Myths and truths about gun violence in Pennsylvania
By Jeffrey Benzing
Guns kill 1,400 Pennsylvanians every year. That’s a clear, round statistic, but it’s a complicated one, encompassing deaths in our biggest cities, small towns and rural areas. PublicSource has spent the last three weeks taking a closer look at these deaths and what can be done to prevent them.
Solutions depend on better understanding. But with gun violence, much of what seems intuitive isn’t necessarily true, even with something as simple as identifying who’s pulling the trigger. To shine some light and dispel assumptions, here are answers to a few common questions.
Gun murders tell a fraction of the story.
The repetition of shootings on the news is likely to give the impression that most gun deaths are linked to crime. That perception is not grounded in facts. The majority of Pennsylvanians killed by guns aren’t shot by dangerous criminals. They are ending their own lives.
Statewide, 465 people were killed in gun murders in 2014.
Another 894 people died in gun suicides. Nearly double. And 85 percent of those suicide victims are white men.
“I think a lot folks think that it’s a city-only problem, and that is not true,” said Charles Branas, a professor of epidemiology who has studied gun deaths at the University of Pennsylvania.
Gun suicides have outnumbered murders every year in the 25 years of records listed in the state’s online mortality database. Recently, they’ve become even more common.
In 2001, 681 people died by suicide using a gun. That peaked to 914 gun suicides in 2013.
Meanwhile, 444 gun murders were recorded in 2001. These deaths swelled in the middle of the decade but were down to 465 in 2014. Not much of a change, with the vast majority of those murders clustered around Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Have more guns made us safer?
That’s hard to say. More guns have certainly not reduced gun deaths.
Since 1999, the Pennsylvania State Police has published stats on the number of guns sold or transferred every year. We started at 396,709 in 1999. Last year, it was 755,764.
Total gun deaths rose from 1,183 in 1999 to 1,385 in 2014. Gun suicides rose about 30 percent in that period.
Explaining that increase is difficult. Experts caution against naming a single triggering event for a suicide, though common risk factors are depression, addiction, isolation and family strife.
Another risk factor: the availability of guns.
“We know for sure there’s a correlation between gun access and suicide,” said Dr. Lisa Pan, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, justifiable homicides are rare. A recent report from the Violence Policy Center references 51 justifiable homicides by firearm in Pennsylvania from 2009 to 2013. Fifty-one out of 6,926 total gun deaths for that same period, according to state mortality figures.
These numbers would not account for situations where the presence of a gun prevented a crime but didn’t result in death. Estimates on those instances vary widely. Federal statistics show that those cases are fairly rare.
Is violent crime on the rise?
It’s a myth that violent crime is vastly rising. The national rate increased 3.9 percent last year, and murders increased nearly 11 percent, but much of that spike is attributed to a high number of killings in a few cities, such as Chicago, Baltimore and Milwaukee.
Pennsylvania saw a 0.1 percent increase in violent crime compared to 2014, according to FBI figures.
Pittsburgh’s violent crime rate was down 12 percent last year. Philadelphia was up 1 percent (though murders there rose nearly 13 percent).
Go back to 1990 in Pittsburgh, when gangs were beginning to take hold in the city. Our violent crime rate is down 48 percent from that time. Philadelphia is down 24 percent over the same period, though it had fluctuated in the years between.
How many guns are there in the streets of Pittsburgh?
In Allegheny County last year, residents legally bought or transferred 48,645 firearms. That’s double the number from 1999.
While buyers have to pass a background check, guns are also readily available on the streets.
A recent study by Anthony Fabio, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, found that nearly 80 percent of guns obtained by Pittsburgh police in 2008 were not held by their original owner.
Guns are stolen, borrowed or obtained after someone else clears a background check and passes the gun to someone who didn’t pass a check and possibly couldn’t.
“Anybody can get a gun. Very easily,” Fabio said. “I tend to not think about that as a black market. It’s part of our society.”
While Pittsburgh is safer overall, gun violence remains a persistent and concentrated problem in many neighborhoods. Victims are disproportionately black men, a discrepancy that has not changed in decades.
Is there no way to reduce deaths?
There are ways to reduce gun deaths. And they can work, but no one intervention can solve gun violence. In Pittsburgh, police are hoping to reduce gun violence by identifying residents they think are likely to be involved and connecting them to social services. Those that refuse could face charges if they’ve broken the law and police think getting them off the streets could reduce shootings and retaliation. A similar approach worked in Boston where homicides dropped drastically after violence swelled in the early 1990s.
With suicide, experts are struggling to even make the public aware of the risk. Because guns are used so often, prevention groups think lives can be saved if family and friends intervene to remove guns from the home of someone in crisis. That requires difficult conversations. A new effort to train employees at gun shops and shooting ranges to understand risk factors and promote awareness to customers could make an impact. It’s being tried in four states.
How many lives can be saved?
We simply don’t know. What we do know is that gun deaths are more common than even 10 years ago, and that these solutions are only a start.