Three Kinds of Gun Deaths

What the numbers tell us about firearm legislation

In the wake of the terrible mass murder at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, there is a great deal of solemn intoning that Something Must Be Done.

Click to view – Firearm Deaths by State and Motive

As you listen to the discussion, it’s important to remember that there are different kinds of gun deaths and with one category, firearm laws appear to have a big effect on reducing the number of fatalities.  On the other category, the relationship is not so clear.

But back to the rhetoric.
Some politicians and experts are looking for stronger gun control laws to limit access to deadly weapons and others want increased emphasis on psychological screening, with the notion that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”  A few gun advocates believe the answer is MORE guns, so that any threat is met with a hail of  gunfire from armed bystanders or guards before innocent victims are harmed.  (I’m reminded of the recent shootout in New York City where nine bystanders were injured, all by police gunfire.)

I analyzed statistics from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), focusing on the deaths from firearms during for the period of 2009-1999 (the most recent available).  I looked at the differences between firearm deaths between different states and metro areas, comparing the number of deaths with each state’s gun control legislation as scored by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

I’ve published all the data for the states and the 379 major metro areas and made it available in a spreadsheet for your download and further analysis.

Three Kinds of Death

Much of the current discussion regarding firearm deaths fails to consider that guns are a component in different events.  Firearm deaths can be segregated into three different categories – suicides, assaults and accidents.
From 2009-1999, 58% of deaths associated with firearms have been suicides, 39% have been assaults (murders), and 3% have been accidents or uncategorized.

Because the motives are different in each of these types of firearms deaths, it appears that the effect of gun control legislation is also different.  One might expect that stricter gun laws would reduce the amount of firearm violence, but the data tell two very different stories.


When looking at the rate of suicides, the first thing we notice in that there are more suicides by firearms than murders from guns in all but seven states.  Then looking at the differences between metropolitan and rural areas, we see rural suicides are greater than metro suicides in all but one state.

So we can say that generally more firearms are the deadly force in suicides more than murders, and firearm suicides are far more common in rural areas than large cities and their surrounding suburbs.  (Could this be because guns may be more common in the rural areas than urbanized areas?  We need more data.)

We can measure the association between two groups of data by using a measure named the Pearson Correlation Coefficient.  In simple situations such as this, it provides a reasonably good insight into the relationship between two independent variables.

When I compared the ratings of the Brady Center (a measure of each state’s gun control legislation) with the rate of firearm-assisted  suicides, there was an “r” value of -0.74, indicating there was a very strong correlation between strong gun control laws and low rates of suicides.  This relationship was equally robust for metro areas, and moderate (-0.36) for rural areas.

Based on this, perhaps a case can be made that state firearm legislation is reducing gun violence, at least for suicides.

Click to view – State Firearm Deaths by Population Density

Assaults (homicides)

When I performed the same analysis on fatal firearm assaults, it was a different story.  States with strong gun laws actually had a higher rate of gun-aided murders, showing an “r” value of 0.323 (a moderate correlation.)  This relationship held true for the metro areas, but rural areas showed a moderately-small decrease (-0.267).

I imagine the argument can be made that the firearm-enabled homicides would be much higher if not for the dampening effect of gun control, and also that the legislation is most likely to be enacted in states with major metros already suffering from a greater number of gun-related murders.

What we see is that there is a very different relationship between firearm deaths and state gun control legislation, depending on the type of gun-related violence.  To summarize…

  1. In 44 of the states, there are more suicides by firearms than homicides.
  2. In all but one state, there are more gun-related suicides in rural areas than in metro areas.
  3. Considering all firearm-caused deaths, there is a moderately-small relationship (-0.258) between stronger gun-control legislation and fewer firearm deaths.
  4. But…
  5. When firearm deaths are segregated into suicides and homicides, a different picture emerges.
  6. For suicides, there is a very strong correlation (-0.75) between gun laws and fewer firearm deaths.
  7. For homicides, the opposite is true.  There is moderate (0.32) correlation between strong firearm legislation and increased firearm homicides.

My Thoughtssecond amendment

The issue of gun control is complex and emotionally-charged.  The purpose of my admittedly simple analysis is to highlight the differences between different types of firearm deaths, and perhaps illustrate that legislation may have  varying effects.

My personal opinion is that making firearms less readily available will ultimately have an effect of reducing gun violence.  It won’t be much of a change, and the decrease will be more substantial for the categories of suicides and accidents as the availabilities of guns in lessened.
Unless massive gun buyback campaigns are initiated, there will still be a huge supply of existing firearms still available to those who want to use them for violence.  My analysis suggests that the short term effect of a smaller firearm inventory will not substantially reduce gun homicides.

I don’t believe that increased psychological screening and counseling will have a significant effect.
The actual ratio of firearm deaths to the immense number of firearms and owners (roughly 50% of all U.S. residents are gun owners) is quite low, and it takes just one moment of anger to result in tragedy. Many states (19!) have  also been reticent to share names of mentally ill residents with the FBI to be part of the background check, and I don’t see this situation improving anytime soon.

Despite our best efforts, guns will remain available to those who are determined to use them for killing.  And those unbalanced people will remain hidden until their names and faces appear in the nightly news.

No, something will need to change our culture of violence.  I predict that this change will happen gradually, and it will defy our best explanation.  Over the last twenty years, the number of violent crimes in the United States has decreased steadily, a trend which has defied any consensus from sociologists.  We don’t really understand why our society is so violent, we can’t agree how to change it, and we don’t have much understanding of why it has changed in the past.

My pessimism for substantive change in the foreseeable future should not be mistaken for a call to inaction.  Anything we can do to decrease the availability of firearms to people who would do harm is a step in the right direction, however long the journey.


Download the spreadsheet for the firearm deaths by state,
And for all 379 metro areas.

Coming up soon…
I analyze the increase in FBI Gun Background Checks, state by state, for the last ten years.


7 Replies to “Three Kinds of Gun Deaths”

  1. Greetings Mr. Sperling,

    Recently much has been made of comparing gun deaths between Chicago and Houston… emphasizing that Houston has fewer deaths – assaults than Chicago – despite Chicago’s more restricting gun laws. I have been wondering if this is a fair comparison, and any thoughts you may have to bring to the discussion?

    I am from Maine which is generally cited as having one of the highest percentages of gun ownership in the country while having very low annual numbers of deaths due to firearms. In 2011, 8 of the 9 gun deaths in Maine were committed by someone the victim knew (5 of these 9 deaths were domestic-violence related). From my perspective of being from Maine, ownership and theoretical high availability of firearms do not translate into gun violence – granted Maine does not have any large cities… if the highest gun violence rates tend to cluster in America’s urban areas that may be part of the reason for the discrepancy here.

    Many thanks,


    1. Hi Steve,
      Good points, and no, I don’t think it’s valid to compare Houston and Chicago, at least where gun deaths are concerned and whether firearm laws are ineffective.
      I have noticed that some places with restrictive laws have some of the highest rates of gun violence. Washington, DC comes readily to mind.
      And here’s what I think is happening. The strict gun laws are enacted in a locality because there is a epidemic of gun violence. One might reason that for whatever reasons, Houston inherently has less gun violence and has chosen not to further restrict gun ownership. Chicago, on the other hand, has chosen to enact stronger gun laws in an effort to curb its rampant gun deaths. But we can’t say that Houston and Chicago have the same societal landscape which incubate violent crime and the only difference is the result of the different firearm restrictions. As best I can tell, no criminal sociologist has figured out why some cities are much more prone to violent crime and other cities avoid this blight.
      The state of Maine fits my reasoning, in that for whatever reasons it just has less violent crime. And accordingly, there probably is not much pressure to enact stronger firearm regulations. But there is one thing about many of these states with low gun violence; people may not be shooting each other but they are shooting themselves. In states such as Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Iowa, Wyoming, Vermont and Utah, a good case could be made to limit firearm access to reduce overwhelming number of gun suicides. As I noted in this post, there is a very strong correlation between states with strong gun laws and a lower rate of gun suicides.
      Thanks for your comments!

  2. By the nature of our system of government each year we have more new laws and controls on our people . We elect officials and send them to office ,they are many times judged by the numbers of bills they get passed .
    By this we will lose our freedom
    Every year new laws are in acted ,very few are removed
    Slowly ,ever so slowly we will lose all of our rights for the good of masses.
    When things are done for the good of the mass , it trims away the rights of the masses . Which weakens the masses .
    We need to insure individual rights . Once rights are lost we will never get them back . we give away the rights of the next genaration .
    We need to stop putting people in jail for things that cause no harm.
    Simple laws work best . Their are 10 commandments and no place to add more for a reason

  3. I am 65 married, jewish, have 4 daughters, and 7 grandchildren. i taught
    my daughter, karate, and how to handle firearms. i had them in the house
    since they were small and they now have them in their house. we have never
    had an incident. However, when living in new york in the 60’s having a gun
    saved my life and two of my daughters. that one incident is enough to
    warrant being armed. if everyone was armed i believe there would be
    less murders. if my right to own a weapon had been taken away, i would
    not be here writing this, and 5 of my grandchildren would not be alive.
    owning a gun is our right and if taken away only the criminals would have

  4. I don’t look at the numbers, but the whole picture as I see it.
    If Americans are armed to protect themselves from the strong arm of anyone with power (military or otherwise) our people will be in a better position to protect themselves. Our rights are being chipped away by politians and judges who have a twisted sense of by what is justic ie. letting convicted criminals who commit violent acts out of prison, or who have the money to find a loophole in the justice system for murder. There are two many laws on the books that don’t serve purpose anyway. Getting off the subject a bit but WHY is it the government place to say whether a woman can have an abortion, when there are people changing their gender changed and THAT’S okay. Back to the subject is the only thing I can say about this is “Gun Control” is NOT the answer. As we all know criminals will get their hands on guns no matter how much “Gun Control or Bills” are put in to place. My thoughts are that our young people (and some old alike) are being desensitized with the media (making vilians heros) and the movie industry with no censorship in TV or video games against violence. So it’s okay to take away our only protection but not okay to curb what we see or experience through video or music because it would be taking our freedom of speech?? I think the media has twisted our words, so where is the freedom of truth. The “word” is mightier than the sword. Guns are not the problem, sucide, accident or assult. What is feed into peoples minds is the enemy.

  5. Mr. Sperling,

    While I agree with you that severely limiting gun ownership or outright banning the ownership of guns will not completely close access to firearms through illegal means, it is not a valid reason to demand change and make change right now.

    When LBJ pushed through the symbolic, but toothless 1957 civil rights bill (he was walking a fine line trying to avoid alienating the Southern Caucus and the Liberal wing of the Democrats in his quest to become President) he was crucified in the press, by liberal democrats and a large segment of the public. But LBJ’s rebuttal to the drubbing had merit which also applies equally to legislating the total ban of guns:

    Emphasis is mine:

    “In the past few days there has been considerable discussion about the things which the bill does NOT do. I am aware of those things. But, I cannot follow the logic of those who say that because we cannot solve ALL THE PROBLEMS we should NOT try to solve ANY OF THEM … I can understand the disappointment of those who are not receiving ALL THEY BELIEVE THEY SHOULD OUT OF THIS BILL. I cannot sympathize with their position. The bill doesn’t have to be perfect. The possible necessity for change is no bar to action.”

    A legislative bill can be passed and not be perfect. But once on the books it can be tweaked over time to its ultimate perfection. It is the same argument economist Paul Krugman uses to support President Obama’s Universal healthcare plan. The perfect plan and the only one that will effectively control run-away healthcare costs is to have a single payer system: Medicare for all.

    The only reason our government has not banned guns outright is because of the extreme lobbying power of the NRA to buy Senate and House votes backed by unlimited money from the entire gun manufacturing industry. What will top point-blank execution of 20 first graders- a rampage through a hospital maternity ward and shooting newborn infants?

    It’s well overdue to recognize the 2nd amendment for what it is: a relic of a long bygone era when guns were needed for protection in the wilderness as the westward migration outpaced the reach of government and to provide food for the family. It was also recognition of the citizen-farmer-soldier using their own hunting guns that comprised Washington’s army to fight for independence (with massive aide from the French) and to guarantee citizens access to their weapons in the future in case the newly created experiment of democracy fell victim to tyranny once more.

    The NRA’s claim to protecting American’s civil liberties and any attack on the Bill of Rights is an obvious ruse to protect the huge profits of gun manufacturers. Where was the NRA’s voice when the Bush-Cheney Regime authorized torture, willfully lied to the nation to commit a war of aggression, tapped into all domestic emails, attempted to squash freedom of speech by using the power of the executive office to remove liberal commentators like Bill Moyers and Bill Maher; and attempted to silence dissent in the press by forcing reporters to give up their sources or risk prison by being declared in contempt of court.

    Your tepid endorsement of restrictions on guns is the tired sound of politicians unwilling to take an unequivocal stand on a position.

    Paul Cohen

  6. Well written, thanks for sharing, but I disagree with your conclusions on two levels.

    First, there is no evidence that restricting guns cuts down on the total number of suicides. If guns are not available, a person can commit suicide by other means, and those means may be slower and/or more painful. If we legalize doctor-assisted suicide then the issue of how suicides are executed becomes irrelevant. Personally, I don’t wish to play God and dictate when, how, or if somebody else chooses to take their own life.

    Second, even if restricting guns were shown to diminish homicides by guns (which apparently it doesn’t,) the logic of restriction ignores the fact that you are diminishing personal freedom to achieve that goal. You can cut down highway deaths by restricting cars, but again you are restricting personal freedom to achieve that. Persons who argue to restrict the rights of others to own guns usually do not themselves own guns. Those same persons likely would object to having their cars taken away. In other words, they are saying “I want to restrict your freedom for my benefit, but I don’t want you to restrict my freedom for your benefit.”

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