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The recent murder-suicide by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher and the mother of his three-month-old child have brought gun control back into the spotlight in the USA. But the real risk of death by firearms is quite low.

The United States is often portrayed as a violent place. Almost nowhere else in the world are firearms so readily available to adults (and sometimes children) from all walks of life, and nowhere else in the developed world do more people die from gunshot wounds. An individual's risk of dying as the result of the discharge of a firearm in the USA, however, is actually quite low.

In fact, there is not even a one in million chance of being killed by a stray bullet in any given year when you're simply minding your own business.

Innocent Victims of Gun Violence

Researchers at the University of California at Sacramento analyzed 1.996 news reports filed between February 1, 2008 and February 1, 2009 for information on 284 shootings involving stray bullets, bullets that hit people who were not intended targets.

In these 284 shootings, 317 people (nationwide) were injured, and 65 died. Over 95% of shooters were male, but over 88% of victims were female. Over 60% of shooters were between the ages of 15 and 34, but almost all the victims were girls under the age of 15 or women over the age of 34--mothers and daughters. Victims of stray bullets seldom die on the spot, but about 85% of those who decease die in a hospital a few hours later.

The hard evidence is that an American has only about a 1 in 5,000,000 chance of being killed by a bullet as an innocent bystander, but that the bystanders who are killed by stray bullets are by most measures especially innocent. Mothers, grandmothers, and daughters are the disproportionate victims of street violence. Deaths by accident, however, are very rare. Deaths by intentional gunshot wound are are different matter.

Intentional Victims of Gun Violence

Even though every death by a stray bullet is tragic, only a few dozen people died of accidental gunshot wounds in the United States every year. Deaths by intentional gun violence are quite another matter.

In the most recent 11 years for which data have been completely analyzed (1989 through 1999), there were 367,695 deaths by intentional firearm injury. Of these deaths, 200,027 (54.4%) were suicides and 167,668 (45.4%) were homicides. 

These figures translate to an approximately 1 in 24,000 risk of dying from a gunshot wound at the hands of another in the USA in any given year, and approximately a 1 in 7 million chance of dying from a gunshot wound at the hands of another on any given day. Where the risk of death by gunshot is highest, however, is not where most people would expect.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Branas CC, Nance ML, Elliott MR, Richmond TS, Schwab CW. Urban-rural shifts in intentional firearm death: different causes, same results. Am J Public Health. 2004 Oct.94(10):1750-5
  • Wintemute GJ, Claire BE, McHenry V, Wright MA. Epidemiology and clinical aspects of stray bullet shootings in the United States. J Trauma Acute Care Surg. 2012 Jul. 73(1):215-23