First, note that the numbers add up. Should they be added together or if it is apples and oranges, that is another question.
The figure for school-aged children comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has an interactive online database that provides information on fatal and non-fatal injuries and violent deaths. The White House told us it defines “school-aged children” as ages 5-18 and “two decades” as 2001-2020. In these parameters, looking for gun death, you get 42,507 deaths.
For military deaths for the same period, we turned to the Defense Casualty Analysis System. This database gives 25,527 military deaths on active duty between 2001 and 2020.
Finally, the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) lists 3,583 deaths of active duty officers in 2001-2020.
Between the army and the police, it’s a total of 29,110.
And 42,507 is greater than 29,110, so end of story? Not enough.
First, the number of firearm deaths among school-aged children drops significantly when 18-year-olds are excluded. There are, of course, many students who turn 18 in their final year. But they are also adults. It is therefore a question of deciding whether to include them. Removing 18-year-olds would drop the number of gun deaths to 28,559 – just slightly below the total for the army and police.
In fact, 17 and 18 year olds account for nearly 56% of firearm deaths among school-aged children. The numbers also drop significantly – 60% – if suicides are removed. Debate continues among criminologists and public health specialists over whether suicides should be counted as part of gun violence. So that’s another judgment.
Military death figures show that about 22% of deaths are due to suicide.
Also, not all deaths in the military are due to firearms. Accidental deaths exceeded hostile action deaths for all but five of those 20 years. In fact, over the past two decades, 8,740 service members, or 34%, have been killed in accidents, compared to 5,445 (21%) in hostile actions. It is not known how many deaths from hostile actions have involved firearms.
As far as law enforcement is concerned, many of these deaths were not caused by firearms. In 2020, for example, 145 were from covid, 48 were from firearms, 44 were from traffic incidents – and 172 were from other causes, the NLEOMF said. Thus, only 12% died by firearm.
Finally, raw death counts usually don’t tell you much. What may be more informative is the death rate – the number of people who died per 100,000 people in that category. It gives you the risk of dying.
For the 58 million school-age children, this number is 3.67 (or 2.66 if the age of 18 is excluded). But for the 1.5 million soldiers, it’s about 69; for the 670,000 in law enforcement, it’s 56. So the average death rate for the military and police is about 15 times higher than the gun death rate for children in school age.
Of course, children, unlike police and soldiers, did not sign up to expose themselves to the possibility of being shot. This must therefore also be taken into account.
We checked with some leading experts and asked if Biden’s comparison was kosher. The consensus was that Biden’s math was acceptable for the rhetorical point he was making.
“Both are kosher — but President Biden certainly used the raw numbers to make his point,” said Anne Case, health economics expert and professor emeritus at Princeton University. “The risk of dying from a gun (which is the fatality rate) is obviously much higher for people serving in the military and police – but if anyone wanted to take stock of the number of grieving families , the raw count does.”
“It’s (of course) less risky to be a kid than a cop, but the fact remains that more kids have died from guns than soldiers and police,” Gary King, professor at Harvard University and director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences, said in an email. “You would certainly prefer your children to grow up in a country where there is less risk for them than the police and the army, but it is also a perfectly reasonable (alternative) argument to say that you do not want that so many children are dying from guns, and ‘that many’ is, by comparison with the police and the military, ‘a lot’.”
“Epidemiologists generally have a strong preference for comparing rates over counts when the populations being compared are very different in size,” said Kathryn H. Jacobsen, professor of health studies at the University of Richmond. “This does not mean that a comparison of counts is invalid. The numbers are real and true. They are simply not ideal for scientific comparisons.
She noted that a calculation of the ‘burden of disease’, derived from what is called a ‘proportional death rate’, could show that gun-related deaths among children and adolescents are even worse. than among the military, since only about a fifth of military deaths were due to hostile actions.
“It’s not invalid to use counts in this way – it’s not a lie – but there are better ways to explain the simile when writers or speakers have sentences and paragraphs to work with. rather than short sound bites,” Jacobsen said.
We are often suspicious when two very different categories are compared – in this case, the large numbers of children in school versus much smaller sets of active duty military and law enforcement. We are also suspicious when a single change in the data set – from 18 to 17 – reduces the number enough that the statistic is no longer correct. We also don’t know for sure how many military personnel died from gunfire, which allows for a more direct comparison. Clearly, most law enforcement deaths were not due to firearms.
Biden’s raw numbers add up, but they’re not necessarily comparable — and the risk of dying in the military and law enforcement remains far higher than in a child’s classroom.
Biden offered a striking statistic that we will no doubt hear again and again in the months to come. We can’t give his stat a Geppetto tick mark, and it’s about to deserve Pinocchios. We’ll leave that without a note.
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