How many gun deaths are due to mass shootings? Homicides? Suicides?

The Numbers

As a society, we need to do our best to work with reliable statistics in order to make sound policies and laws regarding gun deaths. If we don’t do so, we’ll waste a lot of effort and lives in addition to causing further political polarization and division in our country.

A good summary of statistics and links to primary sources for firearm-related suicides, homicides and mass shootings is the Wikipedia article on Gun Violence in the United States.

Here’s a breakdown of firearm deaths in the United States in 2013. This data was compiled by the CDC.

Deaths by Firearm
 Deaths% of Total
Firearms Total33,636100%
     Suicide21,17563.0%
     Homicide11,20833.3%
     Unintentional5051.5%
     Legal Intervention *4671.4%
     Undetermined2810.8%
     * sustained as a result of an encounter with any law enforcement official
     From: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 
        National Vital Statistics Report, 2013 data, Table 18, page 84

Conclusion: To have the biggest impact on firearm deaths, focus primarily on suicides.

Suicides

“Perhaps the biggest fallacy is that suicides are typically long-planned deeds. While this can be true—people who attempt suicide often face a cascade of problems—empirical evidence suggests that they act in a moment of brief but heightened vulnerability.”

“The current political debate swirls around universal background checks and assault weapons bans and magazine limits–-policies unlikely to have a measurable impact on suicide.”

From: Guns & Suicide, Harvard School of Public Health

“Efforts to ban so-called assault weapons or to reduce the number of bullets that could be loaded into a gun at once would probably not make suicide any less likely. But other measures meant to prevent gun homicides might have an effect on gun suicides, particularly those designed to identify and help people with mental health needs.”

From: Gun Deaths are Mostly Suicides, The New York Times, Oct. 8, 2015

Suicides based on gun ownership

     From: "Guns and Suicide in the United States", New England Journal of 
        Medicine, Miller & Hemenway, 4 Sept 2008

Statistics on type of firearm (handgun, rifle, shotgun) used to commit suicide are difficult to find. However, it is probably safe to assume that nearly all suicides by firearm are done with a handgun (because the barrel length would make it difficult to use a rifle or shotgun).

Conclusion:  Gun ownership does have a strong impact on suicide rates as the study above and others have shown. However, elimination of semi-automatics or limits on magazine sizes and firing rates will not likely have an impact on suicides.

Homicides

Homicides by firearm type, 2016, FBI
Total firearm homicidesHandgunsRiflesShotgunsFirearm type unknown
11,0047,1053742623,263
     From:  Crime in the United States, 2016, FBI

If we assume the “Firearm type unknown” data is distributed to Handguns, Rifles and Shotguns in the same proportion as those above, you get the following estimated numbers:

Homicides by firearm type, 2016, FBI (estimated)
Total firearm homicidesHandgunsRiflesShotguns
11,00410,100532372

The number of murders by “Knives or cutting instruments” in that year was 1,604, which was about double rifles (including semi-automatics) and shotguns combined.

Conclusion:  Focus on handgun ownership

Mass Shootings

The homicide numbers described above include mass shootings, which are commonly defined as events with four or more deaths. Even though these events get high levels of media (and public) attention, they should not be the primary focus of efforts to reduce gun deaths. If the public focuses too heavily on these shootings, legislation may be enacted that will have very little impact on total gun deaths, and we, as a society, may have delayed or lost an opportunity to make changes that may make a measurable difference.

“More than 900 people died in mass shootings during the past seven years [2006-2012], and a majority of them were killed by people they knew, according to a USA TODAY analysis of gun-related slayings.

The 934 deaths account for less than 1% of all gun-related homicides, and nearly half involve a suspect slaying his or her family members, the detailed examination shows.”

From:  Mass shootings toll exceeds 900 in past seven years, USA Today

Conclusion

If we want to reduce firearm-related deaths in the U.S., we should focus on suicides and handguns, not semi-automatic rifles, firing rates or magazine size. Political efforts, public mindshare and public policy should be tailored primarily toward those two factors. Doing so will likely also have the ancillary positive impact of reducing the frequency of mass shootings and homicides.