I was at a hospital conference this morning where the speaker happened to mention that gun violence claimed more American lives since 1968 than were lost in every military engagement fought by U.S. troops since the country began. And while this is a shocking notion – the idea that we are more the victims of our own violence than the violence suffered when our country is at war with other countries – I decided to take a deeper look at those numbers, in particular the gun injury numbers from the Civil War.
Why look at the Civil War? For two reasons. First, in terms of wartime deaths, it was far and away the costliest war of all. We used to think that the final toll was somewhere over 500,000; that number was recently revised upwards to 750,000, which appears to be closer to the real mark. But this global number hides a significant issue that must be explained when it comes to comparing war deaths to civilian gun violence, namely, that two-thirds of the soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865 were victims not of wounds from warfare, but died from diseases caused by unsanitary conditions on and off the battlefield, and at least another 15% died from other causes not related to battle engagements at all. In fact, it is estimated that only 20% of all the men who died on both sides during the Civil War actually were killed during the fighting itself.
According to the Congressional Record Service, and I tend to think their research on all issues is about as valid as any research can be, the total number of battle deaths suffered by U.S. troops since 1775 is 575,000. This number excludes casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan, and also doesn’t count Confederate soldiers who lost their lives between 1861 and 1865. Throw them into the overall figure and we are still something just beyond 600,000 victims of gun violence in warfare over the entire history of the United States. According to the CDC, the total number of gun deaths for the civilian population of the United States since 1999 is 497,632. And everyone thinks that gun violence has claimed more lives than Americans lost in battle if we go back to 1968? Give me a friggin’ break. How about just go back to 1995?
I don’t think that comparing civilian gun deaths to overall military fatalities is a valid comparison at all. For the simple reason that men and women in uniform die from all sorts of causes, natural and otherwise, which may have nothing to do with whether they were victims of hostile fire or not. Soldiers are not infrequent victims of accidents in training, military suicides may be declining lately but they are certainly not unknown. As far as we can tell, the great flu pandemic of 1918 probably first infected Western countries from an outbreak in a military base in France. The ratio of all military deaths to combat deaths in all American wars is in the neighborhood of 2:1. The percentage of marines killed in Desert Shield – Deseret Storm, of all the Devil Dogs serving in the Gulf, was one-one hundredth of one percent. Hell, you would have been safer walking around with the 1st Cavalry Division in Wadi Al-Batin than traipsing down Prospect Avenue in the South Bronx.
Know what? I’m sick of the 2nd Amendment and I’m sick of all the dopes and dupes who email me nonstop to remind me that the 2nd Amendment gives them the ‘right’ to protect themselves with a gun. Because the truth is that the number of people who successfully use a gun to protect themselves and everyone else is about as many as the number of troops who lost their lives protecting Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. Which by no means should be taken as even the slightest rebuke of those who participated in the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91. But carrying a weapon into battle and carrying a weapon as you walk through Walmart just isn’t the same thing.