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A closer look at statistics on weapons

On January 15 an “Other Voice” appeared in these pages titled “Take a look at the stats when it comes to guns.” A number of letters followed congratulating the author for his command of the facts and his use of citations. The FBI Uniform Crime Reports web site were cited as the primary source of the author’s statistics. I urge readers to examine this site. I trust you will find, as did I, that virtually none of the author’s “facts” came from the FBI site.

Some of the claims made in the January 15 Other Voice were as follows:

– Although gun ownership is at an all time high, total violent crime is at its lowest rate since 1978 and murder is at a 35 year low.

There is no basis for the claim that gun ownership is at an all-time high. Accurate data on gun ownership are difficult to obtain, as the gun lobby has consistently opposed firearm registration. The best available data, taken from household surveys, indicates that the percentage of persons reporting gun ownership in the U.S. has declined from 48% in 1973 to between 35% and 41% in recent years[Marker][1][Marker], [Marker][2][Marker].

The FBI reports that the homicide rate peaked in the U.S. in the years 1991-1993. Since 1994, the homicide rate has been steadily falling. Most of the fall in the homicide rate over the past decade has been due to a decline in gun-related homicides. The beginning of the decline in the homicide rate in 1994 coincided with the enactment of the federal Brady Act (requiring background checks and waiting periods for handgun purchases), the federal Assault Weapons Ban, and many other state and local ordinances.

– Firearms are used in less than one-fourth of violent crime.

The FBI tabulates data on type of weapon used only for murder. Other violent crimes, such as forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault, do not specify whether a weapon, much less a firearm, was used in commission of the crime. In fact, firearms are often a factor in many of these other crimes.

Year after year, most fatal assaults in the U.S. are committed with firearms. The homicide rate for U.S. males ages 15-24 is more than ten times higher than for their counterparts in most other developed countries, with the excess number of homicides in the U.S. being attributable to firearms violence[Marker][3][Marker]. In 2003, the latest year for which complete data is available, 67% of murders committed in the U.S. were committed with firearms[Marker][4][Marker].

– The rate of accidental death by firearms has been steadily declining for nearly 100 years.

Data on accidental firearm death rates were not available 100 years ago; the oldest data available on accidental firearm death dates back to 1981[Marker][5][Marker]. Accidental firearm death rates have declined since 1981. This may be attributed to the decline in firearm ownership, along with gun control legislation and firearm safety education. Accidents account for only 3% of firearm-related deaths[Marker][6][Marker]. Fifty-one per cent of firearm-related deaths are suicides, and 44% are homicides. Only 1% of firearm-related deaths are a result of legal intervention and 1% are unclassified.

– The reality is (as anyone who reads this newspaper on a regular basis can tell you), of all the methods to rapidly propel a chunk of metal that man has ever come up with, the one that we have to fear the most is not the gun. It is the automobile.

In California from 1993-2002, the number of people killed in motor vehicle crashes was 41,043. During the same period, guns killed 39,621[Marker][7][Marker]. Stated another way, the number of people being killed in motor vehicle crashes was only 3.5% more than the number of people killed by guns. The purpose of motor vehicles is to transport their occupants from one place to another; cars are seldom used to kill people on purpose. Most people who keep handguns in their homes do so in the belief that the gun will afford protection.

However, medical research shows that for every one time a gun in the home is used to kill an attacker, there are 43 gun-related deaths of household members[Marker][8][Marker]. If there were a motor vehicle that had as poor a safety record as the handgun, it would promptly be banned from the road.

Space does not allow me to address all of the points in the January 15 column. I urge others to consider this issue in light of the best available research.

 

[Marker][1][Marker]  Blendon R, Young J, Hemenway D. The American public and the gun control debate. Journal of the American Medical Association. 1996; 275:1719-1723.

[Marker][2][Marker]  Smith TW. 2001 National Gun Policy Survey of the National Opinion Research Center: Research Findings. Chicago: National Opinion Research Center.

[Marker][3][Marker]  Fingerhut LA, Kleinman JC. International and interstate comparisons of homicide among young males. JAMA 1990;263:3292-3295.

[Marker][4][Marker]  Murder circumstances by weapon. Table 2.12. 2003 FBI Uniform Crime Reports. Available at http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/03cius.htm

[Marker][5][Marker]  WISQARS Injury Mortality Reports, 1981-1998. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Available at http://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/mortrate9.html

[Marker][6][Marker]  Zawitz MW, Strom KJ. Firearm injury and death from crime, 1993-1997. October 2000, NCJ 182993.        

Available at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/fidc9397.pdf

http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/fidc9397.pdf.

[Marker][7][Marker]  National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (WISQARS Database).

[Marker][8][Marker]  Kellerman AL, Reay DT. Protection or peril. An analysis of firearm-related deaths in the home. N Engl J   Med 1986;314:1557-1560.