The Violence Policy Center released its annual state rankings yesterday, and New York comes in strong, as the state with the third lowest per capita rates of gun fatalities for 2013, the year the study examined.
The group says the research shows a clear correlation between stringent gun laws, low gun ownership rates, and lower rates of death due to firearms.
In its studies, the VPC takes an approach slightly different from that of many other groups, focusing on gun deaths as a matter of public health rather than strictly a criminal-justice issue. Because of that approach, the report illustrates something not often discussed in the gun debate: Firearm-related deaths are not limited to homicides, and suicides actually account for more gun deaths per year than murders and other kinds of killings.
In 2013, for example, there were 465 firearm-related suicides, compared to 380 homicides. There were fewer than ten accidental deaths, according to the group’s statistics, which are derived from data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Though the homicide rate in New York has dropped by more than half since 1999, gun deaths in the state have fallen only about 20 percent.
It’s not a huge surprise that gun deaths would be highest in states where there are more guns. But the VPC also links the higher gun deaths to states that have comparatively lax restrictions on things like concealed-carry permits and other firearms-related regulations.
Alaska, which has loose gun laws, ranked number one in firearm deaths in 2013, according to the study. It was followed by Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Wyoming — all states with relatively little in the way of gun regulations.
Kristen Rand, legislative director for VPC, says the numbers illustrate something that’s frequently lost in the gun debate: Both homicide and suicide are often an impulsive act, so gun availability can make the difference between whether or not a murder or suicide actually takes place. The intention of presenting gun statistics this way, she says, is to get people to think of guns the way we do other products on the market.
“The idea is that you look at firearms as what they really are, as a consumer product, and start to apply the lessons we’ve learned from making other consumer products safer,” Rand says.
It’s a sentiment Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says makes good sense. We’ve known for years, he says, that the biggest risk factor for being a victim of a gun injury is having a gun in the home.
“Gun ownership is still primarily a risk to the gun owner,” Butts says, and that’s been a part of the debate that has gotten little attention. He thinks the media is starting to more frequently highlight instances of neglect by gun owners — like the case of a Washington woman accidentally shot and killed by a toddler who got hold of a pistol in the woman’s purse — though not as much as it could be. “Those stories used to be ignored by the press because they seem to be aberrant,” Butts says, but data like that compiled by VPC shows they’re far from it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the National Rifle Association is not supportive of studies like the VPC’s. Catherine Mortensen, a spokesperson for the group, points out that gun ownership rates are not indicative of the homicide rate, which she says is the main focus of gun control legislation. “Almost all gun control laws are ostensibly intended to reduce homicide,” Mortensen says via email. But she adds that gun ownership doesn’t correlate well with homicide rates. “As examples, California (gun ownership at 21.3%) and Alaska (gun ownership at 57.8%) have the same murder rate…New York (ownership 18.0%) has the same murder rate as West Virginia (ownership 55.4%).”