Monday, October 12, 2009

Guns do kill people

Two tragedies in the last week remind us that guns in the home are dangerous things. Today CNN links to a story about a man who shot his fiancee on the eve of their wedding, mistaking her for an intruder. Late last week, several news outlets reported on the story of a gun-toting soccer mom who ended up becoming the victim of a murder-suicide by her husband.

Although the circumstances of these cases were unusual, family-related, self-inflicted, and accidental gun deaths are not.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) tracks detailed statistics for violent deaths--deaths "resulting from either the intentional use of physical force or power against oneself, another person, or a group or community, or the unintentional use of a firearm"--in 16 states. The CDC's latest report covers 2006.

Although the report is limited to 16 states, the included states come from every region of the country and cover just over a quarter of the U.S. population, so they are broadly, though not completely, representative. There are also limitations (see p. 15) in the underlying information. Data are missing or inconsistent for some reports. Data also come from initial reports and are not reconciled with later information, such as prosecutions.

In the 16 states that were examined, there were more suicides involving guns (4,410) than all types of homicides or deaths involving legal intervention (4,343). Overall, identified suicides accounted for 56 percent of violent deaths; of the suicides, just over half involved a gun. Of the much smaller number of murder-suicides (166 suicides with 194 additional victims), nearly five-sixths involved a gun. To this list of mayhem, you can also add 101 accidental gun deaths.

The annual death toll from suicides and accidents involving guns in just these 16 states works out to one and a half 9-11s. If the figures can be extrapolated to the rest of the country, the national total would be approximately six 9-11s.

The total number of people killed (by guns and otherwise) in self-defense and by law enforcement pales in comparison. The number of such deaths in the 16 states was just 234.

The sad fact is that guns in the home are much more likely to be used by the owner against himself or herself or against another family member, partner, or friend than against an intruder.