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99.9% of Americans will know a victim of gun violence in their lifetime

AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Dorothy Johnson-Speight visits the grave of her son, Khaaliq Jabbar Johnson, in Philadelphia in May. Johnson was killed in 2001 – shot seven times over a parking space dispute. Almost every single American—99.85%—will know at least one victim of gun violence during his or her lifetime, a recent analysis in the journal Preventive Medicine estimates.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Victims of gun violence are not just the people in direct range of bullets. They’re also those on the periphery.

Almost every single American—99.85%—will know at least one victim of gun violence during his or her lifetime, a recent analysis in the journal Preventive Medicine estimates.

Around 30,000 gun-related deaths and 80,000 non-fatal injuries occur annually in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A study published in the American Journal of Medicine earlier this year showed that Americans were 10 times more likely to die as a result of a firearm compared with residents of 22 other high-income countries. Of all firearm deaths in all these countries, more than 80% occur in the US.

Boston University’s Bindu Kalesan, Janice Weinberg, and Sandro Galea began their research in an effort to inform the national conversation on gun violence, which is politically charged and polarizing. “The overall burden of gun violence in the US is now well understood. However, no study has shown the extent to which it is associated with the individual lives of Americans,” says Kalesan, the paper’s lead author.

The researchers combined two kinds of data to establish the full scope of the effects of gun violence. First, they collected estimates of direct victims of gun violence—fatal and non-fatal gun injury rates in 2013 at the national level—from the CDC. Second, they tried to calculate the size of the average American’s social network based on data from previous social network studies.

The researchers made additional assumptions, such as that gun violence happens to anyone at random, so all individuals face same risk. In reality, of course, some people are much more likely to be shot than others, but the thinking here is that, when averaged across the entire US population, everyone’s likelihood of experiencing gun violence is about the same.

They also assumed that a person maintains a constant number of stable relationships during their lifetime, the majority of whom belong to the same race or ethnicity. They based this assumption on the notion of homophily, which is the tendency of people to associate with those are similar to themselves.

The team calculated that the average American has between 270 and 312 people in their social circle during their lifetime—and that almost no Americans will be spared the effects of gun violence. The study also found that more people will know someone who has survived a gun injury than died of it.

Ethnicity matters: For instance, African Americans are more likely to know at least one gun violence victim who died than whites or Hispanics, according to the study.

The scientists suggest a cautious interpretation of these results since they are based on national estimates. The numbers can’t be used to draw conclusions about specific individuals based on their demographic characteristics, like where they live, or the socio-economic status of their communities. Instead, they should be interpreted more generally as pertaining to the population as a whole.

“Gun violence is not homogeneous across the US, it is complex and needs to be analyzed in terms of specific parameters like where you live, your neighborhood status, minority status and so on,” Kalesan says. “Our aim was to provide necessary estimates and direction to the issue of gun violence.”

Funding for firearms-related research has effectively been blocked at a federal level by the NRA for 20 years. The researchers are hoping their work will inspire a more comprehensive study of this issue. “Leaving aside constitutional debates about approaches to controlling gun violence,” the paper concludes, “it might inform our national conversation to recognize that nearly all Americans, of all racial/ ethnic groups will know a victim of gun violence in their social network. This should bring the issue closer to home.”

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