Are guns “more likely to kill you than a car is”? No

Jan 31, 2015 | Featured

The Economist magazine had the headline in mid January: “A gun is now more likely to kill you than a car is.”  It is a claim that has been repeated over and over again (see ForbesThe Atlantic, Slate (question 9)Vox (also at MSN News), RTcollege newspapers across the countryMother Jones, Raw Story, Oregonlive.comTucson Sentinel, and related pieces in the Washington Post). From The Economist article:

ACCORDING to data gathered by the Centres for Disease Control (CDC), deaths caused by cars in America are in long-term decline. Improved technology, tougher laws and less driving by young people have all led to safer streets and highways. Deaths by guns, though—the great majority suicides, accidents or domestic violence—have been trending slightly upwards. This year, if the trend continues, they will overtake deaths on the roads. . . .

Comparing the two national icons, cars and guns, yields “a statistic that really resonates with people”, says Chelsea Parsons, co-author of the report for the Centre for American Progress. Resonance is certainly needed. There are about 320m people in the United States, and nearly as many civilian firearms. And although the actual rate of gun ownership is declining, enthusiasts are keeping up the number in circulation. Black Friday on November 28th kicked off such a shopping spree that the FBI had to carry out 175,000 instant background checks (three checks a second), a record for that day, just for sales covered by the extended Brady Act of 1998, the only serious bit of gun-curbing legislation passed in recent history.

Many sales escape that oversight, however. Everytown for Gun Safety, a movement backed by Mike Bloomberg, a former mayor of New York, has investigated loopholes in online gun sales and found that one in 30 users of Armslist classifieds has a criminal record that forbids them to own firearms. Private reselling of guns draws no attention, unless it crosses state lines. . . .

Here is the letter that we submitted:

Dear Letters Editor:

Your “Bangers v bullets” (Jan 10th) misleadingly claims that car deaths have fallen more than guns deaths because cars face more safety regulations.

Compare similar categories.  While 99.4% of car deaths arise from accidents in 2013, that percentage is only 1.5% for guns.  64% of gun fatalities are suicides.  If increased safety regulations are the solution, why is it that between 2000 and 2012 accidental deaths from cars fell by 18% and those from guns by 35%?

Gun deaths are rising because there has been a 28% increase in firearm suicides.  But non-firearm suicides increased even faster (56%) –something is causing suicides generally to rise.

Despite your claim, domestic violence simply doesn’t account for a large share of gun deaths — only 3% of gun deaths in 2012 involved murders of immediate or extended family members.

The regulations you mention do real harm.  About 99 percent of background check denials under the Brady Act are false positives, not criminals.  Some denials mean people can’t defend themselves.

As for gun deaths for 15-24 year olds, most involve gang fights.  One solution: Try legalizing drugs.


The claim that total automobile deaths have fallen relative to firearm deaths can be seen in this figure, though it is also clear that the drop occurred during the recession of 2008 and 2009 (part of that drop is due in part to some reduction in driving).

Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at Saturday, January 31, 7.38 PM 1

The types of deaths by cause show that auto accidents are overwhelmingly accidental deaths and those by firearms are suicides.

Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at Saturday, January 31, 7.40 PM 2

There are two problems with the claim that regulations are responsible for the drop in accidental motor vehicle deaths .  First, virtually the entire drop occurred in two years during the recession (2008 and 2009) and it is hard to think of any new regulations that would produce such a sudden and large drop (most regulations would have a gradual impact over time has new cars with those features made up a greater and greater share of the cars on the road).  Most likely the drop occurred because of changing driving habits (such as some reduction in how much people drove).  It is because of this point that we are unlikely to see firearm deaths exceed motor vehicle deaths in 2015.

The long sustained high gasoline prices since the beginning of the Obama administration also had an impact.  From the beginning of 2011 until the end of November 2014, the price of gasoline never fell before $3.00 a gallon.  One has to go back to the beginning of the Obama administration to find gas prices as low as they have now gone.  The new lower prices of gas at about $2 will probably also increase driving distances, particularly if the prices stay low for a while.

Second, the drop in accidental firearm deaths fell almost twice as much as the drop in accidental motor vehicle deaths, but gun control advocates are claiming that there were no new firearm regulations.

Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at Saturday, January 31, 7.40 PM 1

The increase in firearm deaths is due to the increase in firearm suicides (accidents fell, homicides were essentially flat, and suicides increased by 28%), but this doesn’t seem like a problem with firearms per se as the increase in non-firearm suicides was twice as large as the increase in firearm suicides.  Automobile suicides were small to begin with, but they soared by 47% (rising from 130 to 191).

Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at Saturday, January 31, 7.54 PM

As to the claim that background checks are the great regulation that will save lives, the discussion ignores all the research that fails to find that these regulations reduce crime rates.  In addition, the discussion ignores who the background checks actually do stop — overwhelmingly law-abiding citizens.

If we had space in the letter, there were other errors in their article that could have been included.  For example, the article claims that “the actual rate of gun ownership is declining” is presumably based on one survey — the General Social Science survey.  The GSS survey is the outlier in terms of gun ownership rates.



  1. Jay

    I scrolled straight down to find a link to your sources, you know, where you got your facts from, and surprise! There are no sources listed. You just make this stuff up cause you’re scared of the boogie man. Why we’re letting a bunch of paranoid freaks with no facts run this country is a mystery.

    • johnrlott

      Well, Jay, the CDC was listed as a the source, but I had also the data in the links earlier on in the piece, not at the end.

      • Love4mine

        Seems you spoke a little too soon in 2015. An American is nearly just as likely to die by a gun than a car with the total 2015 tally. Rather harrowing news. Per CDC, Suicide counts when it comes to Americans safety. Most of us are either close to a person that’s committed suicide or knows someone that is. This concerns the safety of all of our loved ones not just you or me as individuals. Likewise you cannot subtract suicides from the gun safety argument. Nor accidents that happen everyday where someones child shoots themself or someone elses, or when someone is shot and/ or killed because a neighbor is idiotically cleaning their loaded gun with the safety off, lets off a shot, and a bullet enters the adjacent homes walls and strikes an inhabitant.

        • Lucian

          you do realize that statistic doesn’t differentiate between gun deaths that prevent crime, accidents and criminal gun deaths right?

        • Patrick

          Accidental deaths WERE included in the statistics, mind you…or as you refer to it “idiotically cleaning their loaded gun with the safety off”…by the way, where are YOUR statistics on that? I’d be curious to know how many of those accidental deaths were in fact due to that. Furthermore, yes, suicides are indeed a far-reaching safety issue, but to implicate guns or gun availability as a cause of them is just as ridiculous as implicating guns as a cause of crime. Anyone with a shred of sense knows that guns are the method, not the motivation, for such tragic problems with our society, so why not confront the underlying reasons why people commit crimes, or why people make the decision to end their life (which is probably done more by hanging or OD than by guns)? Oh yeah, because it’s just easier to blame an inanimate object. Good luck bettering society with that logic.

  2. william clubb

    Why are auto deaths lumped into one category
    “Accidental “?
    How many are caused by drivers choosing to ignore the laws?
    I would be interested to see the numbers comparing the deaths by illegal use of both, cars and guns.

    • wolfkin

      what laws? What laws are people intentionally ignoring that are causing death on any relative scale? Seatbelts? Right of way? Speeding?

      • Stephen

        DWI is against the law

  3. Valris

    The state of WY has the highest gun ownership in the US and is #14-16 in gun CRIMES. FBI census.

  4. Billy

    Where is anyone getting there info from???
    According to “”, there were 13,472 total gun related deaths in 2015, and according to the National Safety Console, there were approximately 38,300 automotive related deaths in 2015. I’m no mathematician, but that looks to me like you are almost 3 times more likely to die in a car then you are by a gun.
    I say we need to ban cars! They kill people!!!
    Especially trucks! Just look at that truck in Nice, France that killed 80 people! What a crazy killer truck that was!!!! How are they legal?!?!?!

    • Ban Assault Trucks

      That was an “Assault Truck” with a full automatic gas pedal.


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