Coming off the tragic events in Orlando, Florida at the Pulse Night Club, I decided to dig into the available data on gun-related deaths, homicides, and gun laws to see what, if anything, the data shows us about guns in America. My general hypothesis coming into this research was simple: the states with strong gun laws will have fewer gun-related deaths.
It is important to note that “gun-related deaths” is inclusive of homicide, suicide, and accidents.
Using data collected by the FBI and The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence to determine the number of gun-related deaths per 100,000 people we can breakout a rate for each state that can be used for analysis and comparison purposes. This data shows the average across all states for gun-related deaths per 100k people is 11.29 and that the standard deviation for the same dataset is 4.05. These data points produce the following distribution for gun-related deaths in the USA:
Immediately evident is that two states fall below 2 standard deviations from the mean and one state falls above 2 standard deviations from the mean.
Below: Hawaii, Massachusetts
Hawaii seems to benefit from being a literal island in the Pacific ocean with very strong gun laws. Availability, though, may be the more important component as the data shows other states with strong gun laws that are surrounded by states with weaker gun laws have similar rates of gun-related deaths when compared to those states with the weaker laws. Massachusetts is surrounded by NY, CT, and RI all of which have stronger gun laws, but also VT and NH which are far more lax. This could indicate a number of different factors are at play, including: education, per capita income, political beliefs, and many others.
Alaska’s apparent lack of gun laws and regulations (relative to more strict states) has resulted in the highest gun-related death ratio per 100k people in the country. Compared to Hawaii and Massachusetts, this result seems self-explanatory, but could it be more complicated?
Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Alaska were flagged as outliers given their distribution so our next action was to focus on the states that greater than one standard deviation from the mean (above or below) and investigate the circumstances surrounding each these state’s positioning. Here we have:
Low Gun-Related Deaths: New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New Hampshire
With the exception of New Hampshire, each of these states has more strict gun laws and, potentially aligning with what we see in Hawaii, the benefit of being generally clustered around one another. New Hampshire has very few gun laws relative to Massachusetts so it is good to see that the difference did not cause a spike in gun-related deaths. This also lends credibility to the pro-gun advocates’ argument that the impact of gun laws is not as important as income or education levels – though how these would translate to policy isn’t very clear.
High Gun-Related Deaths: Montana, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana
Admittedly, several of the states on this list did not come as a shock. The media always seems to have Mississippi or Louisiana in the news for gun-related issues. What we do see from these states is very lax gun laws, defined by: no required handgun permits, no universal background checks for handgun sales (there is a Federal background check required so this likely references the ‘trade show’ loophole), no registration / reporting of handgun ownership, stand your ground laws, easily acquired ‘conceal carry’ permits, no permits required for open carry (outside of Arkansas), and no waiting period for handgun purchases.
If you were to stop here, you could make an obvious case based only on these observations that the key to lowering gun-related deaths is to pass tougher laws and make sure the states sharing your state’s borders pass similar laws. Or you could strategically position your state on an island, either way. The issue at this point is not that the data isn’t clear (at this level, it very much is), it’s that “gun-related deaths” is by its nature a collection of more granular data points.
Unpacking this data set we see that “gun-related deaths” summarizes three key data points: homicides with a gun, suicides with a gun, and accidents involving a gun that result in death. To expand our dataset for evaluation, we have to layer in the best possible data for homicide rates (using a gun) per 100k people by state. The picture that this resulting data paints is very revealing and could highlight a major men’s health issue, suicide.
First, an explanation: the assumption that will be used going forward is that because “gun-related deaths” contains homicides, suicides, and accidents, then a removal of the the homicides will show the rate that which death from a firearm was a suicide or an accident. Further, the accident rate (give available sources of data) appears to be very negligible relative to the homicide and suicide rates. With that in mind, the assumption used in this next cut of the data will be that the removal of the homicide rate will generally show us the suicide rate. This approach reveals:
1. The suicide rate for the states that already had stricter gun laws and lower overall gun-related deaths was very low relative to the full population. Massachusetts, for example, had a ratio of 31% meaning that for approximately every 3 gun-related deaths, 1 was a suicide. Put another way, the original Massachusetts number is more reflective of crime than it is of suicide or “something” else.
2. The suicide rate for the states that had lax gun laws and higher gun-related deaths had a ratio that was much higher than the low group noted above. In some cases a significant majority of the “gun-related deaths” could be attributed to a suicide. For example, Alaska’s overall “gun-related death” ratio was 19.8 per 100k people – by far the highest. Removing homicides from this ratio leaves us with a 14.2 or that 71% of all “gun-related deaths” in Alaska were suicides.
This insight into the data feels somehow worse than finding out that we have a significant crime-driven homicide issue in this country. Remember New Hampshire’s inclusion in the original list as a positive example (Relatively speaking as the topic is guns and death)? It was nice to see this state on the list with only a 6.2 given the relaxed gun laws. It feels terrible to see that the homicide rate is a 0.9 though, meaning that just under 86% of “gun-related deaths” in the Granite State are suicides.
Does the data tell us anything we can act on?
Well, yes. One of the data points we have access to is whether or not the state requires a permit to purchase a handgun. This simple data point may represent a major key to this puzzle and provide a non-extreme target for Americans to work toward regarding gun control. Of the 50 states, only 12 require a permit to purchase a handgun. Coincidentally, those same states that make up the lower “gun-related death” numbers are almost fully represented on this list (New Hampshire being the one that is missing).
Could it be the mere requirement of filling out the paperwork for a handgun permit is a big enough deterrent that it actually reduces suicide rates?
Could this also address the “criminals don’t follow laws” point that is made by the pro-gun lobby?
As we noted above, the average “gun-related deaths” per 100k people in the United States is 11.29. Using our projection to determine the average suicide rate per 100k people we come up with 7.28. It would be impossible to ever achieve a full reduction, but a decrease from 11.29 to 4.01 across the United States would be a great target to set. If requiring a handgun permit is one of the main avenues to use to get there, then that is a discussion we should be having.
The data used for this analysis was collected primarily from the following sources. Validating the accuracy of this data is an ongoing process. Further, any additional insights into this topic or data will be used to update this post or drive future posts.
FBI Homicide Data: https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2013/crime-in-the-u.s.-2013/offenses-known-to-law-enforcement/expanded-homicide/expanded_homicide_data_table_8_murder_victims_by_weapon_2009-2013.xls
FBI Crime by State: https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2014/crime-in-the-u.s.-2014/tables/table-5
Gun Violence Statistics: http://smartgunlaws.org/category/gun-studies-statistics/gun-violence-statistics/