The United States, home to 4 percent of the world’s population, accounted for more than a third of its gun suicides in 2016, according to a sweeping analysis of global firearm deaths published yesterday in The Journal of the American Medical Association. The study, which is the first to gauge the global impact of gun violence, suggests that America’s rates of gun suicide and gun ownership are stark outliers on the world stage.
An estimated 251,000 people worldwide were killed by firearms in 2016, an epidemic that an accompanying editorial calls “a major public health problem for humanity.” The report, authored by a coalition of researchers with the Global Burden of Disease project, uses cause-of-death data, supplemented with statistical modeling in countries where data is incomplete, to estimate firearm mortality across 195 countries and territories. The estimates show that the death toll from guns surpassed that of war and terrorism nearly every year since 1990.
In the United States, the rate of firearm deaths shrank by an average of just under 1 percent per year between 1990 and 2016. But compared to the rest of the world, its citizens are still much more likely to die by gun: 10.6 out of every 100,000 Americans were killed by firearms in 2016, triple the global rate of 3.4.
Six in 10 of those fatalities are self-inflicted. Firearm suicide is a growing problem in the United States, its rate steadily increasing over at least the past decade. The study confirms that America’s gun suicide crisis is exceptional: no other country has a comparable rate.
The United States accounted for about 7 percent of all firearm murders in 2016, and its gun murder rate of 4.0 per 100,000 people placed it 30th in the world, though it is still roughly double the global average. Many of the countries with per-capita murders exceeding the United States are sites of drug production or trafficking, which the researchers identified as a major factor influencing a country’s rate of gun murders.
The study also tracks civilian gun ownership, assigning each nation a score based on figures from the Small Arms Survey, the country’s ratio of firearm suicides to all suicides (a common proxy for firearm availability), and other data sources. By those measures, the United States received the maximum score of 100, the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. No other country scored above 50.
The analysis affirms a link between the availability of guns and the likelihood of being killed by one. Just as past research has shown that states with more gun owners also see more firearm deaths, the JAMA study finds that the same holds true for countries. The authors suggest that limiting the availability of guns can be an effective life-saving measure.
“Efforts to reduce the number of firearms in homes and supporting secure storage of existing firearms,” they write, “can … [limit] immediate access to a means of harm that generally does not allow opportunity for second thoughts.”