The shooting tragedies at Sandy Hook Elementary and in Aurora, Colo. have reignited a serious gun debate in the United States. Many have called for, and our nation deserves, an honest, fact-based, and logical discussion. However, accurate citation of facts is a prerequisite to genuinely having that discussion. Unfortunately many politicians, major news media outlets, and gun-control advocacy organizations are less than fully honest and selectively present information. Worse, some of their information is fabricated, half-truths, or outright lies.
Recently, several major news outlets have invoked images of the Sandy Hook or Aurora massacres and cited that each year 30,000 Americans die from “gun-related deaths” or “gun violence.” The truth is that two-thirds of these deaths are self-inflicted suicides that do not have any true connection to either mass-murder shootings (which make up a fraction of 1% of homicides), or "regular," non-mass shootings (which make up the vast majority of homicides). Suicide is a genuine public-health issue that should demand our collective attention, but its causes are wholly different from those of crime. As such, any policy that might have an impact on suicide is likely to be very different from policies meant to address crime and homicide. We ought to be honest about keeping crime data separate from suicides.
Unfortunately, few news sources do this. New York Times contributor Craig Whitney's article, “A Way Out of the Gun Stalemate,” cited 30,000 gun deaths annually in the U.S. and called for “moderation” in the gun-control debate. "Moderation" by his definition includes policy to restrict so-called “high capacity" magazines, and more regulation for gun shows, machine guns, and military-style rifles. CNN's Frida Ghitis also referenced 30,000 gun deaths, invoking imagery of homicides and crime using the words “brandishing,” “slaughtering each other,” and “at the hands of other Americans” (emphasis mine). Slate has a running tally of “firearm related deaths” since Newtown that includes suicides. An article by Chris Christoff and Ilan Kolet on Bloomberg states that according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), “shooting deaths in 2015 will probably rise to almost 33,000.” The article further states that gun deaths “by homicide, suicide or accident peaked at 37,666 in 1993 before declining to a low of 28,393 in 2000, the data show....At the same time, violent crime and murder rates have fallen in the U.S.”
Similarly, gun-control groups such as GunPolicy.org, the Brady Campaign, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the Violence Policy Center, and the Coalition To Stop Guns all cite the 30,000 annual gun deaths figure. GunPolicy.org states gun-related deaths have increased from a 2000 low of 28,663 deaths, to a high of 32,163 deaths in 2011. The Violence Policy Center attributes this to “specific classes of firearms” and advocates a variety of gun-control policies. Virtually all of Mayors Against Illegal Guns' policy positions address gun crimes such as illegal gun trafficking, ATF trace data, and straw purchases.
It sounds pretty solid, right? Even the CDC backs up these claims, right? Not quite.
The CDC's Non-Vital Statistics Report from, 2009 (Tables 10 and 18) reported 31,347 total firearm deaths in 2009, but of those, 18,735 were suicide by firearm deaths. There were 554 deaths from “accidental discharge of firearms.” The CDC statistics are very similar for 2010, showing “Intentional self-harm (suicide) by discharge of firearms" resulting in 19,392 deaths out of a total of 38,364 suicide deaths (table 10, p.23). Technically, this is an increase of 657 suicide deaths from 2009 to 2010. Homicides are another story. FBI statics reported in the Uniform Crime Reports show firearm homicide deaths average about 8-9,000 per year. Homicides have come down a little since 2000, but have been cut in half since 1992. This includes both the raw number of homicides (24,526 in 1993 to 12,664 in 2011) and the rate per 100,000 people (9.5 per 100,000 to 4.7 per 100,000).
Suicide is a big problem by itself — the tenth-largest cause of death in the U.S. on the CDC list. However, let's be honest about our facts and figures and report data that is relevant to gun control when talking gun control. Likewise, let's be honest by using words that don't imply violence done to others.
What do so-called “high capacity” magazines, gun show regulations, machine guns, and military-style weapons have to do with suicide, which represents two-thirds of gun deaths? What effect would banning .50-caliber rifles have on reducing the two-thirds of gun deaths that are suicides? What effect would closing the so-called “gun-show loophole” have on reducing suicides?
None. Nothing. No effect.
Suggesting or implying that 30,000 gun deaths might be addressed by such proposed bills and amendment is tantamount to lying. It is disingenuous to talk about a horrific crime incident and conflate data by counting deaths that have nothing to do with with the horrific crime. Relying on suicide stats to make a case against "gun violence" as characterized by mass shootings like Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Aurora, and street homicides, is completely bogus.