Early on in my exposure to guns and gun culture I had a revelation: Guns are normal, and normal people use guns.
That’s no revelation to most gun owners, but it is a different starting point than many people take. It also raises the question, just how normal are guns and gun owners anyway?
In this post, which supplements my recent “Light Over Heat with Professor David Yamane” video (embedded below), I want to answer the question using some simple math. Read on for my calculations.
For the sake of simplicity, I want to present the normality vs. deviance of guns and gun owners as a matter of denominators and numerators. All of the figures below come with many caveats, of course.
To align with available data for the numerators below, I use data for 2019 here*:
400,000,000 privately owned firearms in the United States (Source: Small Arms Survey)
This is prima facie evidence of the normality of guns in the US, in the sense of being something commonly owned by a lot of people.
The normality of gun use can be seen in how INfrequent misuse of guns is relative to their commonality. Where possible, I will use data from sources that are unlikely to underestimate the misuse, like the Here are some important numerators we can use on negative outcomes involving guns (data from 2019 unless otherwise indicated, excluding legal interventions and justifiable defensive gun use):
Accidental deaths: 611 (Source: Gun Violence Archive)
Non-fatal intentional injuries: 2,501 (Source: JAMA Internal Medicine, Years: average of 2009-2017)
Criminal homicides: 14,861 (Source: UC Davis Health)
Suicides: 23,941 (Source: UC Davis Health)
Non-fatal criminal injuries: 34,687 (Source: JAMA Internal Medicine, Years: average of 2009-2017)
Non-fatal unintentional injuries: 43,729 (Source: JAMA Internal Medicine, Years: average of 2009-2017)
Non-fatal violent victimization***: 481,950 (Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics)
TOTAL non-fatal injuries: 84,213 (Source: JAMA Internal Medicine, Years: average of 2009-2017)
TOTAL fatalities (accidental, criminal, suicide): 39,413
TOTAL fatal + non-fatal injuries: 123,626
TOTAL fatalities + non-fatal injuries and victimization: 605,576
Numerators / Denominators
In any given year, the vast majority of America’s tens of millions of gun owners will not have any negative outcomes associated with their hundreds of millions of guns.
Anyone who wants to do the division on all of the above negative outcomes can. For my purposes here, I will just select some of the combined categories at the end for summary purposes.
39,413 / 400,000,000 = 0.000098 fatalities per firearm
39,413 / 76,560,000 = 0.00052 fatalities per gun owner
39,413 / 51,440,000 = 0.00077 fatalities per gun owning household
A mere 0.0098% of guns, 0.052% of gun-owners, and 0.077% of gun owning households are involved in fatalities involving firearms annually.
Looked at the other way around, 99.999% of guns, 99.95% of gun owners, and 99.92% of gun owning households are NOT involved in any fatalities involving firearms annually.
TOTAL FATAL AND NON-FATAL INJURIES
123,626 / 400,000,000 = 0.000309 fatal & non-fatal injuries per firearm
123,626 / 76,560,000 = 0.0016 fatal & non-fatal injuries per gun owner
123,626 / 51,440,000 = 0.0024 fatal & non-fatal injuries per gun owning household
A mere 0.0309% of guns, 0.16% of gun-owners, and 0.24% of gun owning households are involved in fatal or non-fatal injuries involving firearms annually.
Looked at the other way around, 99.97% of guns, 99.84% of gun owners, and 99.76% of gun owning households are NOT involved in any fatal or non-fatal injuries involving firearms annually.
TOTAL FATALITIES AND NON-FATAL INJURIES AND VICTIMIZATION
605,576 / 400,000,000 = 0.0015 fatalities, injuries, & victimization per firearm
605,576 / 76,560,000 = 0.0079 fatalities, injuries, & victimization per gun owner
605,576 / 51,440,000 = 0.012 fatalities, injuries, & victimization per gun owning household
A mere 0.15% of guns, 0.79% of gun-owners, and 1.2% of gun owning households are involved in fatal or non-fatal injuries or victimization involving firearms annually.
Looked at the other way around, 99.85% of guns, 99.21% of gun owners, and 98.82% of gun owning households are NOT involved in fatal or non-fatal injuries or victimization involving firearms annually.
Without trivializing the direct and indirect effects of serious mistakes, negative outcomes, or criminal victimization with firearms, these data underwrite my idea that guns are normal and normal people use guns.
The overwhelming majority of guns, gun owners, and gun owning households are not involved in any of the deviant behaviors involving firearms analyzed above.
The perspective that underwrites my work inverts the typical questions social scientists ask about guns: As plentiful as gun owners and as dangerous as guns are, why are there so FEW negative outcomes with guns in general?
*Although some negative outcomes with guns increased from 2019 to 2021, the change in the numerators are offset in part by the change in the denominators. Additionally, the denominators here are so large that change in the numerators beyond change in the denominators do not substantially change my argument here.
**No one knows what proportion of the U.S. population actually owns guns. As with religion, the federal government does not keep official records or collect statistics on gun ownership. So, we depend on surveys conducted by organizations like Gallup, the Pew Research Center, National Opinion Research Center, and others. These surveys not only produce different estimates, but they also underestimate gun ownership rates. My educated guess is that 33-37% of adults personally own guns and 44-50% of households have guns in them.
***Assault, robbery, or rape was threatened, attempted, or completed in which the offender possessed, showed, or used a firearm.
****This uses the faulty assumption that a different person committed every homicide using a different gun, of course.