Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” opinion column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. FYI, Nelson has written a piece for The Magazine about a device to adapt a digital camera to pinhole technology, called Light Motif – possibly of interest to Chronicle readers.
This month, we’re just going to talk numbers, because if you get your vision of the world from the daily news, then your impression is probably something like: (a) Guns kill maybe three dozen people per day, mostly in murders (many of which are committed by cops in the line of duty); (b) Lots of little kids find guns, play with them, and get killed; (c) Gun injuries aren’t that common; these things basically kill you or don’t, and most injuries are accidents ; and (d) NRA is a deservedly powerful voice in the national conversation about guns and gun control.
All of that is wrong.
I fully acknowledge that the fourth point has some aspects of opinion to it; the first three do not. These first three are demonstrably incorrect.
Just to get the punchline out of the way, in America: (a) Guns actually kill 86 people per day, and only about a third of those are murders; (b) A very small percentage of gun accident victims are kids; (c) Gun injuries are more than twice as frequent as deaths; and (d) NRA doesn’t have enough members to warrant the influence they wield.
Starting in December 2012 I got super cozy with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website .
Here is the numerical breakdown of gun-related casualties in the U.S. for 2010 (the most recent year for which complete figures are available).
In 2010 104,914 people in the United States of America were injured or killed by flying lead exiting the barrels of guns. Of these, 31,409 people died; 73,505 did not.
Of the 31,409 deaths in 2010, 19,392 were suicides. That number should sicken and sadden any reader with even just half a heart. Firearm suicide was the number one cause of violent deaths for men in 2010, putting 16,960 of them in caskets .
Suicide by gun is a method overwhelmingly favored by men, and at which they absolutely excel . All told, we’re losing 20,000 of our brothers and sisters per year to suicides by gun. Self-destruction by firearm constitutes roughly two-thirds of total gun deaths in a given year.
Next up are homicides, which numbered 11,067 men, women, and children. This doesn’t include lawful actions taken by law enforcement during the course of enforcing the law; those are coded as “legal intervention”  deaths, and there were just 344 of them in the U.S. in 2010. So, regardless of how common it is on the nightly news and YouTube videos, the police account for just 1% of all firearm-related deaths and injuries in a given year.
Finally, there are gun accidents. Watch the news and you already know what these are: Junior finds an ill-secured gun in the lettuce drawer and drills a hole in Buddy. But that’s actually very rare.
There were only 606 firearm-related accidental deaths in 2010 (so called “Unintentional Firearm” injuries, in CDC lingo). Just 36 of these deaths involved children under 12. The bulk of these accidents befell folks 15 to 44 .
A total of 73,505 people were non-fatally injured by gun-actuated lead in 2010.
Of those 73,505 injuries, 4,643 were attempted suicides. To reiterate, firearm suicides are abnormally successful.
Of the 73,505 injuries, 14,161 were non-fatal accidents that, as was the case with the fatal accidents, disproportionately befell the adult-ish .
And 963 were injuries during the course of “legal intervention.” (Another lesson: the cops are pretty good at not killing people).
Finally, the lion’s share of injuries, 53,738, were part of an assault.
I’m nominally a “journalist,” and so I have an almost overwhelming urge to begin this section with “Now, there are two ways to see these numbers …”
But, the thing is, there aren’t. There is one way to see these numbers – as numbers.
- 73,505 people injured
- 31,409 dead
- 73% of the injuries were acts of malice
- 97% of the deaths were acts of malice
Someone with ill-intent took hold of an instrument and started singing the special little dark song that was echoing in the chambers of his or her heart; that’s how this lead got into these bodies. They did this in cold blood and sweating with the heat of the moment, they did it while mentally ill and while of sound mind, they sang their special little song to strangers and friends and family and lovers and, mostly, to themselves. These injuries weren’t mostly accidents, or mostly kids, or mostly cops. It was people setting out to hurt people, and succeeding.
There is an urge to compare these numbers, so let’s compare.
Here’s a favorite Glib Gun Lover comparison: There are roughly as many cars in America as guns , and there were 2,771,497 motor vehicle occupant injuries in 2010, and 33,687 deaths for a total of 2,805,184 American motor vehicle casualties. Cars are 27 times more dangerous than guns!
But, the thing is, of those 2,771,497 automotive injuries, only 8,954 were acts of malice or sorrow, and only 1,789 were attempts at suicide .
Check the pie charts: Orange represents blameless accidents; red and blue (and green) represent active human efforts to inflict pain or suffering. We’d have included a pie chart of Automobile Deaths, but it would have just been an orange circle.
In other words, those 2.8 million car accidents were basically just that: accidents. Those 33,000 corpses on the highway were largely the result of bad decision-making and bad weather, bad maintenance and bad luck. Meanwhile, our 30,000 gun deaths weren’t accidents – sorry, 4% were accidents. The rest were acts. They were deliberate expressions of hate and sorrow and frustration and desperation. That should mean something to us as human beings.
And, pardon me for saying so, it should mean something to the people who profit from selling the products without which these injuries could not have occurred. I note that the auto industry is constantly working to make sure there is less blood on the road. Car companies build safer cars, more numerous air bags, better seat belts; they support MADD and SADD and ever tougher laws against drunk driving; they support harsher punishments for bad actors at every level – those who behave recklessly and cause death and chaos on our highways and byways.
Now, then, when it comes to the gun industry …
Personally, I believe the NRA is terribly distorting the “gun control debate” in this country. I believe the NRA has made a concerted effort to drive gun and ammo sales over the last five years by conjuring the specter of a sinister Negro President hell-bent on confiscating legally owned guns – even as that same president, in his first month in office, overturned a decades-old ban on carrying firearms in National Parks. (That was just the first move amid so much notable inaction that his policies amounted to a loosening of gun control.)
Personally, I find statements and publications from the NRA to be twisted and loathsome in the extreme, often amounting to little more than borderline-racist dog-whistling. Personally, I think the NRA is nothing more than an extremely wily PR firm that doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about human blood and suffering as long as there is still more money to be made encouraging ever fewer Americans to stockpile ever more guns and ammo.
But I don’t object to their participation in the national gun “debate” because I believe them to be detestable hate-mongers and heartless death profiteers. I object because they don’t represent the actual interests of a meaningful portion of our citizenry.
The NRA has fewer than 4 million members . That’s not a lot of citizens. They are dwarfed by such notable voting blocks as: illegal drug users (of which we have almost 23 million in the U.S.); Michiganders (9.9 million voters no-one in DC seems to care about); and dogs (there are 78 million belovéd mutts in this great nation).
Fact: No politician in American history has ever said: “I’m sorry; I would love to support stricter drug laws, but the illegal drug user lobby is a powerful group, and I can’t afford to lose their votes” – even though there are at least five times as many pill-popping daddies and paisley-clad Mary Janes in this country than there are NRA Freedom Fighters.
Since the Newtown Mass Murder Using Guns, I’ve spoken to several traditionally staunch NRA supporters who’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with lending their support. On the one hand, they feel that the NRA is the only group out there defending “gun rights” (whatever that’s supposed to mean, in a nation where there are clearly plenty of guns to go around and no way to even track them down, let alone take them away). On the other hand, these same NRA supporters find their once-beloved NRA to increasingly sound like “a sack of dicks” – an assessment already shared by the vast number of Americans (maybe around 130 million?) who own guns, yet would never consider sending a penny to the NRA.
A lobby should be powerful because it represents a lot of votes, not because it represents a lot of dollars.
And there’s the point: Not only is the NRA a minuscule sub-portion of the population, the organization doesn’t even represent more than 3% of the nation’s gun owners. NRA members are nothing more than a splinter of a minority of the nation, and they presume to speak for all of us – and we, for unknowable reasons, just let them.
As an aside to my gun-owning co-citizens: The NRA may constitute the loudest assholes in the room, but we quiet assholes – who keep our guns under lock and key and teach our children well – are kinda-sorta the biggest assholes. We’re the biggest assholes because we’re not speaking up on our own behalf on the side of honesty and rationality and fair-play in political discourse. Just sayin’ …
In the end, this isn’t about guns or “gun control,” this is about numbers: The NRA has worked for almost two decades to make it as hard as possible for you and your elected representatives to see these numbers in an organized, meaningful way. They’ve poured countless millions of dollars into making it as hard as possible for you to make your own decisions about what gun policy might make sense.
Twenty mostly pink-colored children were murdered-via-firearm in December in Connecticut, and the NRA said “Let’s put more guns in schools.” Last year in Chicago, 440 mostly dark-skinned children were gunned down, and the NRA decried closing the gun show loophole . That loophole has been instrumental in illegally moving handguns into a city with some of the toughest legal gun restrictions in the nation. Something on the order of 30,000 of our friends, neighbors, and family members will kill themselves or one another with guns this year, but the NRA wants you to worry that my dad and I had to fill out a one page application and a couple little cards so he could give me his Browning pistol as a gift.
I’m sorry, NRA, but maybe we’ve got slightly bigger problems. We’ve got some numbers to discuss, and it’s kinda hard to do that with your hysterical bullshit drowning out the conversation.
 tl;dr: They aren’t tools for solving problems; they are instruments of self-expression, for better or worse.
 I put this in there because I feel that a lack of reporting on the large number of gun injuries in the U.S. buttresses the erroneous belief that guns are problem-solving tools requiring little training or practice to be effective. Lots of folks try to kill each other with bullets and succeed only in maiming each other, because Guns Aren’t Tools.
 Specifically Leading Causes of Death Reports and Nonfatal Injury Reports. These sections of the CDC website are ugly as hell and a total pain in the ass to use – especially in contrast to the slick and informative main page. If you do a little searching on that page, you’ll find something really interesting: the words “gun” and “firearm” appear zero times, even as we are in the midst of a news-gobbling national debate on just how dangerous guns are in America. Meanwhile, this report about a multi-state outbreak of hedgehog-linked salmonella infections is linked from the front page – OMG MICHIGAN! Three of those infections have happened here! Wash your hands, people!
Kidding aside, it’s actually a really good report: Lots of info, links to practical advice to parents and pet-owners. It’s basically exactly what you went from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Their site is packed with such handy info on everything from seasonal flu to water-related injuries.
Are you wondering why the hell the CDC has a section dedicated to fires, but nothing on firearms? Are you wondering why “guns” and “firearms” aren’t even listed in the alphabetical breakdown of site content? Have you noticed that the section on indoor firing ranges focuses on the dangers of high noise levels and lead exposure? Do you wonder why, if you search “guns” on the CDC site almost all of the returns are for nail gun injuries? It’s as though the CDC exists in an alternate America where Samuel Colt was a championship knitter. I recommend you and Google spend some quality time together. SPOILER ALERT: The NRA bullied the CDC away from researching gun violence.
 Wanna get super-depressed? The next runner-up for violent deaths for men was firearm homicide: 9,328 lives lost. The top three violent deaths for women in 2010 were suicide (by poisoning, firearm, and suffocation in that order), with homicide by firearm coming in as a distant third at 1,734 deaths.
 I’m told that conventional wisdom is that most suicides fail; only about 8% resulted in death in 2010. This is not the case with armed young men: Of the 24,035 Americans who tried to kill themselves with guns on 2010 (86% of whom were men), 19,392 – or roughly 80% – succeeded.
 From the CDC: “Legal Intervention – injuries inflicted by the police or other law-enforcing agents, including military on duty, in the course of arresting or attempting to arrest lawbreakers, suppressing disturbances, maintaining order, and other legal actions. Excludes injuries caused by civil insurrections.”
 With a telling breakdown: 15–24-years-olds accounted for 145 deaths, 25–34-years-olds for 107 deaths, 35–44-years-olds for 91 deaths (the next ten-year chunk gives you another 89 accidental deaths, then after that it drops off to something like 60 for folks between 55 and retirement, and another 50 or 60 for the elderly). All told, in 2010 62 people under the age of 14 were fatally wounded in gun accidents, while 544 were nominal “adults” – which is a very different picture than what we assume. The numbers tend to indicate that we do a decent job of keeping our guns out of the hands of our little ones; it’s ourselves we have to worry about.
 Only 595 of the injuries were children under 14, and most of those (523) were kids age 10-14. The distribution of accidental injuries is otherwise very similar to that of accidental deaths – which stands to reason; these were, after all, accidents.
 Yes, that’s an estimate – and a crummy one at that. Remember, gun sales and ownership are not meaningfully tracked in the U.S. Experts tend to base their estimate of the number of firearms floating around in the U.S. on the number of guns annually manufactured and imported. The latest reliable estimate is 310 million guns in the U.S.: 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles of all sorts, and 86 million shotguns. I got those numbers from page 8 of the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service’s 2012 report on Gun Control Legislation, although that’s just an analysis from the ATF’s Firearms Commerce in the United States 2011 report.
As for the current number of cars in the U.S., dammit, that’s an estimate, too, even though we do register cars in this country! Anyway, the most recent figure from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics is for 2009, when there were 254,212,610 registered passenger vehicles in the U.S.
 The CDC doesn’t offer us information on the intent (i.e., “act of violence” vs. “accident”) for motor-vehicle related deaths, so there’s a slight macintosh-to-gala comparison here; all apologies. We do know that there were 114 suicides and 39 homicides associated with “All Transport” in 2010, but those end up broken out under “Other Transport” rather than “Motor Vehicle Traffic,” so who knows; maybe it was all jumping in front of trains? (see Table 18 at that last link, if you wanna ponder this).
 Unsurprisingly, this is another gun number that’s shockingly hard to pin down. The current best-guess is four-million-ish, of which only two million may actually be living, breathing human beings who are aware that they support the NRA. According to folks active in the NRA only about 7% of the membership actual bother to vote in NRA board elections – which makes it sound like a pretty disconnected group, regardless of how many millions of living humans may actually be paying dues.
 Check the date on that article: 2010! It isn’t like this is a new problem.
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