Gun Violence and the Census: Sobering Statistics

As a recent response to a post on this blog reminded me, it is very, very common for gun-control opponents and conservative politicians to point out that “Guns Don’t Kill People, People Do.” The problem with this catchy conservative talking point is that it doesn’t really argue anything. Of course people kill people; I’ve yet to see a bunch of guns and knives running around by themselves committing murders.

Where conservatives get in trouble with their argument is when they start to point to knives and other methods of killing as justification for their opposition to gun control laws. The logic sounds like this: People commit murders by stabbing or beating or poisoning every day, so why do we need gun-control laws and not knife-control laws?

A look at the census murder statistics for the last decade (available online here) confirms that people do indeed kill each other in this country: 129,741 murders were reported in the U.S. from 2000-2008 as classified by the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program. They attach this statement to the document:

The Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program defines murder and nonnegligent manslaughter as the willful (nonnegligent) killing of one human being by another.

That means that the numbers they show here EXCLUDE accidental or negligent killings as defined by law enforcement. Keep that in mind as you look at the table of murder statistics from the census below.

Homicides by Weapon Used,  2000-2008

Totals, 2000-2008 % of total

Handguns 65,581 51%
Rifles 3,791 3%
Shotguns 4,356 3%
Other firearm not specified or type unknown 820 1%
Firearms, type not stated 11,564 9%
Firearm subtotals 86,112 66%

Knives or cutting instruments 16,547 13%
Blunt Objects 5,782 4%
Personal Weapons 8,220 6%
Poison 106 0%
Explosives 43 0%
Fire 1,093 1%
Narcotics 408 0%
Drowning 150 0%
Strangulation 1,281 1%
Asphyxiation 948 1%
All other 9,051 7%
All other weapons subtotals 43,629 34%

Total, all types: 129,741 100%

Source, U.S. Census 2011 – Murder Victims–Circumstances and Weapons Used or Cause of Death

These numbers are striking: according to the statistics reported above, fully 2/3 of the American murder victims from the years listed were killed by a firearm of some type, dwarfing the numbers of those killed by other weapons. In fact, the next most common weapon used, listed as “knives or cutting instruments,” accounts for 13% of all murders (as opposed to 66% for firearms). This means that anyone murdered during that time was five times as likely to be shot to death than killed by a knife or cutting instrument.

There is much that can be inferred by this data, but the simplest and most obvious conclusion is also the most striking: Guns are a vastly more effective tool for killing people than anything else Americans use for that purpose. Think, for a moment, about how much easier it is (even with our nations woefully inadequate gun laws) to purchase a knife or even a sword than it is to get a gun in this country. How many millions of would-be murder weapons (in the form of kitchen cutlery alone) sit in unlocked, unsecured kitchen cabinets and knife-blocks in this country? And yet, even with all these dangerous instruments of death around us, Americans still use guns to commit murder twice as often as anything else combined.

It makes sense: Our armed forces don’t storm into battle wielding butcher knives or hoping to strangle their enemy. They use guns, because guns are the most effective means of killing people.  Nothing else even comes close, and so it also makes sense that, as a society that prides itself on nonviolent discourse to solve disagreements, we need to regulate guns with the same efficacy that firearms have demonstrated as murder weapons.

So, to paraphrase the great comedian Eddie Izzard: Guns don’t kill people, people do, but the gun certainly helps.

3 responses to “Gun Violence and the Census: Sobering Statistics”

  1. Mike

    Interesting stats. I wonder what would happen if you made guns illegal. Is there any further breakdown of the data to show what percentage of these murders were committed by legal gun owners? If guns were illegal would the murderers have not killed or attempted to kill? Would they still have killed but chose the most popular non-firearm (knives?) It seems like further analysis is needed.
    Suppose out of 100 murders, 25 are committed by legal gun owners. If you made guns illegal, only that subset would potentially be affected. Of those 25, some might still obtain illegal guns and some might use another weapon. The other 75 would be unaffected.

  2. Southern Beale

    Thanks for your post and I hope you don’t get trolled by all of the gun nutz who come over to my place every time I try to write about the need for sensible gun laws. Their comments usually boil down to “blarggedy blargh blargh CONSTITUTION blargh blargh CIVIL LIBERTIES blargh blargh….”

    Anyway here’s a perfect example of the difference between a gun and a sword.

    As long as people are going to continue to be idiots I’m going to continue to call for some reasonable gun control, and I don’t care who it pisses off.

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