Guns, War and Statistics

| November 10 2013

By Christopher Kelly

Commander Kelly + His Favorite Gun

Let’s talk about guns.  Let me say at the outset, that I am NOT an NRA member and I have NEVER owned a working firearm.

I recently was forwarded this startling message via social media.  Mark Shields, a commentator on PBS claimed on 12/20/2012 that “more Americans have died from gunfire than died in … all the wars of this country’s history,”http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2013/jan/18/mark-shields/pbs-commentator-mark-shields-says-more-killed-guns/.  We are assured by the “Politi-fact Truthometer,” that Shields’ claim it “true“.

This is precisely the type of rhetoric that Europeans and others love to read about those “bloodthirsty American cowboys” mowing each other down in the streets.  It confirms all their favorite prejudices about violent American gun owners.

This is a shocking, attention-grabbing headline.  This is precisely the type of rhetoric that Europeans and others love to read about those “bloodthirsty American cowboys” mowing each other down in the streets.  It confirms all their favorite prejudices about violent American gun owners.

But is Mark Shields’ claim really correct?

First off, are the U.S. War deaths figures accurate?  According to Shields, total US war deaths have been 1,171,177.  His source is the CRS (Congressional Research Service), which appears reputable.  Here is their 2010 study: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL32492.pdf.

Cherry Valley Massacre
November 11, 1778

Let’s start with America’s first war the American Revolution which ran from 1775 to 1783.  The CRS cites total American deaths as 4,435.  Does this include American Tories who fought on the British side?  I doubt it.  Does this figure include American civilians killed by native Americans that fought on behalf of the British?  Dubious.  This question is not simply theoretical for me as I had ancestors who were massacred by the Mohawk and Seneca tribesmen (with British leaders) in Cherry Valley, New York (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cherry_Valley_massacre).  Had my ancestor not been sent away to boarding school I would not, ahem, be writing this blog now–his entire family was killed!  Out of the 44 Americans killed at Cherry Valley on November 11, 1778 most were civilians.  Many Americans were killed while imprisoned on British POW ships.  The most recent scholarship on American deaths in the American Revolution by John Shy puts total American death in the Revolution at 25,000 (Source: John Shy, A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence (revised edition, University of Michigan Press, 1990).  The CRS study on which Shield’s claim is based is, therefore, off by a factor of nearly 6X in the case of the American Revolution!

What about America’s bloodiest conflict — the U.S. Civil war?  The CRS study only cites total Union deaths which it gives as 364,511.  In a footnote it mentions an estimate of total Confederate dead at 133,821 and cites an additional 28,000 to 31,000 of POW deaths.  Shields’ source extrapolates on the basis of the footnotes and gives a combined Civil war death total of 525,000.

In 2012 a new study by demographer David Hacker, however, has just raised the estimated total American civil war deaths to 750,000  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/03/science/civil-war-toll-up-by-20-percent-in-new-estimate.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.   This implies that, according to the latest scholarship, Shields’ source UNDERCOUNTS civil war deaths by 225,000!

If we take WIKI as our source for total U.S. War deaths (1,321,612 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_military_casualties_of_war) which was clearly more accurate on the American Revolution (thought probably still too low) we get and then update for the latest U.S. civil war deaths based on the Hacker study (add 125,000 deaths more than the WIKI Civil War figures) we get a total American war deaths figure of 1,446,612.

If look a the other side of the claim (1,384,171 killed by firearms from 1968 to the present) and accept that, provisionally, as true we can see that SHIELD’S CLAIM IS DEMONSTRABLY FALSE. 

You might still object that 1,384,171 killed by firearms since 1968 is still an awful lot and close to the total U.S. war dead.

Shield’s claim is also highly misleading.

Consider, for example, the phrase “killed by firearms“.  That means that ALL firearm-related deaths are counted, including suicides and accidents.  The annual murder rate by firearms (11,078 in 2010) has been going down steadily since 1981.  The annual suicide rate by firearms (19,392 in 2010) is, however, is nearly TWICE the murder rate  and is reaching new highs (Source: http://www.factcheck.org/2012/12/gun-rhetoric-vs-gun-facts/).  Consider this suicide rate against the fact that 1,660,290 new cases of cancer are estimated to be diagnosed in 2013 (American Cancer Society).  A majority of firearm deaths are NOT the result of violent crime at all.

It is true that many Americans own guns (88.8 guns per 100 people in 2007).  It is also true that the total population of Americans (316,364,000 per 2010 census) is vastly larger than it was at our nation’s founding (3,929,214 per 1790 census) and about 10X greater than at the start of the U.S. Civil War (31,443,321 per 1860 census).  A combination of more people, more guns and a greater acceptance of suicide as an option has, tragically, elevated U.S. suicide rates to record levels.

2 comments
Mike The Gun Guy
Mike The Gun Guy

Just want to point out that there are numerous studies which demonstrate that per capita gun suicide rates are higher in states with higher per capita gun ownership rates.  So on the one hand it's true that Shields is lumping together all gun deaths, but that doesn't make the US any less violent, does it?   

WesternFreePress
WesternFreePress moderator

@Mike The Gun Guy Describing the U.S. as "violent" is an extremely subjective and loose characterization. Britain has a lower murder rate, but a much higher violent crime rate. The U.S. is less violent than much of the world. Pull out the specific case of inner-city gang and drug crime, and the U.S. rate of violent crime and murder is actually very low.


Also, why would the suicide rate---whether the suicide rate be accomplished by guns or other means---contribute to a characterization of a nation as "violent"?