More than 33,000 people are shot and killed in the U.S. each year. What each of these deaths has in common is the use of a gun, yet this is not one problem suffered 33,000 times. The victims of fatal shootings are diverse, as are the reasons for their deaths, but the national conversation doesn’t allow for much complexity. And that means that for all the grief and haranguing and calls to action, we’re likely missing opportunities to bring that number down.
Take one example: The typical shooting victim is an older man, most likely white, who ends his own life with a gun. The thing that will save that man’s life may not be the same thing that saves the life of a trans immigrant abused by her partner, may not be the same thing that saves the life of a child who arrives at school unprepared to face a man with a rifle, may not be the same thing that saves the life of a service member with depression. And something else entirely may be needed to save the lives of young black men, who are most at risk of dying from gunfire.
Gun death in America requires not one but many solutions. Last year, a team of reporters and editors at FiveThirtyEight began searching for some of them. Each of the stories here takes a group of victims as its starting point and examines what it would take to save their lives.
Our interactive visualization of the data on gun deaths from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts victims front and center to help you learn more about who they are and how they die. Once you start to explore it, it may strike you how little the conversation about guns and gun death reflects who suffers from it most.
We don’t pretend this approach is original — public health researchers have for years taken a similar tack. And excellent reporting and research on this subject regularly appears in outlets around the country. (We’ve put together a list of recommended reading should you wish to explore this topic further.) But this kind of triage is critical: Once we understand the scope and urgency of these problems, we have a better chance of figuring out what works best to address them.
We can say that, by and large, few gun deaths are truly accidents. Someone nearly always pulls the trigger, and there are fewer accidents today than there were 30 years ago.
Limiting access to guns is not always possible, nor necessarily desirable. Suicide prevention efforts in the Mountain West and in the military must figure out how to protect two high-risk groups for whom guns are a part of life as well as death. And police officers, who find themselves on both sides of the trigger, are turning to body cameras to further protect the public and themselves.
This is not to suggest that tighter gun control would have no effect on gun deaths. Research shows that background checks do lower homicide counts, but they would have less effect on suicide — which accounts for nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths. And it’s unclear what would work best to prevent gun terrorism or mass shootings, two related categories of gun death that are relatively small but receive outsize attention.
In a country with more than 300 million firearms in circulation, gun control measures can only go so far. Instead of targeting guns, the city of New Orleans is looking to curb violence with programs targeting the young men who are most likely to be both its perpetrators and its victims.
Many people say the gun control laws we already have are sufficient but that what’s lacking is proper enforcement. But that’s easier said than done, as officials in Portland, who have poured resources into recovering guns from domestic abusers, have found. And stepped-up enforcement doesn’t always bring concomitant results; Project Exile, a program promoting tough sentences for gun offenders in cities around the country, has seen little proven success.
We started this reporting with a simple question: What would it take to bring down the number of gun deaths in America? Anti-gun advocates insist tighter restrictions are the only way. Pro-gun advocates say the weapon is less important than who wields it. More than 33,000 lives are lost in the middle. Now that we have some perspective — on the scale of the problem and who is hurt most — we’re closer to understanding where we can have the greatest impact.