The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 5, 2016

What we know about gun violence in the United States: Who’s affected?

More than half of Americans believe that gun ownership does more to protect people than put them at risk. That perception, however, does not appear to be supported by the data.

Out of over 30,000 US firearm-related fatalities in 2010, only 230 were deemed “justifiable homicides.” In fact, of all gun-related fatalities in 2010, about one-third (11,000) were considered homicides, while the rest—more than 19,000 deaths—were classified as suicides.

More than 60 percent of all firearm-related deaths were self-inflicted, so gun ownership may not have the protective impact many Americans imagine.

What else do we know about who’s affected by gun violence in the United States?

There are a lot of firearm fatalities in the United States

In 2010, US gun homicide rates were 25 times higher than in 23 other high-income countries. Between 2000 and 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recorded 468,758 firearm-related deaths. In comparison, there were 6,855 US military and civilian deaths in US military missions between 2001 and 2015, also a 14-year span.

Who are the victims of firearm fatalities?

There were nearly twice as many suicides by firearms than homicides in 2014 and stark differences between whites and blacks in each group. Adjusting for population size, the CDC calculates a suicide rate of 6.7 per 100,000 Americans (7.9 among whites and 2.6 among blacks). In comparison, the population-adjusted homicide rate is 3.4 per 100,000, but 1.7 for whites and 14.2 for blacks.

Population-adjusted firearm fatality rate

In 2014, homicide was the leading cause of death for black boys and men ages 15 to 34 and the second-leading cause of death for Hispanic boys and men of those ages. An Urban Institute study in six states found the same trend for nonfatal shootings, finding that “black and Hispanic men and women had higher rates of injury than white peers.”

Gender introduces yet another twist: a recent report that focused on access to guns suggests that men with access to firearms may be more likely to commit suicide than women and that women face higher odds of being homicide victims than men. According to the FBI, among female murder victims for whom the relationships to their offenders were known, 35.5 percent were murdered by their husbands or boyfriends. In comparison, among male murder victims for whom the relationships to their offenders were known, only 3.8 percent were murdered by their wives or girlfriends.

The geography of gun violence is not random

The firearm-related homicide rate in large metro areas is about 50 percent higher than the rate nationwide. But gun violence isn’t simply concentrated in urban areas. The states with the highest firearm death rates in 2014—Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Wyoming—are also among the states with the weakest gun control laws, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

And when we recognize that gun deaths aren’t limited to homicide, we can correlate states with high rates of gun ownership with high rates of suicide. Below, the correlation is demonstrated using data published by the Washington Post; states in the upper-right portion of the graph tend to be located in the western and southern parts of the country, where gun ownership is higher (and gun control laws are weaker).

Gun ownership and suicide rates

A small set of key groups and a small number of repeat offenders are responsible for gun-related violence

Gun ownership is declining: more than half (53 percent) of households reported owning a gun in 1994, but only 36 percent reported owning a gun this year. Why isn’t that decrease reflected in statistics on gun violence?

Recent findings by our colleagues show that firearm violence is “driven by a tiny number of community members, many of them who are already known to the justice system, and who are also among the most likely victims of violence.” For example, Chicago data show that 41 percent of gun homicides in one high-crime community took place within the social network of less than 4 percent of that community’s population. 

It’s not surprising that scratching beneath the surface of the data on gun fatalities reveals a complex landscape affected by factors like race and ethnicity, gender, and location. What is surprising in many cases is the scale of the difference within those factors.

Tomorrow, we’ll attempt to quantify the economic impact of gun violence on individuals, communities, and society as a whole. 

US Capitol Police try to clear the area as family members and friends of victims of gun violence stage a sit-in inside the US Capitol Rotunda, July 5, 2016 in Washington, DC. The group said they are calling on members of Congress to come up with common sense solutions to gun violence, including universal background checks, and an assault weapon and high-capacity magazine ban. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images


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