Light Over Heat #1: Just How Normal Are Guns and Gun Owners, Anyway?

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.

Denominators

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)

76,560,000 US adults personally own a gun** (30% of 255.2 million adults in the US) (Sources: Pew Research Center and US Census Bureau)

51,440,000 US households have a gun** (40% of 128.6 million households in the US) (Sources: Pew Research Center and US Census Bureau)

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.

Numerators

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.

Total Fatalities****

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.

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Conclusion

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?

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Notes/Caveats

*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.

11 comments

  1. 1. What was the biggest change in 2019-2021? The pandemic, not the number of or distribution of guns. One has to look at what sociological and pathological things caused violence to increase. It wasn’t about the guns except insofar as they were a tool used during a major social disruption.

    2. My wife would probably scratch her head in astonishment if someone referred to me as “normal”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “****This uses the faulty assumption that a different person committed every homicide using a different gun, of course.”

    This shouldn’t be understated. We have other criminological and medical data showing that persons who both commit violent crimes with firearms and have been victimized by a criminal’s firearm before are more likely to be repeat victims and offenders, often shifting roles. The concentration of violent criminal actors acting upon each other makes the ratio of “incidents per lawful possessors” even smaller.

    Much like county and city level data shows how concentrated violent crime is in locale versus overbroad state-level numbers, cross-referencing criminal backgrounds with “criminal harms” reveals even less relevance to awful ownership and owners.

    Like

  3. I would be curious how to know just how the small arms survey was conducted and 3 other things: 1. how many people refused to answer the survey. I.e., Have created surveys I have found that many will not answer any questions over the phone. 2. From personal knowledge and friends, many people will “lie” about owning a gun or there being a gun in the household. To use a descriptor: people of the gun do not necessarily want tpo let anyone know outside their friends that they have a gun.
    3. How did they estimate illegal gun counts?

    Like

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