Murder by Numbers: Digging Into the Data of America's Gun Culture

AR-15 Rifle Sandy Hook Shootings
A Rock River Arms AR-15 rifle, with ammunition: The weapon is similar in style to the Bushmaster XM-15 rifle that was used during the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn.

When it comes to talking about shooting deaths in the U.S., discussions usually start with numbers. Whether it's 26 dead in Connecticut, 32 dead in Virginia, or four dead in Ohio, the statistics lead the argument, the number of victims providing a sense of magnitude to the latest tragedy.

There's no lack of numbers to bring to bear in a discussion of the role of guns in American life, but here's the big one: According to the truth squad at PolitiFact, 281,757 people in this country died of gunshot wounds between 2001 and 2011. Over that same period, the nation endured 48 fatal school shootings.

There have been seven more this year.

Bullets are at the center of two-thirds of U.S. murders, making assault by firearm the ninth most common cause of death in America, accounting for 1 out of every 300 deaths. By comparison, drowning comes in twelfth (1 out of every 1,072 deaths) and airplane accidents come in a distant fifteenth, responsible for just 1 in 5,862 deaths. Unintentional firearms discharge comes just behind airplane crashes at sixteenth (1 in 5,981 deaths).

And if firearms are the tools of choice in most homicides, they are even more of a factor in suicides. The majority of gun-related deaths -- 59 percent -- are self-inflicted. When it comes to suicide, guns are especially effective: While only 2 percent to 5 percent of suicide attempts involve a gun, attempts using firearms account for half of all "completed" suicides.

Easier to Buy Firearms Than Fireworks

Although each tragic shooting leads to renewed calls for gun control, gun ownership rates have actually risen. Between 2008 and 2011, the number of gun-buyer background checks increased by almost 20 percent. It isn't hard to see why: Gun lobbyists, notably National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, have continuously asserted that President Obama plans to severely restrict gun sales. Earlier this year,, an online ammunition store, referred to the president as "the greatest gun salesman in America."

Yet for all the talk of Obama's plans for a gun crackdown, it is easier now to buy firearms than firecrackers: While 31 states place limits on the types of fireworks that one may buy without a permit, only seven require gun owners to register their arsenals.

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Currently, there are an estimated 310 million privately held guns in the U.S., and 47 percent of Americans claim to own at least one firearm. There are 8.8 guns for every 10 people in the U.S. -- a higher level than in any other country in the world. The next closest is Yemen, which has 5.5 guns for every 10 people; then again, large swaths of Yemen are controlled by armed rebel groups, a factor that makes gun ownership especially necessary.

The NRA and its corporate partners have more at stake in their fight for looser gun laws than a the mere protection of a constitutional right. With an estimated $4 billion in annual sales, firearms are very big business.

That big business, of course, means big money: Through its lobbying and campaign efforts, the NRA is generous with its largesse. In addition to its 4 million members -- a sizable voting bloc -- the NRA also has a lot of money to offer friendly candidates. In the 2012 election cycle, it contributed almost $19 million to political campaigns.

The Costs of America's Gun Obsession

While the death toll from shootings is the most widely discussed downside to America's gun obsession, there are other, less obvious costs. The Violence Policy Center estimates that the country spends $6 million a day for the treatment of firearm-related injuries. Then there are the parents -- like those of Sandy Hook victim Emilie Parker -- who spend untold hours trying to raise the money to bury their loved ones.

But what of the companies that make and sell the guns? It's certainly a profitable business. Over the last decade, Cerberus Capital Management, a private-equity firm, has quietly taken control of many of America's top gun manufacturers, including Remington, Dakota Arms, Marlin Firearms and Bushmaster. Bushmaster, which focuses on weapons designed to be used in military combat, has been a particular lightning rod for controversy: In 2002, Beltway snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo used a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle to shoot 13 people in the Washington, D.C., area. At the time, the company accepted no responsibility for the shootings, but paid $568,000 to the victims and their families.

A few years later, Aurora, Colo., gunman James Holmes used a Bushmaster AR-15 to kill 12 moviegoers and wound 58.

When Cerberus bought Bushmaster in 2006, the Aurora massacre was in the future and the Mohammad and Malvo shootings were out of the headlines. This Monday, however, the private equity firm announced plans to sell the weapons manufacturing company. The reason? Adam Lanza, the assailant at Sandy Hook Elementary, used a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle in his assault last week.

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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