How Bad Is It? What to Do About It?
This extensive article is reprinted with minor editing for continuity, from a series featured on Views from Eagle Peak, the publisher’s blog, over a span of five weeks beginning in August 2015. It’s about America’s issues with guns, gun deaths and the legal/political attempts to deal with the problem and the media’s coverage of it. We feel it’s important enough to reprint here for those who missed the blog series.
Why just America?
- The U.S. ranks 1st in the world in the number of privately owned firearms and 1st in the rate per 100 people; over 1/3 of the households in America have one or more firearms (according to GunPolicy.org, a Non-Governmental Organization headquartered in Sydney Australia. Proponents of gun control and opponents may cite different statistics.
- There are nearly as many guns in the U.S. as there are people. according to a recent article in the Atlantic, That’s not to say, of course, that everyone has a gun; some people have many guns while others have none.
- Put another way, the U.S has less than 5% of the world’s population but 35-50% of the civilian owned guns. To which 2nd amendment proponents might say, that’s a great thing—we in America are a democracy where citizens are free under the 2nd Amendment to protect themselves with firearms, unlike in repressive regimes around the world. On the other hand, gun control proponents will note that there are plenty of low-crime democratic countries around the world with few guns found in the homes of the citizens. Fewer guns, of course, logically can be expected to result in fewer deaths by gun.
- A Harvard School of Public Health review of four studies confirmed that more guns, unsurprisingly, led to more homicides. This article indicates that for each percentage point in gun ownership, the firearm homicide rate increased by .9 percent. Want to know how many deaths by state, gun ownership and more? Go here.
So how many deaths by guns are there in America?
- 33,636 in 2013, according to a web-based reporting system of the CDC and reported on Gun Policy.org.
- This total is about the same as in car crashes. The number of car crashes has been dropping over the years for many reasons. So have homicides, from a high point decades ago, however, it has increased in the last couple years.
But what kind of deaths, and where?
- 21,175 of those gun deaths were by suicide in 2013. That’s 62% of the total; a little more than the average of 60%. The numbers again are from the CDC via Gun Policy.org.
- 11,208 were homicides, or 33% of the total gun deaths. The gun-related homicides were also 70% of the 16,121 total for 2013. From CDC via Gun Policy.org. There are years where there have been more homicides and more by guns; the numbers fluctuate but the percentages of homicides by guns remains relatively constant in a range from 68 to 70%.
- That leaves just 2% for accidental deaths and justifiable homicides. The total numbers, however come out to 3.5% –due for the most part to the lack of complete and accurate reporting from state and local officials to the CDC and the FBI .
- For accidental deaths, 505.
- 681 is the combined total of 2013 justifiable homicides (self-defense or defense of others) by private citizens and law-enforcement personnel according to FBI reports cited by Gun Policy.org. 458 by law enforcement and the rest by citizens.
- But the total people killed by police in 2013 was 768, according to killed by police.net–a group which collects news reports of all officer-involved-shooting and puts them in a spreadsheet with name, age, race (if known) and other details, as well as links to the actual news reports from which the data comes. NOTE: the group only began collecting news reports in May, 2013. 2014 totals were 1,106 and are at 728 through August 13. So does this imply that hundreds of the deaths by law enforcement were unjustified? Perhaps not, but it raises issues we will discuss later in this article.
So, what ARE the homicides that happen in America?
- Mass shootings like schools, movie theaters and the like?
- “Active shooter “ incidents where individuals attack coworkers or other specific targets?
- Shootings by or of law enforcement personnel?
Well, not exactly. If you just went by what is shown on the cable news or network news in America, you might assume that most of the deaths by guns come from these incidents. So we get a distorted view of reality if we make that assumption. A recent (June 15, 2015) article in the Washington Post has this breakout of the numbers for those headline events.
Mass shootings: “Mother Jones tracked and mapped shooting sprees over the three decades from 1982 to May of last year. They counted ‘at least 61 mass murders carried out with firearms …’ “
A Congressional Research Service report published in 2013 counted 78 incidents over roughly the same period, in which 547 were killed [emphasis supplied]. Definitions of mass shootings vary. The report excludes those for whom terrorist ideology or criminal profit was a motivation. The Mother Jones staff limited themselves to indiscriminate killings of at least four people in public places by lone shooters.”
Active shooters: A report published by the FBI last year, . . . found that these kinds of incidents were happening more and more recently [between 2000 and 2013]. The first seven years . . . found an average of 6.4 active shootings per year, while the last seven years . . . found that number jumped up to 16.4. . . .[emphasis supplied; so news-intensive as they may be, they are NOT a big part of the homicides in America]
[These] incidents are defined . . . as ‘an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.’ (This is different from mass killings, which are episodes where three or more people are killed; )”
So what of police-involved shootings?
- Probably around 1,100 killed by police in 2013, based on an extrapolation of the killed by police.net data, although the FBI’s number is incomplete. The Washington Post is now replicating the work of killed by police.net and reported 494 people shot and killed by law enforcement through July 8th. Again, look for more on this next week. A substantial number of these shootings can be presumed justifiable.
- 27 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty in 2013. (The lowest in 35 years). Preliminary data from 2014 showed a spike to 51. (The average from 1980-2014 is 64 per year). Data is from an FBI press release.
Let’s fill in some more numbers—gang-related homicides, domestic violence deaths (males killing females most of the time), racial breakdowns of shootings where possible and further into shootings by and of law enforcement with additional data. Let’s also briefly touch on the implications of this data on arguments for or against gun control as we go along.
- Gang-related homicides averaged 13-15% of all homicides annually from 2007 through 2011. The bulk of those (84%) came in large cities (over 100,000/67%) and their suburban counterparts (17%) according to the National Gang Center’s National Youth Gang Survey Analysis (undated) [The National Gang Center (NGC) is a project jointly funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA)]. Given that there were 16,121 homicides in 2012, that range would amount to 2,096 to 2,418.
- The CDC analyzed 2003–2008 data from the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) for five cities with high levels of gang homicide [ Los Angeles, California; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Long Beach, California; Oakland, California; and Newark, New Jersey]. A resulting report indicated that gang homicides were more likely to occur with firearms [over 90% in these cities] but, perhaps contrary to expectations, “homicides resulting from drug trade/use or with other crimes in progress was consistently low in the five cities, ranging from zero to 25%.” The report concluded this “suggests that gang homicides are quick, retaliatory reactions to ongoing gang-related conflict.”
- A Huffington Post article from April 2014 and updated June 2014 dismisses claims by Dana Loesch on TheBlaze TV show that “the overwhelming majority [of shooting deaths are] from gang and drug violence.” The Huffington article went on to cite the National Gang Center report and a number of other studies to debunk the notion that dealing with gangs and drug-related crime will substantially deal with shooting deaths in America. For more on this issue, see the CDC report above.
- The About.com US Conservatives site has an undated article by Dustin Hawkins, identified as their “Conservative Politics Expert,” highlighted the high percentage of gang-related shootings in Chicago and New Orleans as well as drug-related shootings in Baltimore to support his suggestion that “Solve the problem of gang violence, and a huge chunk of the gun homicide and violence problem is solved. And what national gun control measures would slow the gang violence problem, when local gun control laws have failed in cities like Chicago?”
- So, assuming that the 90% proportion of firearm deaths of gang-related homicides in five major cities holds across the country, eliminating ALL of them could reduce gang shooting deaths by 2,000 per year based on 2012 numbers. Not an “overwhelming majority” of the 11,208 shooting deaths that year, nor a “huge chunk,” but certainly not insignificant. But as intractable as the gang problem is, this may be much more difficult than gun control itself. Still, reducing gang activity is a worthy goal. On the other hand, as gun control opponents might point out, it would not be surprising to find studies [we didn’t look for them] that showed a substantial percentage of the guns used by gangs being obtained legally, making available gun control laws less than helpful. Nor would gun turn-in programs likely be highly successful among gang members. Given the numbers of guns present in America, keeping them from the hands of gang members must be an ongoing and difficult struggle.
Domestic Violence Deaths—
- In 2012, according to a report by the Violence Policy Center published on the Huffington Post blog, 1,706 females were killed by men. 52% were killed by guns. 93% of those killed were attacked by someone they knew—most often a spouse, boyfriend or the like. So this is 10.6% of total homicides in the USA and 7.9% of gun-related homicides. Not quite as big as gangs and much smaller than suicides but bigger than law enforcement related (of course the police are also involved in the sense that responding to domestic violence is a very risky proposition for them). For the full report, go here.
- The above report also noted that, “One study found that women living with a gun in the home were nearly three times more likely to be murdered than those with no gun in a home.” So the advice advanced by some in the gun lobby that women should have a gun for protection appears misguided; more likely than being able to defend herself, a male in the home will use it to kill her.
Racial Breakdown of Victims and Shooters—
As the old saying goes, “statistics don’t lie but liars cite statistics.” So cherry-picking stats that back up a particular perspective can offer skewed conclusions. Consider the varying analyses abstracted below:
- Victims: According to a Pew Research article from May 7, 2013: “Looked at by race, blacks are overrepresented among gun homicide victims; blacks were 55% of shooting homicide victims in 2010, but 13% of the population. By contrast, whites are underrepresented; whites were 25% of the victims of gun homicide in 2010, but 65% of the population. For Hispanics, the 17% share of gun homicide victims was about equal to their 16% proportion of the total population.” Pew also noted that the black homicide death rate has declined 50% since its peak in 1993, and the number of black homicide deaths fell by more than a third (37%) from 1993 to 2010.
- Police-Related Shootings--From Washington Times article 4/21/15 analysis by Peter Moskos, assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, : “The odds that any given black man will shoot and kill a police officer in any given year is slim to none, about one in a million. The odds for any given white man? One in four million,” he said. “The odds that a black man will be shot and killed by a police officer is about 1 in 60,000. For a white man those odds are 1 in 200,000.” Moskos studied data from the Killed by Police site and noted that in about 25% of cases, race of person killed was not indicated. Moskos, a former cop, criticized PolitiFact (fact checking group) for giving an article by Michael Medved a “half true” for his claim that more whites are killed than blacks when they noted that whites make up 63% of the population while blacks are just 12% because they didn’t take into account the higher percentage of blacks involved in violent crime. NOTE: Moskos did not quantify this claim.
- Police shooting of unarmed people: A Washington Post article from August 8, 2015 has this information—which is resonant with the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
“So far this year, 24 unarmed black men have been shot and killed by police. . . a surprisingly small fraction of the 585 people shot and killed by police through Friday evening, according to The Post database. . . [T]he vast majority of victims of all races were armed.”
“However, black men accounted for 40 percent of the 60 unarmed deaths, even though they make up just 6 percent of the U.S. population. The Post’s analysis shows that black men were seven times more likely than white men to die by police gunfire while unarmed.”
Are mentally ill individuals a big part of the gun deaths in America?
Shootings by or of mentally disturbed individuals: Assumptions are abundant that mass shootings are by mentally disturbed individuals and that we need to keep guns away from such individuals. Similarly, news coverage shows that many people shot by law enforcement are mentally disturbed in some way.
- News media, politicians, grieving families of victims, the NRA and the public at large seem to believe or at least speak as if they have reason to believe that many gun deaths come as a result of deranged (mentally ill) individuals. Especially in the case of mass shootings and active shooter incidents.
- Despite the divergence of opinions on gun control otherwise, they seem to agree that keeping weapons from those with psychiatric issues is not only a good idea but will reduce gun deaths.
- While it may be somewhat more likely that specific incidents like those above involve subjects with mental conditions, those incidents are a tiny fraction of gun violence in America.
- Even if every single one could have been prevented by better mental health treatment or keeping guns out of their hands, it would do little to make America safer. Let’s look at some numbers and analyses from a number of sources.
Most shootings are NOT committed by mentally ill individuals
Statistical analyses by professional organizations, FBI reports and in-depth news features show that while the mentally ill may get and use guns, they do so far less often than the media and others would have us believe.
SEE this: From the American Journal of Public Health, February 2015, “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms”
- “[S]urprisingly little population-level evidence supports the notion that individuals diagnosed with mental illness are more likely than anyone else to commit gun crimes. According to Appelbaum, 25 less than 3% to 5% of US crimes involve people with mental illness, and the percentages of crimes that involve guns are lower than the national average for persons not diagnosed with mental illness. Databases that track gun homicides, such as the National Center for Health Statistics, similarly show that fewer than 5% of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness.26”
- “Four assumptions frequently arise in the aftermath of mass shootings in the United States: (1) that mental illness causes gun violence, (2) that psychiatric diagnosis can predict gun crime, (3) that shootings represent the deranged acts of mentally ill loners, and (4) that gun control “won’t prevent” another Newtown (Connecticut school mass shooting).”
- “[T]he US media diagnosed shooter Adam Lanza with schizophrenia in the days following the tragic school shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012. “Was Adam Lanza an undiagnosed schizophrenic?” asked Psychology Today.1“Lanza’s acts of slaughter . . . strongly suggest undiagnosed schizophrenia” added the New York Times.2 Conservative commentator Anne Coulter provocatively proclaimed that “Guns don’t kill people—the mentally ill do.”3
- “Similar themes permeated political responses to Newtown as well. In a contentious press conference, National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre blamed “delusional killers” for violence in the United States, while calling for a “national registry” of persons with mental illness. 4”
For more commentary, see an article by Arthur Chuin the June 18, 2015 Salon.com site, “It’s not about mental illness: The big lie that always follows mass shootings by white males” For example, Chu says this,
- “We do have statistics showing that the vast majority of people who commit acts of violence do not have a diagnosis of mental illness and, conversely, people who have mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.
- “[T]he stigma of people who suffer from mental illness as scary, dangerous potential murderers hurts people every single day — it costs people relationships and jobs, it scares people away from seeking help who need it, it brings shame and fear down on the heads of people who already have it bad enough.”
The University of Washington School of Social Work site: Mental Health Reporting, says this [NOTE–link is broken; will update with a new one if I find at the university]:
“Fact 1: The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent.
Fact 2: The public is misinformed about the link between mental illness and violence.
Fact 3: Inaccurate beliefs about mental illness and violence lead to widespread stigma and discrimination:
Fact 4: The link between mental illness and violence is promoted by the entertainment and news media.”
Once more from the American Journal of Public Health article noted above,
“[T]he risk is exponentially greater that individuals diagnosed with serious mental illness will be assaulted by others, rather than the other way around . . . extensive surveys of police incident reports demonstrate that, far from posing threats to others, people diagnosed with schizophrenia have victimization rates 65% to 130% higher than those of the general public.”
Mentally ill people are disproportionately killed by police
From the Washington Post, June 30, 2015 “Distraught People, Deadly Results”
- “Through June 2015, 124 of 462 people shot and killed by police were mentally ill” [updated numbers on the website are now 174 of 662, maintaining the 25% ratio of mentally ill to the total number shot]
- “The vast majority were armed, but in most cases, the police officers who shot them were . . . called by relatives, neighbors or other bystanders worried that a mentally fragile person was behaving erratically, reports show. More than 50 people were explicitly suicidal.” [So the officers assisted, apparently legally, in suicides. This is the famous “suicide by cop” phenomenon. This in turn can lead to stress and guilt on the part of at least some of the officers. See Kimberly Kindy comments below from an NPR interview on this story].
- “More than half the killings involved police agencies that have not provided their officers with state-of-the-art training to deal with the mentally ill. . . . according to a recent survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, [recruits] receive only eight hours of training to de-escalate tense situations and eight hours learning strategies for handling the mentally ill.”
- “[Y]elling and pointing guns is ‘like pouring gasoline on a fire when you do that with the mentally ill,’ said Ron Honberg, policy director with the National Alliance on Mental Illness.”
On July 4, 2015, NPR interviewed one of the Post reporters who wrote the article, “Distraught People, Deadly Results” who said this:
“There are so many of [these stories]; one in particular, though, is Lavall Hall, a schizophrenic young man. His mother called for help because he went outside in the really chilly, cold air. He was out there in his underwear swinging a broomstick. The police show up, and within minutes, he’s gunned down. And the mother said, ‘I wish I would’ve never called them.’ It’s just heartbreaking because, case after case, you’re talking about family members and friends who call for help, and the person ends up dead. …
What’s also heartbreaking is I think the police officers — their lives are changed forever when they take the life of somebody like this. They deserve a chance at knowing how to handle these situations and many of them are not given that chance by being given the proper training.”
Finally there is this, from an article in the Atlantic, Atlantic, March 25, 2015, Methods that Police Use on the Mentally Ill are Madness:
“Eugene Robinson once pointed out that U.S. police officers shoot somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people per year, whereas “there were no fatal police shootings in Great Britain last year.  Not one. In Germany, there have been eight police killings over the past two years. In Canada—a country with its own frontier ethos and no great aversion to firearms—police shootings average about a dozen a year.” He added that this is partly because the U.S. is a gun-filled culture, but that something else was going on too. Since every developed country has both mentally ill people and screwdrivers, this case is a data point in support of that contention. “
Miraculously either there are fewer mentally ill in Great Britain, Germany or Canada OR, police are able to bring those threatening violence under control without shooting them.
Conclusions—Here’s a Recap and Summation
- The USA leads the world in gun ownership and deaths by guns (other than a very few outliers with ongoing conflicts and/or other severe problems)
- The substantial majority (over 60% of gun deaths) are suicides
- Police kill more people than police are killed by others –at least by 20 to 1 and probably more
- Of those killed by police, 25% are mentally ill or are disproportionately non-white (most often black, who are 7 times more likely than whites to be killed while unarmed)
- Police are seldom charged in shootings and far less often actually convicted of a criminal offense for shooting even an unarmed person
- Mass shooting (theaters, malls, schools) and “active shooter” (disgruntled employees, etc.) incidents are becoming more common but are still a tiny percentage of all gun deaths
- Mentally disturbed individuals are NOT responsible for most gun deaths, including mass shootings or active shooter incidents
- Domestic violence accounts for a significant, but not a substantial percentage of deaths. People living in homes with guns were three times more likely than those in homes without to lose lives by guns
- Gang-related violence amounts to as much as 11-12% of gun deaths but it those deaths are overwhelmingly gang members killing members of other gangs and seldom related to drugs
- States with more guns had more gun deaths. States with stronger gun controls had less deaths
- Terrorism isn’t a big part of the issue, newsworthy as it may be [since this wasn’t covered in earlier posts, we will do a brief explanation near the end of this final instalment].
So, does America need more gun control or more guns? More or better mental health treatment? More efforts to reduce gang-violence? Fewer guns in homes or more guns in homes? More private guns in malls, restaurants, theaters or even bars for self-defense? Better police training and more community policing? We will discuss below what we think should be done and also what we think could be done given the political and fiscal realities of America today. First let’s look at the facts, to consider whether they might inform the debate over what to do.
- Suicide is far and away the biggest cause of gun deaths. A gun is much quicker and more effective than other means to end one’s life. An episode of depression that causes someone to take pills can be remedied up to a few hours later; a gunshot cannot.
- Semiautomatic weapons can easily be converted to automatic by owner/users. Mass shooters often use semiautomatic weapons and easily obtainable high-capacity magazines that allow them to kill more people more quickly.
- Gang-members are probably not buying guns from legal dealers or any source for which background checks are required; more likely they are black market weapons.
- Predictability of violent behavior among mentally disturbed individuals is difficult at best. Legal constraints on involuntary diagnosis or disclosure of illness is stringent (meaning prohibiting them from legally acquiring guns is unlikely).
- The gun show loophole for background checks and for private sales means many weapon purchases are not covered by any legal checks on purchasers.
- What is shown on news media (mass shootings, shootings by or of police, active shooting incidents and the like) are NOT the major source of shooting deaths; determining gun control efforts or other actions to deal with them is NOT, therefore, where the most time, energy and money should be spent.
Here’s what we think should be done politically/legally with qualifiers on whether it could be done:
- Reinstate the automatic weapons ban—i.e. the sale, trade or possession of such weapons with substantial added penalties for use in a crime. Rationale: Hunters don’t need them. Militia (or extremist) groups want them but shouldn’t have them. Recreational shooters could rent and shoot them at licensed gun ranges if they simply must fire them for fun. Politically, this will be difficult at best in the current pro-gun Congress with its fear of and financial support from the NRA and their friends.
- Prohibit sale to the public of high–capacity magazines—if you have to reload, you can’t kill as many people. Again, difficult in the current political climate
- Prohibit sale to the public of armor–piercing rounds—they have been banned for handguns since 1986 but the bullets that are used in AR-15s can be used in handguns. The Obama administration caved to NRA and gun organizations to pull an ATF proposal to do this this year. So that tells you the political reality. Armor-piercing rounds can penetrate police body armor. Since deer and other game don’t wear body armor, it’s difficult to see how such bullets are needed for sportsmen.
- Destroy every weapon seized in a crime once forensics and trials are completed—evidence rooms are supposed to be secure, but they aren’t always. Some percentage of the guns on the street come from ones stolen from police or sold by corrupt officers. This should be doable. Goes along with turn-in programs periodically run in some jurisdictions. Otherwise, the same guns are used in crime after crime.
- Better secure federal, state and local armories—some percentage of the guns on the street come from theft or corrupt sales from military bases, national guard armories, police departments, etc. Could cost a little money on the security side, but since some of the weapons are used against law enforcement, at least they should support it. Prosecute more harshly those employed there who sell such weapons from inventory.
- Reduce militarization of state and local law enforcement—current law allows the federal government (especially the military) to offer surplus equipment at little or no cost to locals in ostensible support of anti-terrorism, drug-enforcement and other programs. Since there really are few genuine terrorist incidents, the main use of armored vehicles, military grade weapons and the like is in urban protest situations (see Ferguson, Missouri for example). This exacerbates problems between law enforcement and the local populace. Urban and suburban enclaves in America are NOT similar to war zones around the world; military weapons are NOT appropriate here.
- Provide more and better mental health services—including PTSD treatment for veterans, in conjunction with better shelters. Although mentally disturbed people are not responsible for most shootings, they are responsible for some and they need the help. Following the deinstitutionalization movement of the 70s and 80s, the community mental health services that were supposed to be available have become less so after budget cuts. A majority of homeless people suffer from mental illness; likewise incarcerated people.
The Second Amendment and gun-ownership proponents appear to have the upper hand when it comes to preventing political efforts to reduce the number of guns or their use in America, even those guns for which there is no demonstrable or sensible need in hunting, recreation or self-defense. So what remains is culture change. Think of this as an adjunct, if not instead of, continuing the battle between gun control proponents and opponents. What do we mean by culture change?
Culture change means shifting away from polarizing political debate on gun control toward valuing human lives. Culture change means shifting away from telling others what they can’t do with guns to what they can do—hunt, target or recreational shooting and protecting themselves sensibly. Culture change means shifting away from personal preference for being able to do whatever one wants, wherever and whenever one wants, with deadly weapons of all sorts under the guise of 2nd Amendment rights. Such changes can only happen with a de-escalation of rhetoric and an uncommon rise in common sense.
Addendum—Terrorism is scary but isn’t really worth the money, worry and time we spend on it
“Nine facts about terrorism in the United States since 9/11,” from the Washington Post, September 11, 2013—offers a comprehensive analysis of terrorism in America before and after 9/11/2001. Most notably, the odds of an American dying from a terrorist attack during the last five years (2008-2013) is 1 in 20 million (including in the U.S. or while overseas). That’s considerably smaller than dying from a lightning strike or many other more extreme but uncommon causes of death.
From the New York Times, June 24, 2015—Homegrown Extremists Tied to Deadlier Toll Than Jihadists in U.S. Since 9/11 “In the 14 years since Al Qaeda carried out attacks on New York and the Pentagon, extremists have regularly executed smaller lethal assaults in the United States, explaining their motives in online manifestoes or social media rants.
But the breakdown of extremist ideologies behind those attacks may come as a surprise. Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims: 48 have been killed by extremists who are not Muslim, including the recent mass killing in Charleston, S.C., compared with 26 by self-proclaimed jihadists, according to a count by New America, a Washington research center.”