This is the first time in my lifetime (and I was born during World War II), that a President has used the bully pulpit to focus on the issue of gun violence. He’s issued executive orders, he’s held a Town Hall meeting, written an op-ed for The New York Times, and for sure will have plenty more to say when Congress and the American people gather to hear his State of the Union speech. So in preparation for that event, as well as in response to the veritable torrent of media content that has been flying around the last week, I thought I would publish the data on gun violence that should be used to evaluate what Obama and others are saying about the issue itself.
Here are the yearly numbers on gun mortality from the CDC. Note that gun suicides dropped between 1993 and 2000, then were fairly level until 2008, and then have moved upwards again at a fairly rapid rate. Gun homicides also declined substantially between 1993 and 2000, and have remained somewhere between 10,000 and 11,000 over the last thirteen years.
There’s only one little problem with these numbers – they hide as much as they show. In fact, notwithstanding the increase since 2008, gun suicides as a percentage of all suicides have declined to slightly less than 50%, the lowest percentage since these numbers were first tracked by the CDC. As for gun homicides, while there was a significant decline until 2000, the number has stayed stubbornly at that level ever since, with minimal variations between this year and that.
On the other hand, the homicide number is a total of both intentional and unintentional gun deaths, and if we break out the latter, we find a remarkable trend over the last 20+ years, namely, that unintentional gun deaths have dropped from 1,521 in 1993 to 586 in 2014, a decline of nearly two-thirds. Or to look at it another way, when intentional gun deaths dropped by 36% between 1993 and 2000, accidental gun deaths declined by more than 50% during the same period.
The decline in intentional gun homicides after the mid-90s paralleled an overall decline in violent crime and is presumed to be a factor of that latter trend. But while theories abound as to why violence in general and gun violence in particular decreased so dramatically until the early 2000s, I don’t notice anyone talking about the even greater drop in unintentional gun deaths over those years. And while the intentional death toll from guns has of late levelled off, unintentional gun deaths continue to decline, from 802 in 2001 to 586 last year.
In a New York Times op-ed debate about gun safety, Steve Teret pulls out a 2003 study conducted by some of his Johns Hopkins colleagues which indicates that smart gun technology, if available on all currently-owned firearms, might save upwards of 37% of the people who are killed by accidental shootings each year. That’s an impressive number, and even if it’s slightly overblown (because God knows how long it would take before smart guns are actually purchased by consumers), there’s no question that keeping guns away from kids and other unqualified folks would cut the accidental death toll to some extent.
But rather than trying to come up with a vague number that might or might not represent the saving in human lives from smart-gun technologies, why don’t public health researchers try to figure out the reasons for a two-thirds decline in accidental gun deaths over the last two decades? One answer I won’t accept is that the decline in gun accidents is due to the NRA or NSSF safety campaigns, for the simple reason that neither has ever been evaluated in honest, no-nonsense terms. But until a GVP-minded researcher tries to figure out why accidental gun mortality keeps going down, we are forced to sit back and wait for smart guns to hit the shelves. And wait.