Perspective on gun violence stats | My Turn

Greg Allmain - Contributed
Greg Allmain
— image credit: Contributed

Recent letter writers have sparked the gun violence debate.

Some suggest that any politician who supports, or is supported by, the National Rifle Association should be voted out of office. Others have cited a number of statistics related to gun violence in the United States.

As always, when it comes to this discussion, statistics can easily be manipulated to create a sense of crisis.

Here are annual stats that residents have cited:

• 31,940 people died from gunshot wounds in 2011.

• 851 deaths occurred because of accidental deaths in handling a firearm.

• There were 11,101 “murders by gun” and 222 deaths from guns from unknown reasons.

Granted, that’s a fair amount of people losing their lives for a variety of reasons. But, the trick that anti-gun types sometimes pull is just that, a trick where citing those statistics in isolation makes it seem a much larger problem than the statistical reality. When we give the statistics a wider context, gun violence can still likely be considered a fairly significant issue, but not as significant as some say.

Let’s take a look at each of those statistics in a wider context:

• 31,940 “deaths from bullets” in a nation of 314 million.

• 11,101 murders by gun, in a nation of 314 million.

• 222 deaths from guns for unknown reasons, in a nation of 314 million.

For all intents and purposes, the odds of dying from gun-related violence in this nation are actually quite low. The unfortunate part is that there does seem to be an epidemic of headline grabbing mass shootings in recent years, which heightens everyone’s sensitivity to the issue and creates a distorting effect in people’s perception of the issue.

Another important context to keep in mind when discussing this issue is the fact that the United States has the highest “number of guns per capita” at 97 per 100 people, according to a 2007 Small Arms survey. That means we’re looking at a near 1-to-1 ratio for gun ownership and population in this country.

Granted that is a lot of guns, but sober reflection should tell us what that really means is that most of the firearms in this country never end up being a part of interpersonal violence between people.

Some also point to Switzerland, which according to the 2007 Small Arms survey, has a rate of 45.7 guns per 100 people. This is also another area in which context is needed.

Now, we know already that America is a nation of 314 million people. Switzerland’s total population is 7.7 million, with the country being composed of 78 percent natural-born Swiss and 22 percent foreign-born. I mention the demographics of natural versus foreign born because, according to some fields of study in genetics and social sciences, homogeneity in a population leads to greater social cohesion, which in turn means the possibility of violent interpersonal crime is likely lower. Just with the issue of the population numbers alone, trying to compare the United States to Switzerland is essentially an apples-to-oranges dynamic.

To summarize, giving statistics a wider context is always important. When viewed in isolation, they can distort people’s perceptions of reality, making them think there’s a bigger problem than actually exists.


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