Guns don't actually kill as many Americans as cars

Motor Vehicles Remain More Frequent, If Less Heralded, Cause Of Fatalities

With daily reports of mass shootings and ongoing debates over gun control, you'd be tempted to interpret recent news that gun deaths now equal the number of car deaths in the United States as some sort of macabre milestone. But when comparing the ways Americans die, the latest batch of statistics from the Centers for Disease Control reveal the truth is as much about how the data is parsed as it is a potential indicator of our tolerance of bloodshed from car crashes and gun violence.

Call it a quibble, but the headlines aren't quite accurate. Motor vehicle deaths still exceed firearm deaths, according to the CDC's annual Mortality In The United States report. Not by much. But considering experts have long projected a moment when trends of lower car deaths and higher gun deaths intersect for the first time in US history, it's important to note they haven't actually crossed yet.

There were 33,736 traffic deaths and 33,599 total firearm deaths in 2014, the latest year for which full data is available – a difference of 137 deaths. A small gap, but significant nonetheless given how the symbolic convergence of the two has become a talking point swept up in the national conversation on gun violence, a debate that has taken on new urgency in light of President Obama's executive actions taken on Tuesday.

There were 33,736 traffic deaths and 33,599 total firearm deaths in 2014, the latest year for which full data is available – a difference of 137.

It didn't happen in 2014 because gun deaths didn't rise as quickly as anticipated in the CDC's 10-year average and because car deaths didn't fall as quickly as projected. And the missed convergence doesn't merely delay the inevitable until next year's figures arrive. Firearm deaths have plateaued over the past three years, while early estimates show traffic fatalities will increase by 8 to 14 percent, the sharpest year-over-year rise in more than six decades. It's possible the lines won't cross for the foreseeable future.

A 137-death difference aside, you still might be tempted to interpret the numbers to mean the likelihood of dying in a motor-vehicle crash is approximately the same as dying at the hands of a gunman. In the abstract, that's correct. But none of the 33,736 killed in motor-vehicle crashes intended to die when they departed on their morning commutes or stepped off the curb to cross the street. The total number of gun deaths reported, however, includes those who used firearms to commit suicide.

Suicides comprised 71.6 percent of the total number of firearm deaths in 2014. If you remove those 21,334 deaths from the comparison and only examine unintentional deaths, you get a far different idea of your chances of dying in a traffic crash versus at the hands of a gunman. Evaluate those 33,736 motor-vehicle deaths against the 12,265 non-suicide gunshot deaths – those that include homicides, "legal interventions" (as the CDC calls them), accidental shootings, and undetermined deaths – and it would appear that traffic fatalities, in sheer number, are a much greater blight upon America than non-suicide gun deaths.

That's not what you'd expect, of course. Traffic deaths get scant attention, usually relegated to the inside pages of a local newspaper unless they're particularly unusual. But our narrow focus on how people die has led us astray from the sheer number of people dying via one method or the other, and as such, distorted our perception and response to the threats.

Terrorism, for example, caused zero deaths on US soil in 2014, according to CDC figures, and only three deaths in the five-year stretch between 2010 and 2014. Yet the Department of Homeland Security's budget reached $59.9 billion in 2014. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal agency charged with keeping motorists safe, received $819 million.

Lest you think gun deaths and motor vehicle crashes are vying for the dubious title of top cause of unintentional fatalities in America, that distinction belongs to drug overdoses, which killed a whopping 42,032 Americans in 2014, mostly from prescription pain medications, according to the National Safety Council. "The United States is in the midst of a prescription painkiller overdose epidemic," the CDC said in a recent report.

Gun violence is a scourge that merits much attention and debate, but when watching the nightly news, remember that car crashes and overdoses are just as tragic, if less heralded, killers.

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