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Marty: When statistics are meaningless

Pen and paper

The official statistics for injury deaths in the U.S. have a little something for all sides of the firearms debate, but they may be meaningless in the end. Injuries are reported by mechanism – such as drowning, falls or firearms, and by intent such as unintentional, suicide, homicide, and legal intervention/war. The source is the Final 2009 National Vital Statistics Report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. I have rounded the death rates per 100,000 population.

There were 177,118 injury deaths from all causes in the U.S. in 2009. The death rate from all injuries was 58 per 100,000. Of the total, 38 per 100,000 were unintentional, 12 were suicides, six were homicides, and two per 100,000 were undetermined. Therefore, people are much more likely to die in an accident or by suicide than by homicide, which were 10% of the injury deaths. Put another way, Americans are twice as likely to commit suicide as they are to be murdered and more than five times as likely to die accidentally. Obviously, this is without regard to age.

Firearms and homicides are closely related. Firearms were used in 11,493, 68% of the nation’s 16,788 homicides, and in about half, 51% of the 36,909 suicides. The most prevalent mechanism of injury death overall was not firearms, but poisoning – 41,492 deaths, 23%. Second place was transportation, 38,438, 22%. Firearms were the third highest mechanism, 31,347, 18% of all injury deaths when you include firearm related suicides and accidents. Poisoning and transport deaths were overwhelmingly unintentional while most firearm deaths, 18,735, or 60%, were suicides.

Reducing firearms would certainly reduce the homicide rate and probably reduce the suicide rate, but that last part is less sure. According to the World Health Organization, the 2005 suicide rate in the U.S. was 11.0, while Canada and Germany, with their strict gun control laws, were 11.3 and 12.4, respectively. It appears to me that people intent on committing suicide find a way; 6,398 of U.S. suicides chose poison and 9,000 chose suffocation.

Just for information, falls accounted for 25,562 injury deaths, drowning 4,211, and fire/flame claimed 3,125.

It is not possible to get an accurate count of the number of firearms in the hands of the American public. Some of the best estimates are from the Congressional Research Service, the Census, and the Government Accountability Office. They estimate there are between 310 million to 314 million firearms in public possession or available to the public, 110 million to 118 million of which are handguns.

Even if all the firearm homicides were committed with handguns and there were no multiple homicides, the rate of homicides per handgun would be less than one-hundredth of 1 percent or approximately 1 per 10,000. That’s not high if the victim is someone you don’t know or care about like an anonymous drug-dealing gangbanger in the big city, but it is an awful big number if it’s someone you know or love or a family in Newtown, Conn.

That’s the crux of the argument; this is a visceral topic. It’s all personal, including the personal philosophy of freedom versus safety, government versus personal responsibility, and the lawless versus the law-abiding. The statistics are meaningless to most on both sides of the argument – it’s just another of our ‘no compromise’ issues. You can be assured that any agreement reached is merely a temporary stopping place in a battle that is destined to go on for a very long time.

Marty Richman is a Hollister resident.