How likely is gun violence to kill the average American? The odds may surprise you

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Shutterstock

  • A 19-year-old gunman allegedly killed 17 people at a Florida high school on Wednesday.
  • Nearly 13,000 people in the US were murdered with firearms in 2015.
  • Gun violence is a leading cause of death in the US, according to the CDC.
  • But research is bootstrapped because of federal funding restrictions passed by Congress.

A 19-year-old allegedly killed 17 people at a Florida high school on Wednesday with an AR-15 rifle that he purchased legally.

It was the deadliest school shooting in Florida history. The suspected gunman, Nikolas Cruz, had reportedly been known as a threat to the school, and teachers have bemoaned how they were powerless to stop him.

Cruz’s victims join a growing number of people in the US intentionally killed at the end of a gun.

Below is how the lifetime odds of dying from gun violence (highlighted in red; suicides and accidents excluded) stack up against many causes of death for Americans:

Gun violence is a leading cause of death in America_BI Graphics

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Skye Gould/Business Insider

Assaults by firearm kill about 13,000 people in the US each year, which translates to a roughly 1-in-315 lifetime chance of death from gun violence.

That’s about 56% more likely than the lifetime risk of dying while riding inside a car, truck, or van. It’s also more than 11 times as high as dying from any force of nature, such as a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, flood, or lightning strike.

These measures also suggest Americans are more likely to die from gun violence than the combined risks of drowning, fire and smoke, stabbing, choking on food, airplane crashes, animal attacks, and natural disasters.

Where the data comes from

The chart above does not account for a person’s specific behaviors, age, sex, location, or other factors that could shift the results; it’s an average of the entire US population. But it clearly shows that gun violence in the US is a leading cause of death, which is how the CDC describes firearm homicides in its National Vital Statistics Reports.

Most of the data comes from an October 2017 report by the National Safety Council and a November 2017 report by the National Center for Health Statistics on causes of death in the US, primarily those that occurred in 2015. (The NSC report uses 2014 data wherever newer data was unavailable.)

Mass shootings aren’t part of the data sets above, but the Gun Violence Archive project keeps a sourced tally, which we’ve independently counted. The organization considers any event where four or more victims were injured (regardless of death) to be a mass shooting.

In 2015, some 333 mass shootings left 367 people dead and 1,328 injured. The statistics rose in 2016 to 383 mass shootings, 456 deaths, and 1,537 injuries. In 2017, there were 346 mass shootings that led to 437 deaths and 1,802 injuries.

Foreign-born terrorism data comes from Cato Institute terrorism data, and some natural-disaster data comes from Tulane University.

We calculated the lifetime odds of death by applying 2015 life expectancy and population numbers in the US, and our analysis assumes each cause of death won’t change drastically in the near future. (Mortality data from previous years suggests these rankings are relatively consistent, with the exception of skyrocketing accidental poisonings due to the opioid epidemic.)

You can view our full dataset and sourcing here.

A dearth of US gun-violence research

Although gun violence is one of the leading causes of death in America, it is also one of the most poorly researched, according to a January 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“In relation to mortality rates, gun violence research was the least-researched cause of death and the second-least-funded cause of death after falls,” the study’s authors wrote.

The study ascribed this dearth of research to restrictions – namely a 21-year-old congressional appropriations bill called the Dickey Amendment that stipulated “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

Research into gun violence is the most poorly funded relative to other causes of death.

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Research into gun violence is the most poorly funded relative to other causes of death.
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Dr. David E. Stark, Dr. Nigam H. Shah/JAMA

This and other federal funding restrictions are still active, hindering many scientists from understanding the problem.

“The fundamental, foundational work of documenting the full scale of the health consequences of firearms has not been done,” Sandro Galea, an epidemiologist and the dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, told Mother Jones in a January 2017 story. “It’s the kind of project that we do all the time. It just hasn’t been done with firearms because there haven’t been resources.”

But what questions have been researched by private institutions like the Harvard Injury Control Research Center show a clear connection between gun ownership, gun availability, homicides, and violent death.

A roundup of gun-control and gun-violence studies by German Lopez at Vox shows Americans represent less than 5% of the world population but possess nearly 50% of the world’s civilian-owned guns, police are about three times more likely to be killed in states with high gun ownership, countries with more guns see more gun deaths, and states with tighter gun control laws see fewer gun-related deaths.

This story was updated with the latest final data from CDC, which covers the year 2015. We previously stated that about 11,000 people in the US are killed during firearm assaults; that was a 2014 statistic. In 2015, nearly 13,000 people in the US were killed during firearm assaults.