Gun violence usually doesn’t look like Uvalde

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Last week, an 18-year-old armed with a semi-automatic rifle walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and killed 21 people, including 19 children, before being shot dead by police.

It was a shocking example of how readily available weapons can inflict a high number of kills in a short time. It was also an outlier in the huge annual toll on gun violence in the United States.

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To be very clear: what happened in Uvalde was horrific and requires efforts to prevent similar attacks. But, thanks in part to the enormous attention these attacks are receiving, it also risks portraying gun deaths in the United States as anything other than an overwhelming, macabre norm that typically escapes the public eye.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that in 2019 and 2020, about 3,500 people on average per month died from gun violence. The toll was higher in 2020, the first year of the coronavirus pandemic. That year was the deadliest year for gun violence on record.

While the increase in 2020 was a function of an increase in homicides and accidental shootings, it was still true that around half of recorded deaths were suicides. In 2019, approximately 61% of firearm-related deaths were suicides. In 2020, about 54% were.

Note that we have also included the number of deaths from recorded mass shootings, using the Gun Violence Archive standard. Only a small percentage of deaths in any given month was a function of incidents in which five or more people were shot.

It is not good news. The fact that thousands of people are shot and killed each year in separate incidents reflects the scale of gun violence.

That Uvalde’s shooter used a rifle is also not the norm. There are several ways to categorize gun ownership in the country, none are perfect. If we look at FBI background checks for new licenses or sales (transfers) of authorized dealers in 2020 and 2021, we find that most are for handguns. There were peaks in March 2020 (at the start of the pandemic) and June of the same year (as protests erupted across the country). But in no month in those two years were most checks not for handguns.

As you’d expect, given this data, most firearms manufactured in the United States in 2020 were handguns — nearly 60% of the 11 million firearms produced in this country. When it comes to firearms used in crimes, handguns are far more common. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives found that 80% of the 393,000 weapons recovered from crime scenes and found were handguns or revolvers.

A medical analogy is appropriate. Incidents like Uvalde are terrifying and acute manifestations of America’s unique gun culture. But the chronic problem is the smaller scale daily deaths of people killing themselves or others, often by accident.

Ending incidents like Uvalde’s is obviously important. But there are still believed to be more than 100 gun deaths per day on average in the United States, most of them by suicide.


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