Firearm Fatalities – What Are the Issues?

By Mark A. Kelley, MD |6/22/17

The recent shooting at a Congressional baseball practice is another example of firearm violence. When such crimes grab headlines, it is helpful to review the national statistics concerning guns and safety.

According the Centers for Disease Control, 33,000 Americans die from gun injuries annually. About 65% of these deaths are from suicides. Easy access to firearms, especially in the home, is associated with higher rates of suicide.

Because self-inflicted gun injuries are highly lethal, most suicide attempts by this method are successful. However, patients with unsuccessful suicide attempts rarely succumb to suicide later. Therefore, keeping these patients away from guns is life-saving.

The second major cause of firearm death is homicides (33%). Nearly all of these deaths are in the home or among people who know one another. Random shooting fatalities are rare.

The final cause of firearm deaths is accidental shootings, usually in the home, and often involving children. These deaths account for 2% of firearm fatalities.

Mass shootings, such as at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, are heart-breaking tragedies. From 2007-2016, the national fatalities per year from mass shootings ranged from eight to 67 victims. Over that decade, the nation averaged 38 deaths per year, or 0.3% of the total gun-related homicides.

Firearm mortality statistics can be summarized as follows:

• The majority of Americans who die from gunshot wounds are the victims of suicide.

• Most other fatalities are due to domestic violence or among people who know one another.

• Mass shootings, while dramatic, are a very small part of this problem.

In all these scenarios, easy access to firearms increases the likelihood of a fatal outcome.

Mass shootings are a relatively new phenomenon in our country. Many hypotheses have been raised to explain this change. Among them are the expansion of social and news media, the availability of automatic weapons, and weak gun control laws.

These who commit these crimes share some common characteristics. In many cases, they do not know their victims. Most of the perpetrators act alone, have no plans for escape, and die violently, often by their own hand. Many obtain firearms legally.

Why motivates such people? Psychologists have suggested that this violence stems from rage at society because of some grievance. The result of this anger is mass casualties and usually the shooter’s own death by gunfire, often self-inflicted.

This raises several issues. Are mass shootings a form of public suicide? If so, will they occur more often? While no one has the answers, one fact is clear. The behavior behind these shootings is highly abnormal and suggests serious mental health problems as the root cause of the violence.

Our society has two problems that are closely linked—lethal weapons and mental health. Those with mental health issues and violent intent are more likely to harm themselves or others if they have access to guns. However, gun control is only a partial solution.

The major challenge is early recognition and treatment of mental illness. We need to help mentally ill patients well before their depression or rage reaches the breaking point.

Our elected officials are now considering cuts to healthcare benefits, particularly in mental health. Such cuts would be a major public policy mistake. In this era of gun violence, public safety requires that we make mental health one of our top priorities.

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