John Lott’s newest piece at Investor’s Business Daily is available here:
Which are you more likely to be killed by: a car or a gun? We all know how many people die on the roads each year, so it would be mindblowing if there were actually more gun deaths than motor vehicle deaths.
Well, that’s exactly what the Associated Press is claiming happened in Tennessee in 2014. Media outlets from the San Francisco Chronicle to the Washington Times all ran stories on this. Others are even reporting that gun deaths exceeded traffic deaths in a total of 20 states.
Their source? Primarily a report by the Violence Policy Center (VPC). In the case of Tennessee, 1,020 people supposedly died from gun-related deaths in 2014, including homicides, suicides and accidental shootings. The VPC claimed 1,000 people died from vehicle deaths — crashes and pedestrians struck by vehicles.
Over and over again, the VPC has been caught misreporting numbers. It is surprising that anyone, let alone the Associated Press, still takes it seriously.
The firearm death count comes from Centers for Disease Control reports. The VPC messed up on its arithmetic. There were actually 978 firearm deaths (277 homicides, 596 suicides, and 105 unintentional shootings). Thus, Tennessee had fewer firearm deaths than motor vehicle deaths.
The VPC somehow managed to incorrectly add up the firearm deaths for 20 of the 21 states where firearm deaths supposedly exceeded motor vehicle deaths! The mistakes always made firearm deaths appear much larger than they actually were.
Even then, the Violence Policy Center made questionable decisions on what to include in their numbers. The firearm homicide numbers include justifiable homicides. Should it really count when an officer has to kill in the line of duty? Or when a private citizen defends his own life or the lives of others?
Making this one change brings the tally down from 21 states to 14 states with more firearm deaths than traffic deaths.
Even AP had a hand in doctoring the data. Instead of using the Centers for Disease Control data on motor vehicle deaths, it opted for state-level data that use different and inconsistent definitions. This choice put motor vehicle deaths at 906, making it look lower relative to firearm deaths.
But there’s a more basic problem when comparing firearm and motor vehicle deaths. The causes of death are very different. In 2013, 99.4% of car deaths were accidental in nature. In sharp contrast, only 1.8% of gun deaths were accidental. A staggering 65% of gun fatalities are suicides.
There have been a lot of efforts to reduce accidental motor vehicle deaths. But despite increasingly stringent safety regulations on drivers, cars and roads, accidental motor vehicle deaths have fallen more slowly than have accidental firearm deaths (18% to 24%).
Even if the sudden drop in motor vehicle deaths from 2007 to 2009 was due to regulations, not the recession, that doesn’t imply that gun-control regulations would have the same result.
The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence’s was taking a simplistic view when it told AP: “Starting in the 1960s, the United States began to take a look at carnage that we were seeing on our roads and made a serious effort to strictly regulate drivers, cars and roads. We’ve done none of this for guns.”
Although murders and accidental gun deaths have fallen, firearm suicides have been on the rise. As a result, total gun deaths have risen slightly since 2000. But non-firearm suicides have increased more than twice as quickly (68%). Something is causing suicides in general to rise.
Gun locks might seem an obvious way of stopping accidental gun deaths involving children, but we are dealing with comparably small numbers here (50 children under 15 died from accidental gun shots in 2014). In most of these cases, the child was accidentally shot by an adult male.
Locks aren’t going to stop adults from firing their own guns. And when their homes get broken into, those adults are going to wish their guns were readily accessible and not locked up.
Indeed, peer-reviewed academic studies find that mandating gunlocks causes an increase in death.
Of course, gun regulations could still be worthwhile if they actually reduced violent crime. But the current system is a mess.
In the vast majority of cases, law-abiding citizens are denied gun purchases because their names happen to be similar to those of criminals. This is only one reason why academic studies consistently find that background checks have failed to reduce violent crime.
There is no easy answer. Stopping drug gangs from getting guns is about as easy as stopping them from getting drugs.
So will gun control advocates ever explain why accidental gun deaths have fallen more than accidental motor vehicle deaths? Or why non-firearm suicides rose twice as fast as firearm suicides? They are probably no more likely to do that than explain why they keep having such difficulties correctly reporting numbers.
Lott is president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author of “More Guns, Less Crime” (University of Chicago Press, 2010.)