Numbers in the News: Guns

handgun # in news


This is the first of a series of posts looking at the numbers underlying hot topics in the U.S. The goal of this series is not to take a political or moral stand but to simply outline reliable data about these issues. Look for these posts to appear monthly.

I grew up in a hunting community. On the first day of deer season, students could take an excused absence, as long as they had a note from home that stated they were out hunting.

My 15-year-old daughter enjoys target shooting. Her favorite gun is a semi-automatic.

But despite my background, I have never fired a gun. I admit freely that I don’t particularly like them. At the same time, I have respect for those who hunt and use guns for sport, like target practice. And I respect the professionals in law enforcement who carry weapons in order to keep us safe.

Those are the disclaimers, as I step carefully into this loaded topic (pardon the pun). As a journalist who writes about math, I believe that numbers can help us understand these complex and controversial topics. With that said, I want to break down some of the numbers that describe our country’s relationship with guns.

This is something that anyone who consumes news reports or reacts to current events should be able to do. It’s a grownup skill that requires a little bit of math and a lot of logic. Because of the controversy involved in gun ownership and shooting incidents, it’s a good idea to turn to the numbers. So here we go.

The Small Arms Survey estimates that there are approximately 270 million guns owned by civilians in the U.S.

No one can say for sure that this number is absolutely correct. That’s because there is no way to definitively count the number of civilian-owned guns. There are several reasons for this. First, gun registrations is managed on a state-by-state basis. In fact, eight states explicitly prohibit the registration of firearms (though many have exceptions that require, for example, registration of a firearm by someone who was convicted of a crime). Without registering guns, it’s difficult to count them. Second, notice of the sale or transfer of guns is not required by all states. And stolen or lost guns? These may or may not be reported either.

If we can’t count the number of guns owned by Americans, we certainly have difficulty counting the types of guns in legal circulation. And never mind the number of illegally possessed firearms.

Still 270 million is generally recognized as the best estimate. And no one can deny that this is a large number. This is when we start comparing ourselves to other countries. India comes in second place with 46 million civilian-owned guns. Then China (40 million), Germany (25 million) and Pakistan (18 million). And while these numbers may be interesting, they don’t tell the whole story. Math helps with that.

Take the U.S. and India for example. The U.S. has a lot of guns, and India has a lot of people. So it’s useful to consider the number of guns per 100 people. (Or it could be per person or per 10 people… whatever.) In the U.S. there are 88 firearms per 100 men, women and children. In India, there are 4. Yes, four. Because India’s population is so much larger than the U.S.’s, the rate of guns per 100 people is much lower.

This brings in another interesting comparison: the U.S. and Yemen. In Yemen, there are approximately 11.5 million civilian-owned guns, but there are 55 guns per person. Small population + lots of guns = high rate of guns per person. In fact, the U.S. has more guns per 100 people than any other country in the world. (Yemen comes in second place.)

Now none of this says that guns are good or bad. These are just numbers. But it does point to differences in how countries (and the people in them) think about guns. This is definitely something worth looking into. But for now, let’s consider another number.

In 2013, the CDC reported 33,636 firearm deaths in the U.S.

Again, that’s a big number. It includes all sorts of deaths, including homicides, suicides and accidental deaths. What is often overlooked is the extremely high rate for suicide by firearm. Nearly 2/3 of all firearms deaths were suicides in 2013–that’s 21,175. There were 11,208 homicides by firearms in 2013, just about half the number of suicides. That leaves 1,253 deaths that were accidental or unclassified firearm deaths.

It might also be helpful to break down this really big number.

In 2013, firearms were responsible for about 92 deaths per day. That’s nearly 4 people per hour.

Suddenly those numbers are a whole lot more striking. There aren’t even four people in my immediate family! It’s important to remember that this total number includes both suicides and homicides.

Yet when we enter into a discussion about gun control, many of us think about homicides — and specifically mass shootings. According to the FBI, there were 17 “active shooter incidents” in 2013. In those incidents, 44 people died and 42 people were injured. That’s a lot of people and a lot of scary moments. At the same time, compare those numbers with the number of suicides by firearms. That’s a big difference.

Guns were responsible for more than half of all suicides in 2013 in the U.S..

That year, 41,149 people committed suicide, and as stated above, 21,175 of them chose to end their lives using a firearm. So it seems that the best way to reduce suicides and the number of gun deaths is to reduce the number of suicides by guns. Two birds, one stone.

Certainly better mental health care is a good option. But there is something even easier. In Great Britain in the 1950s and 60s, about half of all suicides were by coal gas from ovens. But by the 1970s, coal gas was replaced by natural gas, which has far less carbon monoxide. The suicide rate by gas had dropped to zero (yes, zero) and the overall suicide rate had fallen by a third.

These are striking numbers that suggest that when the means of suicide is eliminated, the suicide rate drops. What would happen in this country, if suicidal folks did not have access to guns?

In my mind, this leads to a logical conclusion: gun control is a matter of public health. I don’t believe that we should rid our country of civilian-owned firearms or outlaw the possibility of owning guns. I do believe that to reduce the incidence of death by firearms, we can develop safety measures. These will likely include a variety of approaches–much like how we ensure that cars are as safe as possible.

How did I come to that conclusion? The numbers told me so.

What are your thoughts on the numbers behind the gun control debate?  Were any of these figures surprising to you? (NOTE: This is a very volatile subject, so I ask that you please keep your comments civil and on point.)


Math at Work Monday: Julie the Digital Marketing and Communications Professional


Today’s interview showcases my talk with Julie Pippert of Artful Media Group who has been in the business of marketing and communications for over 20 years. For the past 4 years she has been doing it digitally which is really exciting. I loved my interview with her not only because I find her job fascinating but also because she is passionate about math, and that wasn’t always the case for her. It gives me hope that everyone can learn to do math well.

Can you explain what you do for a living?

I help create strategies and tactics–and sometimes execute these–for clients to promote their product or information to people via the many channels of the Internet. Within this we manage relationships with our community (who may also be customers or potential customers). I don’t use the word “customer” very often because most of my work is nonprofit so it is advocacy, thus we work with members, volunteers and the community. The wonderful thing about modern marketing and PR is that we are able to be very specific in who we reach and how we reach them. For example, for $5 I can reach nearly 30,000 people who I know for a fact are interested in this specific topic. That’s much more cost effective than getting a list of 1 million for tens of thousands of dollars and hoping a few in there might want or need what we’re offering. I have also built influencer programs (people who have highly engaged large communities who are interested in what we do), done trainings, spoken at large conferences, and created tons of online content of all sorts.

IMG_0979When do you use basic math in your job?

Everybody has heard about big data. Well, I rely extensively on that to do my job, do it well, and review if I did my job well. I use formulas in spreadsheets to evaluate rankings and ratings of campaigns and influencers. I measure results through different analytics tools and review results across time to see patterns and trends. I do a lot with means, medians and modes as well as percent and statistics. I have to use basic math to add and subtract as well as multiply and divide numbers to find true meaning. I then take the analysis of the data and report it back to my clients. This is how we measure effect and success.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math? Why or why not?

Of course! Oh my gosh I’d be lost without spreadsheet formulas (many of which other people developed and set out for free use), analytics tools, and calculators. I also dredge up old algebra to figure out how to calculate some final needed numbers.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

I would have no idea if I was reaching my goal and achieving the results I needed without math! Math is how I evaluate how well my words, and where and how I used them, work!

How comfortable with math do you feel? Does this math feel different to you?

I hate hate hated math in school. I moved frequently and suffered large gaps in my learning which always set me behind. It’s much easier to make that up in other subjects, but continuity is crucial for learning math well. Math and numbers are not my strength, anyway. By the time I hit the job market, I had decided now that I was done with school, I was also done with math! No such luck! It turns out that was a good thing. I’ve learned to appreciate and even like applied math. On a scale of 1-10 (most comfortable), I’d say I hover at a 6-7 on comfort level. I’ve never completely rebuilt my confidence, and I still get some formulas backwards. I have figured out that I can calculate in my head. In fact, modern math curriculum would have done me a world of good. Applied math in my job feels very comfortable, though, and I think math is great now. I am so pleased to see numbers and find ways to add them up to something meaningful. You can’t measure without math!

What kind of math did you take in high school? Did you like it/feel like you were good at it?

I quit math class the second I reached my final credit. In high school I went up through the second year of algebra which I took in summer school so I could get it over with quickly. In college I took a liberal arts math. I felt like an utter disaster at everything except geometry. I did do well with that but feel it hasn’t come up too often in life. I also had a fantastic teacher who noticed I needed a little extra help and was willing to help me. It was the first time ever with math that I had this sense of wonder and awe of “oh wow I GET it, I totally really GET IT,” and it was great.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Or was it something that you could pick up using the skills you learned in school?

I use the basics of what I learned in school with the math I do in my job, but a lot of it is new. I seriously wish I’d studied statistics  and might do that now.

Anything else you want to mention?

Yes, and I think this is SUPER important. You know how we all accept the fact that kids come into reading at different ages? Where is that understanding for math? Some kids are ready for multiplication in 2nd grade and others not until 4th or even 5th. Math is so prescribed. I think that’s why so many kids hate it and feel such an utter hopeless failure at it. You must achieve this level of math by this age whether your brain is ready or not — and it is so quick and easy to label kids as dumb at math when they don’t fall into that model. We have got to offer more paths of progression for math, just like we do for reading.

What we have finally gotten right is allowing different paths for solving math problems in education. Unfortunately, teachers have got that mixed up, and kids are so confused because they’re expected to master EVERY method of problem solving and demonstrate that mastery on exams, sometimes using the multiple methods for the same problems. Why have different methods for different sorts of kids and brains and then expect all of them to do well?

Have comments or questions for Julie? Let me know!

Math at Work Monday: Colleen the Academic Advisor


For students these days, GPA is everything -- so you'd better get it right! Today I interviewed Colleen Angaiak who has been an academic advisor for eight years. She helps kids calculate their GPA, set goals for the future, and much more. I found her … [Continue reading]