Gun Violence: First, Identify The Problem

There are some of you out there shouting, “The problem is gun violence! Just get rid of all the guns!” Some others respond, “You can have my guns when you pry them from my cold dead fingers!” (Evidently, they never watched the original “Red Dawn”.)

It’s possible you’re honestly deluded or optimistic beyond belief, in which case nothing I write can possibly get through to you. On the other hand, perhaps you came here expecting an argument in which the loudest voice wins, or a negotiation where everyone meets halfway from the opening positions. Either way, that’s not what this is. The purpose of this article is to break down known statistics for the benefit of the 80% of Americans who want change, so we can make intelligent decisions.

Nearly two-thirds of gun-related deaths are suicides. About one third are homicide. A small fraction are accidents; the remaining 4% or so are in that odd category known as “Death By Cop” — where they can’t always tell if you killed yourself or died trying to escape.

Leaving cops and accidents to one side, it is evident that suicide is the larger problem; the rates are high and climbing. It would be absurd to consider that suicides and homicides have the same cause; similarly, as more people kill themselves without guns than with, it would be foolish to think that getting rid of all the guns is the best way to end the suicide epidemic. The Brady Bill showed us that handgun waiting periods and background checks can reduce the number of gun suicides by a respectable percentage — around 8% per year, presumably those people acting on impulse. For the most part, however, methods to reduce suicide numbers, while laudable in intent, really have little to do with guns.

(Some further discussion of this may be found here.)

And so we come to homicides, the which may be further broken down into separate categories. The 10-15% that are intimate partner violence should be viewed separately from drug- or gang-related crimes. The F.B.I. has estimated that there are two hundred or so serial killers active at any given time, many undetected; this too is a separate category. Most of the remaining victims were killed during the commission of another violent crime; this includes self-defense shootings. Headlines aside, mass rampages that happen solely because the perpetrator decides to kill a lot of people are rare events compared to other homicides, accounting for less than half a percent of all gun deaths.

Again, each of these groups represent unique problems that will all require unique and likely unrelated approaches to address. Domestic violence, generally speaking, has a different set of causes from gang violence, disputes between drug smugglers, and the myriad other varieties of violent crime — and different causes means different solutions. Restrictions on gun ownership for those with a record of domestic violence may well reduce partner killings, but it would be absurd to think that those skilled at smuggling hundreds of tons of drugs through our borders could not also bring weapons as needed. Similarly, it’s arguable that handgun laws would reduce the number of self-defense shootings, but is that actually a desirable result?

(Some further discussion of this, including sources, may be found here.)

A rough breakdown of the categories of gun deaths in the United States, then, is as follows:

  1. Suicide, 62%
  2. Homicide, during commission of another crime, 14%
  3. Homicide, drug or gang related, 13%
  4. Homicide, intimate partner, 4%
  5. Homicide, police officer as victim, under 1%
  6. Homicide, by police officer in the line of duty, 3-4%
  7. Homicide, self-defense, under 1%
  8. Homicide, serial killer, under 1% (estimated)
  9. Homicide, rampage killer, under 1%
  10. Accident, under 1%

To arrive at these numbers, data for several years was analyzed and the averages used. It’s worthy of note that overall homicide numbers have been relatively steady for several years, but have increased recently; one driver of this has been COVID and its related societal upsets.

Some of these categories are entirely dependent on others. For example, in order to reduce the number of police officers shot in the line of duty per year, one might focus on reducing all violent crime. This would also decrease self-defense shootings and deaths caused by police officers.

It is unlikely that any approach we can imagine would reduce the number of active serial killers. In our next installment, we will discuss potential solutions for each of the other categories, consider costs and benefits, perform some prioritization, and see if there are reasonable approaches that we can all agree on going forward.

I want to be clear: Every segment deserves attention. The F.B.I. created a full-time task force to help deal with serial killers, and it’s money well spent. Just because it’s “only” a hundred deaths doesn’t mean the number shouldn’t be reduced.

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