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5 Graphics That Make You See America’s Unrelenting Gun Problem in New Ways

Gun violence exacts a staggering toll on American society, wrecking lives and families, placing an enormous burden on police, health professionals, and taxpayers.

Sometimes, the best way to tell this story is to show it. On Wednesday, the data-journalism specialty site FiveThirtyEight launched a multi-part investigative project that includes one of the most compelling gun death visualizations we’ve seen. It is a powerful reminder of how black males die in hugely disproportionate numbers in gun violence — and of how suicide, which is frequently overlooked in the gun debate, accounts for two thirds of all gun deaths.

Below is a slide from the FiveThirtyEight package that drives that latter point home, along with four other gun violence graphics that drive home the pervasiveness of this public health crisis.


Gun Deaths in America

Two thirds of gun deaths are suicides — and half of those are men aged 45 and older. Another compelling stat: Of the 12,000 gun homicides committed each year, more than half of the victims are male, and two thirds of those men are black.

Gun Violence in U.S. Cities Compared to the Deadliest Nations in the World

Six weeks after the Newtown massacre, Zara Matheson of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto created a map comparing gun homicide rates in major U.S. cities to national gun homicide rates from other countries. What follows swiftly and effectively contextualizes the scope of America’s gun violence problem: Detroit ranks alongside El Salvador; New Orleans is comparable to Honduras. In fact, if it were its own country, New Orleans would have the second-highest homicide rate in the world. Florida unearthed some other staggering facts: Gun murder rates in Newark, New Jersey, and Phoenix, Arizona, are comparable to those in Colombia and Mexico, respectively — the world’s most notorious drug trafficking hubs.

U.S. gun deaths

One of the most arresting gun-related graphics we’ve seen came from Portland, Oregon-based Periscopic, a data visualization firm. Periscopic’s designers sought to depict U.S. gun murders in 2010 and 2013 using FBI data and news clips. They then used U.S. mortality data from the World Health Organization to calculate the remaining years each person might have lived if their lives hadn’t been cut short by a bullet. The resulting image starts small and builds to a horrific crescendo: A line of orange arcs across a black screen and fades to gray, like a shooting star or a fading firecracker, as the name and age of each gunshot victim appears and their “stolen years” are added to a counter on the right. A few more streaks shoot across the screen and peter out, then the rest follow, fast and furious, until each of the year’s gunshot fatalities are rendered and a jaw-dropping 502,025 “stolen years” are recorded.

“Humans only evolved about 300,000 years ago,” the graphic’s creators observed.

33,636 Gun Deaths Visualized
Matt Haughey on Medium

Last December, Haughey, a web designer, took the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s gun-death toll from 2013, the most recent year for which such statistics were available, and represented each victim with a handgun emoji. His motivation, he wrote, was “to see what 33,636 of anything looked like.”

The result is a seemingly endless scroll that blurs the eyes and numbs the mind. As each row flies by, a sickening realization sets in: These were human lives ended by gun violence. Haughey concludes his piece by reminding readers that the gun death toll is roughly the same year after year in America, “and still we do nothing.”

U.S. Gun Deaths, 2004 – 2010
The Oregonian

A week after the Umpqua shooting, the staff of The Oregonian illustrated where Americans were dying by gunfire using CDC data. They built a heat map, but with a data-heavy twist. Each block is a county, and when you hover over it, you’ll see its rates of overall gun death, gun homicide, and gun suicide.

Patterns emerge: Suicide appears to drive fatal shootings in rural America, while firearm homicides are more prevalent in big cities. Predictably, New England is predominantly blue, indicating that its gun death rates are below the median, while vast swaths of the firearm-saturated South are deeply red, meaning they are well above the median. But some of the map defies assumption: Gun-death rates in the Midwest, where firearm ownership is high, and border counties in gun-loving Texas boast rates as low as southern California’s.