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How Scared Should I Be of Getting Shot?

The raw numbers for gun deaths in the US are terrifying.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Mikhail Evstafiev

As someone who regularly finds himself immersed in terrifying news stories about shooting sprees, I sometimes feel like I'm living in a war zone.

Moments of everyday chaos—commotion in a movie theater, or a weird clatter in the furthest corner of my office—have become scarier lately. They don't make me lunge for the nearest exit quite yet, but the phrase "active shooter scenario" does briefly bubble up from the depths of my imagination. Just now, as I was writing this paragraph, I got a push notification on my phone about a "Doc Shot in LA's Boyle Heights," and my first assumption was that a nearby doctor was murdered. It turned out to be an ad for a documentary.

So as a sane American person, and non-gun owner, how scared should I really be of meeting my maker at the wrong end of a gun barrel?

The first place to look if you want to be scared is at data on the number of mass shootings in the United States. For this, I turned to Mass Shooting Tracker, which counts the number of incidents in the US in which four or more people were shot in one setting (the FBI, by contrast, only keeps statistics on mass murders.) According to a downloadable spreadsheet available via the Mass Shooting Tracker site, the number just hit 300 for 2015 on October 10, when someone opened fire at a party in Charlotte, North Carolina. There have now been more than 1,000 mass shootings in the US since 2013.

It's hard to make that number mean something, but I can try: If every mass shooting since 2013 happened in an Olive Garden, there could have been a mass shooting in every Olive Garden in America by now—actually we would have hit that mark back in 2014. At last count there have been 1,236 fatalities in all of the shootings since 2013; by comparison, 1,215 coalition soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2011.

Scarier still is the fact that those numbers don't take into account all the people who have been shot in incidents that didn't qualify as mass shootings. After all, being gunned down by a mugger is no less scary a thought than being done in by a spree killer, and as Rachel M. Cohen recently wrote here at VICE, mass shootings aren't a very complete picture of gun violence in the United States. In fact, according to some number crunching by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, less than 1 percent of all victims of homicide in 2010 were killed in mass shootings.

According to Ted Alcorn, research director at the gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety, because of the lack of data on gun injuries in the US, counting the number of gun deaths is actually the best way to measure the scariness of these weapons. "There's no census-style database for injuries," Alcorn said, so groups like his "have less ability to quantify them."

The raw numbers for gun deaths in the US are even more alarming. In 2013, the most recent year for which government data is available, 33,636 people were killed by guns—roughly 92 people each day and about twice the number of Japanese soldiers killed in the monthlong bloodbath that was the Battle of Iwo Jima. To get a better sense of what that means, we have to look at the rate, rather than just the raw numbers: In 2013, the rate of gun deaths was 10.6, which means that 10.6 people out of every 100,000 in the US died by firearm that year.

But even though these numbers are scarily high, they are absolutely dwarfed by the number of people killed by their own weak hearts each year: 610,000, or about one in every four deaths. So should I be more scared of heart disease than guns?

No, because heart disease tends to kill people when they are old, and death is inevitable. That may sound grim, but public health officials look at it the same way. "Things that affect young people have a disproportionate impact on the wellbeing of the population as a whole, and gun violence is among them," Alcorn explained, adding, "so are automotive injuries."

The car crash comparison turned out to be important. An April report from the Violence Policy Center, a gun control advocacy group, pointed out that due to increased automotive safety—and increased gun violence—the numbers of deaths by car and by gun are now comparable: In 2013, 35,612 people died in auto accidents; 33,636 died by firearm.

Expressed as a rate, the average person's risk from gun homicides and car crashes is almost the same—about 10.3 per 100,000, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In other words, if you're an American, you should be approximately as scared of being shot to death as you are of dying in a car crash.

That's a dramatic oversimplification, because unlike most car accidents, people generally choose who they shoot—or at least try to. "It's all very different depending on your circumstances," said David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health. How scared someone should be of gun death, he explained, depends "on who you want to talk to—who's of interest." Once you've determined that, Hemenway said, then you can "give what their likelihood is."

To figure out these likelihoods, we turned to the CDC database known as WISQARS, or "Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System," which houses these statistics. With WISQARS, you can choose what kind of people are, as Hemenway put it, "of interest," and look up their demographics to see how their chances of dying from a gun compare to the average.

So I chose to look at myself: a 31-year-old white guy. According to WISQARS, I'm at a little bit higher risk than most Americans, with a gun death rate of 18.36, compared to the national age-adjusted average of 10.3. Still, in my state (California), the overall age-adjusted rate is a little lower than average at 7.68, which is nice. If I lived in a state with higher rates of gun death, like say, Louisiana, the rate of risk for my demographic would go up to 19 deaths for every 100,000 30-something white dudes.

Graphic via CDC

But it turns out that, because of my age, my risk for gun death is among the lowest it will be in my lifetime. I was at a slightly higher risk when I was in my early 20s:

Graphic via Centers for Disease Control

In a couple of years, the odds that I will die from a gun shot go will go up again, and will keep going up all the way into my old age. That's largely because these numbers include gun suicides, and the suicide risk among men—particularly white men—increases with age. According to data from the Pew Research Center, American men age 65 and older die by suicide with guns at a rate of 10.6 per 100,000 people. Eventually, if I reach 85 or older, the rate will reach an eye-popping 41.85 per 100,000, according to WISQARS.

Read: Meet the South Central LA School Counselor Who Helps Students Combat PTSD From Gang Violence

Of course, one of my white privileges is that I am much less likely to be killed by a gun. A black guy my age is almost four times as likely to die this way than I am, with a rate of 70 deaths for every 100,000 people.

A close look at how scared I should be of gun death only makes this observation more critical: Black people should be really, really scared of being shot to death. A cross-sectional report last year from the British Medical Journal looked at demographics on gun deaths for all ethnicities in the US. Among other trends, it found that on average, people who are black are twice as likely to be shot to death than white people. Murder—by gun or otherwise—is the single leading cause of death among black men between the ages of 15 and 24 in the US. Finally, while white people are about six times as likely to shoot themselves to death as they are to be shot to death by another person, for black people, the opposite is true. That's fucking scary.

According to separate data from the CDC, all Americans between the ages of 15 and 34 are more likely to die from homicide—by gun or any other means—than of a more plausible-sounding cause like cancer or heart disease. As a white person, my odds of being shot to death by anyone, including by myself, are close to the average for Americans of any age in any state, meaning they're comparable to a fatal car accident. In fact, according to 2010 data from the National Safety Council, the lifetime odds of an American being killed with a gun are actually slightly greater than the odds of croaking in a car crash.

Again, your suggested level of fear may vary, particularly if you're a black male. It should also be noted that according to WISQARS data, women in my age range are much, much less likely to be shot to death than me: the rate is 4 per 100,000 for white women, and 6.8 for black women, compared to my 18.36. (Interestingly, the rates are much lower for Asian men and women, although the sample size for these groups are so small that WISQARS warns me against quoting it.)

Anyway, the bottom line is that the appropriate level of fear over dying by gun depends on who you are—and I recommend digging through these numbers to find out how scared you should be. In my case, I've decided I'm a little scared.

Final Verdict: How Scared Should I Be of Getting Shot?

3/5: Sweating it

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