Opinion: We all pay: The high costs of gun violence

A semiautomatic handgun is displayed at the 2015 NRA convention in Nashville this month.
A semiautomatic handgun is displayed at the 2015 NRA convention in Nashville this month.
(Karen Bleier / AFP/Getty Images)

Each year more than 11,000 people are killed with guns in the United States, an additional 20,000 people commit suicide with guns and 80,000 people survive gunshot wounds with a wide range of injuries, including life-altering paralysis. That means bullets pierce the bodies of at least 111,000 people each year. Maybe. Getting a firm estimate is impossible because lobbying by the NRA curtails such research, an atrocious display of the political system’s abject fear of angering the gun lobby.

So what is the financial cost to society from all that carnage? Mother Jones magazine, working with researcher Ted Miller of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, has taken a stab at crafting an estimate using 2012 data, and comes up with about $229 billion a year in medical costs, court costs, prison for perpetrators, lost wages for victims and other economic impacts.

According to Mother Jones, that amounts to $700 for every person in the country:


“Direct costs account for $8.6 billion -- including long-term prison costs for people who commit assault and homicide using guns, which at $5.2 billion a year is the largest direct expense. Even before accounting for the more intangible costs of the violence, in other words, the average cost to taxpayers for a single gun homicide in America is nearly $400,000. And we pay for 32 of them every single day.

“Indirect costs amount to at least $221 billion, about $169 billion of which comes from what researchers consider to be the impact on victims’ quality of life. Victims’ lost wages, which account for $49 billion annually, are the other major factor. Miller’s calculation for indirect costs, based on jury awards, values the average ‘statistical life’ harmed by gun violence at about $6.2 million. That’s toward the lower end of the range for this analytical method, which is used widely by industry and government. (The EPA, for example, currently values a statistical life at $7.9 million, and the DOT uses $9.2 million.)”

About 87% of the direct costs fall to government budgets -- as in taxpayers. It’s unclear how much of the indirect costs, which are squishier to measure, fall to the victims and their families and communities, or to taxpayers. Either way, it’s an atrociously expensive burden on society.

That violence arises from a sea of firearms. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reported 8.6 million guns were manufactured in the U.S. in 2012, augmented by 4.8 million imported firearms, part of the well-spring that has led to more than 310 million firearms in private hands in a country of some 321 million people. Yet only a third of us live in a home where a gun is present, and about 1 in 4 report actually owning a gun, which means there are a lot of private arsenals out there. Much of that has been amassed recently, according to a 2012 Congressional Research Service study:

“In the past, most guns available for sale were produced domestically. In recent years, 1 million to 2 million handguns were manufactured each year, along with 1 million to 1.5 million rifles and fewer than 1 million shotguns. From 2001 through 2007, however, handgun imports nearly doubled, from 711,000 to nearly 1.4 million. By 2009, nearly 2.2 million handguns were imported into the United States. From 2001 through 2007, rifle imports increased from 228,000 to 632,000, and shotgun imports increased from 428,000 to 726,000. By 2009, rifle imports had increased to 864,000, but shotguns had decreased 559,000. By the same year, 2009, the estimated total number of firearms available to civilians in the United States had increased to approximately 310 million: 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns.”

According to the Pew Research Center, those weapons are concentrated in a defined demographic group:

“The general profile of gun owners in America differs substantially from the general public. Roughly three-quarters (74%) of gun owners are men, and 82% are white. Taken together, 61% of adults who own guns are white men. Nationwide, white men make up only 32% of the U.S. adult population.

“Gun owners and those who do not own guns differ politically. While 37% of all adults identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, that proportion jumps to 51% among gun owners. Among those in households without guns, just 27% identify with the Republican Party or lean Republican, while a majority (61%) are Democrats or lean Democratic.”

So why do they own all those guns? According to Pew, “a large percentage (79%) say having a gun makes them feel safer. At the same time, nearly as many (78%) say that owning a gun is something they enjoy.”

Enjoyment is in the eye of the beholder. Safety is another matter. About 232,000 guns are stolen each year, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Some 20,000 people use guns to kill themselves each year -- the victims are overwhelmingly white and male. And according to one study of homicides in Philadelphia, “people who carried guns were 4.5 times as likely to be shot and 4.2 times as likely to get killed compared with unarmed citizens.”

And, as Mother Jones points out, we all pay.

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.