If you are not suicidal, a klutz, or a criminal, your odds of being killed with a firearm are lower than your odds of drowning and about equal to your odds of dying from a hernia. And about ten times lower than your odds of dying in a car crash. And about a thousand times lower than your odds of dying from a disease. Which, I must tell you, is almost certainly what you are going to die of. We had 2,512,873 people die in the U.S. in 2011, and of those, 2,328,565 (92.67%) died from diseases. In contrast, 11,101 (0.44%) died in firearms homicides, and since about 75% of those victims were criminals, if you are not a criminal, well, you have much bigger things to worry about.
Aside from diseases, you might like to worry about falls (26,631, 1.06%), motor vehicle accidents (34,677, 1.38%), or accidental poisoning and exposure to noxious substances (33,554, 1.34%).
Don't take my word for it. Take a look at the charts. If you think I fudged the data, take a look at the CDC data the charts are based on.
So, you ask, if my risk of being killed in a firearm homicide is trivial, why is everybody yammering about guns all the time? Several reasons.
1. The Availability Heuristic. The availability heuristic is an unconscious process that operates on the notion that, "if you can think of it, it must be important." Since you are constantly bombarded with news stories about firearms homicides, especially when a mass killing occurs, you think they are a big risk. When was the last time you read an article about someone dying from a hernia?
2. Lack of information. The media rarely if ever gives you charts like the one I prepared here. So you have no factual basis for dispelling the erroneous notion that firearms homicides are a horrible risk.
3. Media perseveration over sensational events. Seriously, who wants to write about somebody falling off a ladder? Some drunk dude who falls in the water and drowns? Nobody, that's who. To quote Edward Gorey, "The journalist surveys the slaughter,/ The best in years without a doubt;/ He pours himself a gin-and-water/ And wonders how it came about."
4. Ignorant politicians. I refer here to people like Diane Feinstein, who, during discussions of the "assault weapons" ban in 2004, made the inane statement, "The kill ratio extends expotentially [sic]." I imagine Feinstein meant "exponentially", though that is not what she said, and those present at the hearing were too dimwitted to mock her by asking if she had considered an exponent that was negative, or positive but less than 1. Anyway, such people have no conception of risk and are incompetent to formulate policies that might improve our quality of life by addressing real, important risks.
5. Devious politicians. These are the ones who know they are spouting bilgewater and exploit public misconceptions of risk to gain air time. These people are rare; we have far more to fear from stupidity than from evil.
6. Hangers-on. This includes academics who want to spend your tax dollars researching trivial risks because, well, that is what they do; pseudo-scientists (mainly pop psychologists and sociologists) in search of air time; talk show hosts; and the usual assortment of uninformed do-gooders (bored soccer moms, liberal pastors, crusading lawyers, community coordinators and the like).
7. Assuming that removing instrumentality will alter risk. This is the peculiar notion that getting rid of guns would prevent all suicides committed with guns, for example. As if someone who hangs himself would not use other means if he lacked a rope. Same assumption is made with regard to gun homicides, and is also dubious.
8. The "We Have to do SOMETHING" mentality. This is the weird idea that enacting a law having no ascertainable effect on a perceived danger is laudable as a moral statement. Practically of course it is very harmful, as it wastes law enforcement, court, and prison resources, and restricts liberty for no useful purpose.
- Deaths: Preliminary data for 2011 (National Vital Statistics Reports, Volume 61, Number 6, October 10, 2012). Also available here if the previous link changes. Table 2 from the document is available in spreadsheet form thanks to me.
- For data on the percentage of homicide victims with criminal records, consult the many sources available. Note that the proportion of victims with criminal records varies by location. In Baltimore, in 2007, it was 91%.
- An individual's risk of death from various causes varies with age, place of residence, occupation, habits, hobbies, and a host of other things. When the expression "your risk" is used in this article, it refers to an abstract individual whose likelihood of death from each enumerated cause is equal to the population likelihood of death from said cause.