By the numbers: Deciphering gun death rates in America

How statistics on gun ownership, police presence and mental illness providers correlate to the total number of gun deaths in the nation


By Alex Bryant, PoliceOne Contributor 

Gun deaths are a serious issue in the United States. Regardless of your take on the 2nd amendment, it is an indisputable fact that there have been over 32,000 gun deaths in the U.S. every year between 2011 and 2015. 
 
PoliceOne analyzed the correlation between gun violence statistics and the factors commonly associated with it such as gun ownership, low police presence and mental health. Which areas have patterns of gun misuse and do these factors truly make a difference?  

Where are gun death rates the highest per capita?

Gun violence in the nation is on the rise, and these states have been impacted the most. Understanding why is more difficult. (Photo/Wikipedia)
Gun violence in the nation is on the rise, and these states have been impacted the most. Understanding why is more difficult. (Photo/Wikipedia)

To get a baseline, let’s look at states with the highest death rates due to gun violence. According to County Health Rankings, here are the top 10 states for gun deaths in the U.S.: 

1st Alaska

  • Gun deaths per 100,000: 19.8

2nd Louisiana

  • Gun deaths per 100,000: 19.2

3rd Mississippi

  • Gun deaths per 100,000: 18.2

4th Wyoming

  • Gun deaths per 100,000: 18.0

5th Alabama

  • Gun deaths per 100,000: 17.6

6th Montana

  • Gun deaths per 100,000: 17.5

7th Arkansas

  • Gun deaths per 100,000: 16.7

8th Oklahoma

  • Gun deaths per 100,000: 16.6

9th New Mexico

  • Gun deaths per 100,000: 16.2

10th South Carolina

  • Gun deaths per 100,000: 15.9

Taking a look at the ten states with the highest gun death rates, how do they compare to the rest of the nation when it comes to gun ownership, law enforcement presence, and options for mental health care?  

Which states have the highest gun ownership rates?

In order for gun violence to occur, residents must be in possession of a firearm. The closest way to assess this figure is through gun ownership rates. However, it’s irresponsible to say that more guns mean more gun deaths. It’s also irresponsible to say that gun ownership considers all persons in possession of a firearm. 
 
With that said, nine of the top 10 states for gun deaths also rank in the top 13 for gun ownership. The only outlier is Oklahoma, according to CountyHealthRankings.org. 

Alaska  

  • Rank in nation: 1st 
  • Percent of residents that own guns: 61.7%  

Louisiana 

  • Rank in nation: 11th 
  • Percent of residents that own guns: 44.5%

Mississippi 

  • Rank in the nation: 13th 
  • Percent of residents that own guns: 42.8%

Wyoming 

  • Rank in nation: 5th 
  • Percent of residents that own guns: 53.8%

Alabama

  • Rank in nation: 8th 
  • Percent of residents that own guns: 48.9%

Montana 

  • Rank in nation: 6th 
  • Percent of residents that own guns: 52.3%

Arkansas  

  • Rank in nation: 2nd 
  • Percent of residents that own guns: 57.9%

Oklahoma 

  • Rank in nation: 29th
  • Percent of residents that own guns: 31.2%

New Mexico 

  • Rank in nation: 7th 
  • Percent of residents that own guns: 49.9%

South Carolina   

  • Rank in nation: 12th 
  • Percent of residents that own guns: 44.4%

In the top states for gun deaths, over 40 percent of citizens own a gun. While this doesn’t mean it is necessarily easier to obtain a gun in these states, it greatly enhances the chance with at least one gun in 4 out of 10 homes.
 
Shortcomings in gun ownership data

What this statistic and many other similar analyses don’t project is the impact of non-registered, or illegal, firearms in possession across the country. Many times, these guns come into the country illegally and are sold illegally without a record of sale. This makes pinning down an exact number of illegal guns in the country a tall task. 
 
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ survey of felon gun usage, in 2004, approximately 40 percent of convicted criminals who used a gun in their crime obtained the firearm from an illegal source. 

Does law enforcement presence affect gun violence?

Does an increased police presence eradicate gun violence? We looked at FBI data and calculated the number of police officers per 100,000 people in each state to see where the highest gun death states landed.

Alaska 

  • Rank in nation: 43rd 
  • LEOs per 100,000: 172 

Louisiana

  • Rank in nation: 3rd
  • LEOs per 100,000: 335

Mississippi

  • Rank in nation: 22nd
  • LEOs per 100,000: 229

Wyoming

  • Rank in nation: 17th
  • LEOs per 100,000: 238

Alabama

  • Rank in nation: 6th
  • LEOs per 100,000: 269

Montana

  • Rank in nation: 41st
  • LEOs per 100,000: 183

Arkansas

  • Rank in nation: 35th
  • LEOs per 100,000: 188

Oklahoma

  • Rank in nation: 39th
  • LEOs per 100,000: 192

New Mexico

  • Rank in nation: 8th
  • LEOs per 100,000: 260

South Carolina

  • Rank in nation: 15th
  • LEOs per 100,000: 241

 
Strikingly, even when looking at all 50 states, there was almost no correlation between total police officers and gun deaths in a state. 

Mental Health and Gun Deaths

Though homicides might be your first thought when it comes to gun violence, it’s important to note that approximately 65 percent of all gun deaths each year come from suicide and accidents. And, approximately 90 percent of suicide victims have some sort diagnosable of mental health issue at the time of death. In addition, nearly half of all victims use a firearm to commit suicide. 
 
For homicides, a 2006 study found that 34 percent of those convicted of homicide suffered from some form of mental illness. Without access to mental health providers, mental health issues will go untreated. This may play a role in the increased amount of firearm deaths. 
 
Mental health care providers per capita:

Alaska 

  • Rank in nation: 9th 
  • Health providers per capita: 338

Louisiana

  • Rank in nation: 34th
  • Health providers per capita: 168

Mississippi

  • Rank in nation: 45th
  • Health providers per capita: 122

Wyoming

  • Rank in nation: 13th
  • Health providers per capita: 284

Alabama

  • Rank in nation: 51st
  • Health providers per capita: 79

Montana

  • Rank in nation: 17th
  • Health providers per capita: 244

Arkansas

  • Rank in nation: 26th
  • Health providers per capita: 195

Oklahoma

  • Rank in nation: 6th
  • Health providers per capita: 366

New Mexico

  • Rank in nation: 7th
  • Health providers per capita: 354

South Carolina

  • Rank in nation: 40th
  • Health providers per capita: 147 

Only three of the top gun death states also have top ten mental health coverage.  
 
For those looking for help with their own homicidal-suicidal thoughts or for someone they know, visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline to start getting help. 

Preventing gun violence 

There’s not a single factor that explains what causes gun deaths across the country. However, there is evidence to suggest that several data points do have a strong correlation to gun deaths in many of the top states.
 
In Alaska, while mental health isn’t a strong factor, low police presence, and the highest rate of gun ownership in the nation may help explain them being the highest state for gun deaths. In states like Alabama, high gun ownership and the nation’s lowest availability of mental health assistance may contribute to their high rate of gun deaths, despite a high police presence.
 
It bears repeating that none of these statistics single-handedly answer the gun debate but opens the discussion about where gun violence factors need to be addressed the most.  
 

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