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The odds that a gun will kill the average American may surprise you

The odds that a gun will kill the average American may surprise you

A man reacts at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue following a mass shooting.

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A man reacts at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue following a mass shooting.
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Cathal McNaughton/Reuters
  • A gunman used an assault weapon to kill 11 people and wound six others in a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Saturday.
  • Police identified Robert Bowers as a suspect in what is reportedly the deadliest attack on Jewish people in US history.
  • Nearly 13,000 people in the US were murdered with firearms in 2015 (the latest available data), not including suicides.
  • In March, the US government moved to weaken a decades-old restriction on federal research into guns.

Eleven people are dead and six others wounded after Saturday’s mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Police arrested Robert Bowers as a suspect and charged him after he reportedly fired on officers who arrived at the scene. He was carrying an AR-15 assault rifle and several handguns, according to the FBI.

Minutes before the attack, Bowers wrote online, “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” in reference to a Jewish refugee-resettlement agency. The post was shared on Gab, a social media service that does not police hate speech and has now been taken offline. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in,” Bowers wrote.

The Anti-Defamation League described the shooting in a statement as possibly “the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States.”

The mass shooting is one of many that have happened in the US in 2018 – so far, almost 300 others have occurred since January 1, according to the Gun Violence Archive. In August, five Capital Gazette newspaper employees were shot to death by a gunman. In February, a gunman entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and killed 17 people using a legally purchased AR-15 assault rifle.

Millions of people marched against gun violence in the wake of February’s attack as Congress voted to loosen a restriction on the CDC’s research of gun violence, which has been in effect for about 22 years.

Below is some of the most recent data available on gun violence in the US (highlighted in red; suicides and accidents excluded), and how it compares to other causes of death over the lifetime of an average American.

Gun violence is a leading cause of death in America_BI Graphics

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Skye Gould/Business Insider

According to this analysis, assaults by firearm kill about 13,000 people in the US each year, and this translates to a roughly 1-in-315 lifetime chance of death from gun violence. The risk of dying in a mass shooting is about 35 times lower than that, with a 1-in-11,125 lifetime chance of death.

The chance of dying from gun violence overall is about 50% greater than the lifetime risk of dying while riding inside a car, truck, or van (a category that excludes pedestrian, cyclist, and other deaths outside of a motor vehicle). It’s also more than 10 times as high as dying from any force of nature, such as a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, flood, or lightning strike.

These measures suggest Americans are more likely to die from gun violence than the combined risks of drowning, fire and smoke, stabbing, choking on food, airplane crashes, animal attacks, and natural disasters.

Where the data comes from

Men pray outside the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall before a service to honor and mourn the victims of Saturday's mass shooting at the Tree Of Life Synagogue.

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Men pray outside the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall before a service to honor and mourn the victims of Saturday’s mass shooting at the Tree Of Life Synagogue.
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Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

The chart above does not account for a person’s specific behaviors, age, sex, location, or other factors that could shift the results; it’s an average of the entire US population.

But it clearly shows that gun violence in the US is a leading cause of death, which is how the CDC describes firearm homicides in its National Vital Statistics Reports.

Most of the data comes from an October 2017 report by the National Safety Council and a November 2017 report by the National Center for Health Statistics on causes of death in the US, primarily those that occurred in 2015. (The NSC report uses 2014 data wherever newer data was unavailable.)

Mass shootings aren’t part of the data sets above, but the Gun Violence Archive project keeps a sourced tally, which we’ve independently counted. The organization considers any event where four or more victims were injured (regardless of death) to be a mass shooting.

In 2015, some 333 mass shootings left 367 people dead and 1,328 injured, according to their tally. The statistics rose in 2016 to 383 mass shootings, 456 deaths, and 1,537 injuries. In 2017, there were 346 mass shootings that led to 437 deaths and 1,802 injuries.

Foreign-born terrorism data comes from a Cato Institute terrorism report, and some natural-disaster data comes from Tulane University.

We calculated the lifetime odds of death by applying 2015 life expectancy and population numbers in the US, and our analysis assumes each cause of death won’t change drastically in the near future. (Mortality data from previous years suggests these rankings are relatively consistent, with the exception of skyrocketing accidental poisonings due to the opioid epidemic.)

You can view our full dataset and sourcing here.

A dearth of US gun-violence research

In 2017, there were 346 mass shootings in the US that led to 437 deaths and 1,802 injuries.

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In 2017, there were 346 mass shootings in the US that led to 437 deaths and 1,802 injuries.
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Shutterstock

Although gun violence is one of the leading causes of death in America, it is also one of the most poorly researched, according to a January 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“In relation to mortality rates, gun violence research was the least-researched cause of death and the second-least-funded cause of death after falls,” the study’s authors wrote.

The study ascribed this dearth of research to restrictions – namely an addition to a 1996 congressional appropriations bill called the Dickey Amendment, which stipulated “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

This is the rule that Congress recently voted to weaken with its new funding bill, which Trump signed in March. The new provision gives the CDC explicit permission to research the causes of gun violence, though it maintains a ban on “using appropriated funding to advocate or promote gun control.”

Research into gun violence is the most poorly funded relative to other causes of death.

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Research into gun violence is the most poorly funded relative to other causes of death.
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Dr. David E. Stark, Dr. Nigam H. Shah/JAMA

The previous lack of clarity on researching gun violence has hindered many scientists from better understanding the problem.

“The fundamental, foundational work of documenting the full scale of the health consequences of firearms has not been done,” Sandro Galea, an epidemiologist and the dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, told Mother Jones in January 2017. “It’s the kind of project that we do all the time. It just hasn’t been done with firearms because there haven’t been resources.”

Although the Dickey amendment has been weakened, a Republican-controlled Congress is reportedly uninterested in restoring $2.6 million in annual funding for CDC research into gun violence.

“[T]op GOP appropriators say they have no interest in funding new federal research into gun violence,” The Hill wrote in April.

The research that has been conducted by private institutions like the Harvard Injury Control Research Center show a clear connection between gun ownership, gun availability, homicides, and violent death.

A roundup of gun-control and gun-violence studies by Vox shows that Americans represent less than 5% of the world population but possess nearly 50% of the world’s civilian-owned guns. The data also reveals that police are about three times more likely to be killed in states with high gun ownership, countries with more guns see more gun deaths, and states with tighter gun control laws see fewer gun-related deaths.

Kelly McLaughlin contributed reporting to this post.

This story has been revised and updated. The original version was published on Feb. 15, 2018.

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