9 Essential Gun Facts in Graphs

As mass shootings occur with horrifying frequency in the United States, gun control and violence are once again at the forefront of American political debate.

Being genuinely lost on this issue, I compiled this data without any particular bias in order to gain a clearer understanding. Regardless of your position, remember that common premises are necessary for constructive debate and I hope this data helps you achieve that.

Note about statistics used: The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is an international organization of nations who essentially represent the rich, developed world. The data used in this analysis is from the OECD-26, which is composed of twenty-six OECD member states who share data to allow comparison of national health, transportation, education, law enforcement, etc. infrastructure. Due to the extraordinary circumstances of a near war-state in Mexico, I have excluded that nation from some of this analysis despite its membership in the OECD-26. Unless otherwise stated, the graphs have been produced by me with data from the cited sources. Be sure to click the graphs if you have trouble reading them.

1. For the developed world, America is not a particularly violent nation.

The claim that America is especially violent in relation to the rest of the rich,developed world is often used to support both sides of the debate. Anti-gun advocates use the idea to suggest that the presence of guns make people more prone to violence, while pro-gun advocates use it to support the idea that American culture (movies, video games, media) promote violence. However, when comparing violent crime rates (sexual violence, assault, and robbery) America, while above average, is not especially prone to violence.

America: Above average, but not special

America: Above average, but not special

2. America does have a homicide problem.

Point #1 shows that America is pretty normal when it comes to the number of violent encounters that occur. However, it differs from the rest of the rich world because its violent encounters are more likely to end in death, thus being a homicide rather than just assault. This makes sense. Nearly ubiquitous guns (88 firearms per 100 residents) mean the odds are high that violence will end in a shooting rather than a less fatal fist or knife fight.

Not especially violent, but unusually fatal

Not especially violent, but unusually fatal

Are Americans really four times as murderous as Brits? This is unlikely. In fact, assaults are about 25% more common in the UK than in the US. The problem is that an assault in the US is more likely to result in a gunshot wound rather than a knife wound.

3. More guns may reduce some crime.

Anti-gun advocates sometimes suggest guns are completely useless except for hunting and sport. However, the data suggests there is a tradeoff for the higher homicide rate. The US robbery rate, when a criminal threatens the bodily well-being of a victim (such as muggings, bank robberies, etc.) is about half the OECD-26 average. Obviously there are other factors at play here and correlation does not mean causation. Of course, those arguments also apply to the statistics about homicides. The fact is correlation often does imply causation, especially when there is a logical connection between the two. More guns mean violent encounters are more likely to end in death but they also mean criminals might think twice before robbing a store or pedestrian who might be carrying a weapon.

The possibility a victim is carrying a weapon might make a criminal think twice

The possibility a victim is carrying a weapon might make a criminal think twice

4. Mass shooting are terrifying but they aren’t the only, nor the main, problem.

Reuters published a list of this 2012’s mass shooting and their casualties:

Mass shootings are a nationwide phenomenon.

Mass shootings are a nationwide phenomenon.

February: 4 killed in an Atlanta day spa

April: 7 killed at an Oakland Christian college

May: 5 killed at a Seattle coffee shop

July: 12 killed and 58 wounded in Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting

August: 6 killed and 4 wounded at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin

September: 6 killed at a Minneapolis sign company

December: 26 killed and 2 wounded in Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting

Total mass-shooting casualties this year come to 130. Reuters also points out that in an average year there are 20 shooting rampages and a total of 100 casualties. While these events garner massive press coverage and terrorize the population, their casualty numbers pale in comparison to the 31,347 Americans killed with firearms in homicides, suicides, or accidents in 2009 according to the Center for Disease Control.

That means that mass murder casualties make up about 0.21% of total gun deaths in the US.

5. Guns are the murder weapon of choice, specifically handguns.

Between 1995 and 2005, 66% of homicides were committed with a firearm. More specifically, 52% of total homicides were committed with a handgun. Knives came up third with 13%. The ease of use and effectiveness of a handgun makes it a choice murder weapon. While assault rifles are a popular choice for mass shootings because of their ability to terrify, handguns are the main weapon in everyday murders.


6. Most felons obtain their firearms through legal channels.

A 2001 report from the US Department of Justice reviewed the sources of firearms for felons in state prisons in 1997 (this was the most recent data I could find):

Most felons obtain their guns legally.

Friends and family are an especially convenient choice.

The data shows that most felons obtain their firearms through legal means (shaded in green). The favorite source of firearms for felons is friends and family. Can’t pass a background check or have a felony conviction? No problem. Just ask your buddy to go to the gun store for you with your order and buy them. He can then sell them to you with no background checks or records because of what is commonly referred to as the “gun show loophole.” It has this name because gun show sellers often consider themselves non-retailers. This sale or transfer of ownership is illegal but difficult to enforce. Ideas to prevent it will be discussed in a further post.

While a retailer regularly engaged in selling firearms is required to conduct a background check on all customers, people who don’t usually sell guns are exempt from doing so. The law’s intent was to facilitate the private sale and transfer of firearms between friends and family; however, it is a very easily exploitable loophole. This also makes tracking guns more difficult to track as private sellers do not keep the same quality of records as gun retailers. Thus a legally purchased gun can quickly become untraceable and eventually make its way into the hands of the mentally unstable or criminal.

7. Homicides and suicides especially affect young people.

According to CDC data, homicide and suicide are leading causes of death among those who are 1-34 years old.

Homicides and suicides primarily facilitated by firearms are a leading cause   of death among the young.

Homicides and suicides primarily facilitated by firearms are a leading cause of death among the young.

Occasionally gun-rights advocates suggest that gun deaths are an exaggerated problem relative to other causes of death. While they are not a high cause of death for the general population, they are major contributors to the homicides and suicides that are some of the main causes of death among young people (1-44 yrs).

8. Suicides are an often-forgotten component of the gun-control debate, but actually contribute more to gun death than homicide. Firearms are the primary method of suicide.

Despite all the worry about homicide, statistics from the University of Utah show that 62% of gun deaths are actually suicides. Data from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says that around 50% of all suicides are committed with a gun. Some pundits suggest that a waiting period for firearms of even as little as a week or two would prevent many gun suicides by allowing depressed people to reflect and seek help from friends, family, and medical professionals.

Screen Shot 2013-01-08 at 6.49.13 PM

Most gun deaths are actually suicides.

9. In the rich world, fewer guns correlates to fewer homicides… unless you ignore the US.

This chart compares the OECD-26 minus Mexico’s homicide rates to their rates of gun ownership. At first glance, this graph suggests that higher gun ownership quite clearly correlates to higher homicide rates.

A Clear Correlation?

A Clear Correlation?

Before jumping to any conclusions though, let’s remove the United States from this chart (if you couldn’t guess, it’s the one with the highest homicide and gun ownership rate).

Not so clear.

Not so clear.

Well this certainly defies conventional wisdom. This data actually suggests that more guns lead to slightly fewer homicides. How can this be explained?

When the United States is kept in the data, the spectrum of comparison is between a society where guns are practically universally accessible and those societies where the regulation is much more strict. By removing the United States from the data, we change the spectrum of comparison to those nations where guns are completely banned and those where private residents still have the right to own them for sport and self-defense with extensive safety and control regulations.

The two ends of the spectrum then become:

Screen Shot 2013-01-09 at 11.15.03 PM

Japan has basically eliminated guns from their society and their homicide rate is quite low. However, Switzerland has the highest rate of gun ownership in the rich world excluding the US, and their homicide rate is also quite low. They simply have more effective regulations promoting gun safety and preventing guns from getting into the hands of criminals. The point is that gun violence and homicide can be reduced without eliminating the ability for responsible citizens to own firearms.

Now that you are armed with these facts, go have a constructive debate with your peers, come to your own conclusions, and then figure out how to solve this problem.