The Disturbing Trend Behind America’s Soaring Gun Deaths

More Americans were killed by guns in 2017 than ever before. The majority of those deaths were suicides.

Bullets sit on a table
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In 2015 and 2016, Americans faced an alarming statistic: After a couple of decades of overall decline, major data centers reported a sharp uptick of crime in big cities. Donald Trump spoke with dystopian foreboding in his 2016 inaugural address about the “American carnage” wreaking havoc in the country’s metropolises; earlier, at one campaign event, he asserted that “places like Afghanistan” were safer than American cities, where “you get shot walking down the street.”

In the years since, research has painted a much different picture—one that’s uplifting in some ways and dark in others. This week, a pair of crime and mortality reports circling in the news emphasizes that urban violence is decreasing but American cities still face “carnage” of an entirely different sort.

On December 7, the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence released an analysis of recent mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The results included a grim new record for gun violence: 39,773 Americans were killed by guns in 2017, a dramatic increase of more than 1,000 people from the year before. The responses to this report were fraught, with some people pointing to mass shootings as the major culprit, while others were quick to blame “inner-city” violence.

But the murder rates in America’s cities appear to be falling. On Tuesday, the Brennan Center for Justice published an analysis of annual FBI crime data that concluded the murder rate in America’s 30 largest cities dropped 3.1 percent in 2017, and projected a decrease of about 6 percent in 2018. The Brennan Center looks only at data from major cities, but murders in more sparsely populated areas tend to match national trends, says Inimai Chettiar, the director of the Brennan Center’s justice program`

A few cities did see small murder-rate increases, including Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Las Vegas, which owed a 23.5 percent jump to the Mandalay Bay shooting in October 2017. But this broad downturn is more in line with the long-term decline in murder and crime than with the numbers from 2015 and 2016, signaling that those two years could have been blips in the data. “It’s very, very difficult to tell what caused those increases in 2015 and 2016, and what caused them to go back down, or even whether that was a real uptick or whether it was just fluctuation,” says Chettiar.

So now it’s 2018, and though more people are being shot, it seems fewer are being murdered. What gives?

A couple of factors are at play. The big one is suicide. As my colleague Olga Khazan reported in November, the suicide rate in America has gone up 3.7 percent in the past year. A 2017 CDC report found that with little exception, larger percentages of suicides each year are committed with firearms, while methods such as poisoning have increasingly fallen to the wayside. And the agency’s new report makes clear that the majority of people who kill with a gun shoot themselves, not others: Suicides account for 60 percent of the country’s gun deaths.

Suicide can easily be overlooked as a contributor to “gun deaths.” Gun-control measures that make headlines, such as the Trump administration’s move on Tuesday to ban bump stocks, are frequently intended to act as barriers to people seeking to harm others. A study released last year that looked at statewide changes in gun-purchasing laws from 1990 to 2013 found that purchase delays—the period of time between purchasing and receiving a firearm—cut down on the number of firearm suicides by 2 to 5 percent, with no corresponding increase in suicides by other methods. But since the study’s release in March, no states have implemented any major corresponding purchase delays.

Broadly, firearm-related suicide attempts are more common in states with looser gun laws. A person who attempts suicide with a gun is more than twice as likely to end up dead as someone who chooses any other method.

According to Chettiar, a methodological shift among murders, when they do occur, could also be contributing to gun-death data. “When we analyzed the 2016 FBI data, we found that gun violence accounted for almost all of the increase in murders that year—93 percent,” she says. FBI reports show that 73 percent of all homicides were committed with a firearm in 2017. That’s 2 percent more than in 2015, and 4 percent more than in 2013. (Knives are regularly in second place, at about 10 percent.)

What all of this data shows is that while crime may be receding in America’s cities, a different wave of tragedy continues to roll in. Cities have alarmingly high levels of opioid use, a blight that reaches out into suburban and rural areas as well. In 2017, overdose deaths (intentional and accidental) went up by 7 percent, to a record of 70,000—a number higher than deaths from HIV, car crashes, or gun violence at their peaks, as The New York Times points out. Addiction and suicide run hand in hand: Opioid-use disorder is associated with a 40 to 60 percent higher risk of suicidal thoughts. Misusers are 13 times as likely to die of suicide, including by intentional overdose, as nonusers.

Still, opioid-related suicides are only the latest addition to a stunning trend: Regardless of the method or cause, suicide has risen by nearly 30 percent in the United States since 1999. As Americans appear to have decreasingly taken one another’s lives, they’ve increasingly taken their own. There’s a tough road ahead to significant fixes, but without them, America’s death tolls will likely continue to break records.