun laws, according to the Brady Campaign.

I matched up the state-by-state data for gun-related deaths and population and calculated per capita numbers for each state, which I converted to per-100,000 numbers for clarity and to save money on zeros. For example, the state with the highest number of gun-related deaths per 100,000 people was Louisiana, with 18.03, and the lowest was Massachusetts, with 3.14. When rating the states' gun laws, the Brady site uses a 0-100 scale and segments it into five unequally divided ranges, where 0-10 represents the weakest gun laws and 75-100 the strongest. To make life easier, I inverted and converted those ratings into a 1-5 ranking, where 1 is the strongest and 5 is the weakest.

The results suggest that, overall, weaker gun laws result in a greater per capita occurrence of gun-related death (Fig. 1). Of the top 19 states having the highest likelihood of gun-related death, 18 received the lowest rating from the Brady Campaign—my "5"—for the strength of their gun laws. The only state with a "1" ranking for strong gun laws is California; however, that state ranks as only the 13th lowest in terms of per capita gun-related deaths. On the other hand, five states had rankings of "2" for strong gun laws, and they, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Massachusetts, were the top five for lowest occurrence of gun-related death.

Figure 1. Gun Deaths per 100,000 People by State and Strength of Gun Laws
Figure 1. Gun Deaths per 100,000 People by State and Strength of Gun Laws
One factor that might be influencing California's rank in this case is the overflow of violence in recent years from the drug wars in Mexico, especially areas very close to the border with California. Strong gun laws would be less likely to reduce gun-related deaths from conflicts among cross-border drug gangs. Still, as mentioned earlier, California does have a low occurrence of gun-related deaths compared to most of the country, including the populous states of Texas and Florida.

One of the questions I've heard most often in relation to the gun control debate is whether anyone has actually shown that gun control results in fewer gun-related deaths. I've wondered the same thing, and I've been surprised to note the lack of any reliable figures being publicized. I've heard a few republican-leaning interviewees state that the opposite was true; however, they made such statements without providing any citation of a source or statistical support. That is, they made them within the framework of "Well, everyone knows that stronger gun control laws actually result in more deaths" rather than "Well, statistics from a 2009 study by the ATF have shown that stronger gun control laws actually result in more deaths."

I trust official statistics more than I trust what "everyone" supposedly knows. Based on the statistics available from reliable sources, the results of my research indicate that, in general, states that have weak gun control laws have more gun-related deaths per capita than states that have strong gun control laws.

Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, "Brady 2011 State Scorecards." 2011. http://www.bradycampaign.org/stategunlaws/scorecard

Chambers, Francesca. Comments during "Lone Liberal Rumble—Are corporations allowed to have their own religious beliefs?" Interviewed by Thom Hartmann. The Big Picture. RT Network. January 2, 2013. http://www.thomhartmann.com/bigpicture/lone-liberal-rumble-are-corporations-allowed-have-their-own-religious-beliefs

Gallup, Inc. "Does Gallup call cell phones?" Accessed February 12, 2013. http://www.gallup.com/poll/110383/does-gallup-call-cell-phones.aspx

Kochanek, Kenneth D., Jiaquan Xu, Sherry L. Murphy, Arialdi M. MiniƱo, and Hsiang-Ching Kung. "Deaths: Final Data for 2009." National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 60, No. 3. December 29, 2011. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr60/nvsr60_03.pdf

Madhani, Aamer. "Gun control poll shows mixed results." USA TODAY. December 26, 2012. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/12/26/gun-rights-assault-weapons-newtown-shooting/1791827/.

United States Census Bureau. "Resident Population—July 2009." Statistical Abstract of the United States. 2011. http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2011/ranks/rank01.html

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