Mass Shootings and Terrorism: Our Obsession with Small Probabilities

I started writing this post on the anniversary of the death of my father.  Even though it is Christmas time these weeks leading up to the holiday are always a little somber.  Thoughts of death and mortality cohabit with my children's innocent excitement for Santa's arrival.  My dad passed away in 2001 a few months after September 11th.  He died after a short battle with gastro-intestinal cancer.  During his treatments we had a chance to muse about how the terrorists had changed the world.  The paradox was lost on me.  I, and my father, believed the greatest modern threat to the United States had just revealed itself.  However, at the time, I firmly believed that his cancer was an anomaly.  Perhaps exposure from his youth was to blame; a freak occurrence.  Years later I've come to realize how wrong my thinking was. 

I now understand how little of a role violence, like terrorism and mass shootings, plays in our lives.  I make this statement having experienced my fair share of death.  For the past 13 years I have been a Soldier and can attest that, at a 2:1 ratio, combat has not been primary cause of military funerals.  Suicide, motorcycle accidents, car crashes, cancer and heart attacks have removed more young Soldiers and veterans from this earth than patrols.  This obviously isn't going to be every Soldiers experience, but it is for most and it is consistent with the data.       

The truth is, you are probably not going to die in a mass shooting or terrorism incident.  You likely have been told this before but it stands in stark contrast with the amount of news coverage and political attention such events receive.  We probably fixate on these events because violence took center stage as the prime concern for our ancestors.  It seems our biological wiring does not change as quickly as civilization.  I don't want to come off as callous in any way and my heart goes out to anyone who has been affected by these types of incidents.  However, as a way of setting minds at ease, I want to walk through the aggregate data on how people actually die in the United States.  The first thing you need to know is that almost everyone lives!  The first chart shows that in a typical year (2013) 99.2% of all people, all ages and races, make it through.

US Population Life or Death Outcomes in 2013

Not only do the vast majority of people survive a typical year (obvious right?); the chances of being killed by a gun are about a hundredth of a percent.  Additionally, the chances of being a victim in a mass shooting are two orders of magnitude less.  There isn't even enough data on terrorism (let alone Islamic motivated terrorism) to give you an estimate with any confidence.  If you are still sweating the details this next chart shows the major causes of death by type.

Major Causes of US Deaths (2013)

Before being killed by a gun or a terrorist even crosses your mind, there are a large number of things that you should be worried about .  In fact, the number of deaths resulting from simply drinking too much alcohol in one sitting is roughly the same as all firearm related deaths (of which mass shootings is a subset).  However, most causes of death are medically related and these are not very scary (at least not enough to warrant 24hr news coverage).  The following chart shows deaths from injuries (the category of which firearms is a subset).

Annual US Injury Deaths by Type (2013)

Here we see that most injury deaths are a result of vehicles (car crashes) and poisonings (drug related).  Coming in third, firearms are responsible for about the same number of deaths as falls.  Here we can also see how the total casualty counts from both recent wars and September 11th compare to annual injury death rates.  For example, even if a 9/11 type event occurred every year you would still be more likely to be killed in a car crash at a 12:1 ratio.  However, so few terrorism events take place in the US that they barely register in an annual sense.  One last important consideration is that not all firearm fatalities are the same.  This last chart shows a break out of these types of deaths.

Annual US Firearm Deaths by Type (2013)

What most people do not know is that the vast majority, two thirds, of all gun related deaths are self inflicted.  The sad fact is that the United States has a suicide rate consistent with much of the first world.  In contrast, many Asian countries that have extremely strict gun laws have suicide rates that are significantly greater than ours.  It is likely that changes in firearm availability would not impact this rate.  When removing this (suicide) and other factors, such as gang activities, the number of gun related homicides is about the same as the number deaths from STDs such as HIV or Hepatitis (very small).  The number of victims of mass shootings are, again, extremely small in comparison.

There is certainly a trend in the United States of mass shootings that will likely persist into the foreseeable future.  In kind, there will likely be many more acts of terror in our country.  However, we should keep these events in the context that they belong, as sensational but rare, and focus our resources and energies on doing the most good.  For example, a small reduction in annual suicides would more than off set much of the damage done by mass shootings or acts of terror.  

We should continue to pursue quality gun laws and safe guards for national security.  However, for such a relatively small problem, guns and terrorism occupy a disproportionate position in politics and the media.

Most data for this post was taken from the CDC's database.  I also used single data points from herehere and here.