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America’s gun exceptionalism, by the numbers

The flag on the White House flies at half-staff on May 24 as a mark of respect for the victims of the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Nineteen elementary schoolchildren were killed on Tuesday. A gunman entered their school in Uvalde, Tex., and shot them to death with a rifle he had apparently purchased a few days before.

It was a heinous act made more grotesque by how unexceptional it was. There was a mass shooting about 10 days prior. There was a mass shooting at an elementary school nearly 10 years before that.

I will admit my bias at the outset. I have two children under the age of 6, one of whom is at pre-K as I write. There is a visceral element to this for me that might not exist for others; a sense of exasperation and fear for my little boys. For me to process what occurred — and to find distance from it — I thought it would be useful to document not this particular horror but the way in which horror is now woven into American society.

For me, the best way to do that is by looking at the numbers.

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We can start with the extent to which gun violence affects children in the United States. The Gun Violence Archive tracks news articles about shootings, compiling a private-sector tally of the toll exacted.

Since 2014, the archive has counted more than 34,500 children killed or injured in shooting incidents. More than 6,500 of them were under the age of 12. Since 2019, more than 4,500 children have been shot to death — a toll roughly equivalent to U.S. fatalities in 17 years of the Iraq War.

This is wildly abnormal. Research published in 2019 looked at gun violence data from 2015 for countries around the world. The United States has consistently higher death tolls from firearms across age groups and consistently higher rates of firearm deaths.

In 2019, there were 29 kids under 5 shot and killed in the United States for every kid under 5 shot and killed in other high-income countries globally. There were 13 American kids under the age of 15 shot to death for every kid in other high-income countries.

In recent years, America has seen more injuries and deaths from shootings at schools. Data from the K-12 School Shooting Database indicates that more than 100 people were killed in school shootings (including teachers and staff) since the beginning of 2020, more than any five-year stretch since 1970. The number of people killed or wounded since the beginning of 2020 is second only to the toll exacted from 2015 through 2019.

This week, the FBI released new data on the escalation of active-shooter incidents in the United States more broadly. From 2017 to 2019, there were about 30 per year. That rose to 40 in 2020 and jumped over 60 in 2021. Happily, the toll of those incidents hasn’t increased.

The number of injuries in 2017 is driven by the attack at a concert on the Las Vegas Strip that year. It’s another reminder that while incidents have increased, the toll of those incidents can vary widely.

Mother Jones has compiled a database of mass shooting incidents since the early 1980s that allows us to see how often the incidents have occurred and how deadly they have been. That data set also offers another level of data: the demographics of who is alleged to have committed these crimes. The FBI’s report found that nearly all of the active-shooter incidents it tracked were committed by men, data that comports with Mother Jones’s database.

It’s also worth pointing out that many of the recent incidents have involved alleged male shooters who were younger than 25, as was the case with the shooting in Uvalde.

Why does this happen? One factor, obviously, is the ready availability of firearms. Setting aside all debates about the Second Amendment and gun-control legislation, it is obviously true that a nation with few to no firearms would not see the same level of firearm deaths. The debate centers on what level of gun ownership would significantly reduce the likelihood of both mass-shooting incidents and gun deaths more generally. (Many of which, we should note, are suicides.)

What you may not be aware of is just how many guns the United States makes and sells. From 2016 to 2020, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) determined that gun manufacturers had produced 24.6 million handguns, 14.3 million rifles and 7.9 million other firearms, including shotguns. That’s up substantially from the period from 2007 to 2011.

At the same time, more guns are being purchased. The best long-term metric for this is FBI background-check data, tracking purchases by revealing how often gun sellers conduct background checks on buyers. This is not a perfect metric, given that some states require regular background checks for gun owners. But you can see that the number of monthly background checks has steadily risen over time.

There are a lot of cultural phenomena hinted at in the graph above: The surge in sales at the end of the year as people buy firearms as Christmas gifts. The increase in sales as Barack Obama took office and people feared new gun legislation. The even larger increase starting in 2013 as the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School sparked a similar concern. (In retrospect, there was no need to worry about new gun legislation.) Then the big surge in 2020, a function of the pandemic and, by the middle of the year, national protests over racial justice. That increase carried into 2021, with a Democratic president and the violence at the Capitol that January.

If we adjust both of those metrics for population, you can see the gun industry’s footprint. In 2020, there were 333 guns manufactured and 737 background checks conducted for every 10,000 Americans.

In the aftermath of the shooting in Texas, the question of legislation again arises. Data from ATF offers one way of thinking about the effectiveness of limits on gun ownership. In states with higher grades from the Giffords Law Center — an advocacy organization for new gun laws — guns recovered at crime scenes and traced by ATF were much less likely to originate in-state.

In other words, states with stricter gun laws are more likely to see guns used for criminal activity originating in states with looser laws.

As you can see, most states get low grades from the Giffords Center. Guns are readily available in the United States, and there’s a powerful lobby that provides a legislative backstop to the sharply politicized cultural fight over gun ownership. That’s true at both the state and federal levels.

The result is that there are lots of guns in the United States and lots of Americans who have guns. In 2017, data from Pew Research Center determined that, while most Americans own no guns, the 3 in 10 Americans who do often own more than one. About 1 in 11 Americans own at least five guns.

This is exceptional.

As the U.S. processes another school shooting in Uvalde, Tex., national video reporter Hannah Jewell explains how gun violence has evolved, by the numbers. (Video: Casey Silvestri, Hannah Jewell/The Washington Post)