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Perspective in the Gun Debate - It Should Be About Saving Lives

By Jacob Regar

The gun debate may have quieted down for now, but gun issues remain a sensitive subject for Americans. Some people feel that guns are unnecessary in modern society and too easily available. Others hold fast to their Second Amendment rights and are unwilling give up their firearms. Both sides of the gun debate agree on at least one thing: guns kill. But, should gun fatalities be discussed in such general terms?

It is important to put gun deaths into perspective so that reporting on such events can be done in a less sensationalized manner. For instance, how does the rate of gun deaths compare to the rate of traffic deaths? And what types of gun deaths are causes for the greatest concern? The answers may be surprising to some.

Gun deaths technically include homicides, accidents, and suicides. Traffic deaths include any fatality caused on a roadway involving at least one motor vehicle.

The gun death rate changes significantly when you remove suicides from the equation. And for the sake of the gun debate, this should be done. The gun debate will historically pick up momentum after an event involving multiple victim homicides. Gun deaths involving a single victim tragically occur daily, but these cases are not what drive the anti-gun mentality. And a single person bent on suicide can take their own life by means other than gunshot quite easily.

According to in 2010, there were 11,078 gun homicides. In the same year, there were 19,392 gun suicides. According to American Association of Suicidology, the total number of suicides in 2010 was an alarming 38,364. The other main causes of suicide are suffocation (e.g., hanging) which numbered 9,493 and poisoning (e.g., drug overdose) which numbered 6,599, according to data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

The CDC lists the fifteen leading causes of death in the U.S. for 2010, and deaths caused by homicide fell just outside of the list at number sixteen. The list showed that accidental deaths (which include unintentional motor vehicle deaths and deaths by accidental discharge of firearms) were the fifth leading cause of death. Accidental gun deaths numbered 606 out of 120,859 total accidental deaths or .005%. Unintentional motor vehicle deaths made up 29% of accidental deaths. Suicide was tenth on the list.

By a purely statistical standpoint, if saving lives is the main priority driving proponents of gun control, more resources should be invested in teaching general safety practices (which can reduce accidents) and increasing sensitivity to warning signs in people who are likely to take their own lives.

In 2010, there were 35,332 motor vehicle deaths in the U.S., according to the CDC. That number is more than 68% higher than the number of gun homicides for the same year. And it is noteworthy that since 2005, where the number of traffic fatalities reached 43,510, the motor vehicle death rate has been falling sharply.

The CDC attributes the reduction in traffic fatalities to a myriad of factors, such as an increase in public education which impacts driver behavioral patterns; enactment of tougher legislation governing the engineering of vehicles; and a greater focus on enforcing seat belt laws.

Looking ahead, what do the trends show? Total gun deaths (which include suicides) are expected to surpass traffic deaths by 2015, according to data compiled by But, this interpretation of the data can be misleading for a number of reasons. For one, traffic deaths are declining for reasons stated above. Additionally, the CDC reports that the suicide rate for people between the ages of 35-64 has increased by a staggering 24% between 1999 and 2010. And even though the proportion of suicide by suffocation to other methods of suicide has increased, guns remain the most common means used to commit suicide. So firearm deaths are increasing in large part because of the increasing rate of suicide.

If suicide is removed from the equation of the gun death rate, the rate of firearm fatalities may never exceed traffic fatalities, despite the consistent drop in traffic fatality rates. In fact, in 2010 gun homicides fell to their lowest rate since 1981, according to

Predicting trends, however, does not always make for an accurate outcome. Back in 1994, the editor of offered the presage that gun deaths could “become the leading cause of injury-related death by 2003.” However, by 2003, the number of motor vehicle deaths exceeded total firearm deaths by approximately 50% and motor vehicle deaths comprise only one form of injury-related death.

Still, during various periods of the last two decades, the annual number of total gun deaths has proven to be tied to the rate of suicide. Comparing data of suicide rates for various age ranges produced by the American Journal of Public Health to the CDC’s data of gun-related deaths – for the same years – shows that when gun deaths are at their peak, suicide rates are higher than when gun deaths are at their lowest figures. (In 1993 gun deaths numbered 37,500/suicide rate for age group 25-44 was 15.1 per 100,000 people. In year 2000, gun deaths were approximately 28,500/suicide rate was 13.8 per 100,000 people.

To save lives, to really save lives, the public must become aware of the facts and figures surrounding causes of death. National Public Radio’s blog “The Two Way” cites a survey by the Pew Research Center, which found that only “12% of Americans believe the gun crime rate is lower today than it was in 1993; 56% believe it is higher.” While all causes of unnatural death deserve attention, priority should be placed on death rates whose causes sadly are growing – like suicide – and ones that show a verifiable potential for reduction, like traffic fatalities.