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Who Are the Victims of Gun Violence?

The Death Toll

When confronted with the question, "Who are the victims of gun violence?" we usually think first about the fatalities. According to death certificate data compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics, a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a total of 32,436 persons died from firearm injuries in the United States in 1997. The majority of these deaths—54.2 percent—were suicides, 41.7 percent were homicides, and the remaining 4.1 percent were unintentional shootings or deaths of an undetermined nature.1 The effects of gun violence cross all socioeconomic and geographic boundaries—from inner cities to remote rural areas to upscale suburbs and in homes, public housing communities, schools, workplaces, recreational areas, bars, and on the street. Gun violence victims are young and old, male and female, African-American and white. In some cases, the shooter and victim are strangers, but in many others, they are intimately related.

In spite of the pervasive nature of gun violence, some demographic groups are disproportionately represented in the gun crime victim population. The 13,252 gun homicide victims recorded in the mortality statistics for 1997 included 5,110 who were 15 to 24 years old. Firearm homicide2 was the second leading cause of death for the 15- to 24-year-old group. In the 25- to 34-year-old group, there were 3,706 deaths from gun homicide; at younger ages (5-14), there were 284 firearm homicides. In fact, firearm homicide was within the top 10 causes of death for all age groups from 5 to 44 years.

Gun homicide victims are disproportionately young and predominantly male. According to CDC, 84 percent were male in 1997. At ages 15 to 19 years, the gun homicide rate for males was 8 times the rate for females in 1997.3 The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reports that males of all ages were 3.2 times more likely than females to be murdered in 1998. Moreover, the circumstances of firearm violence differ significantly for men and women. In contrast to men, women are far more likely to be killed by a spouse, intimate acquaintance, or family member than by a stranger.4

Firearm homicide also disproportionately affects African-Americans. Approximately 52 percent of gun homicide victims are African-American, even though they represent less than 13 percent of the total population. African-American males between the ages of 15 and 24 have the highest firearm homicide rate of any demographic group. Their firearm homicide rate of 103.4 deaths per 100,000 is 10 times higher than the rate for white males in the same age group (10.5 deaths per 100,000). In 1997, 92 percent of homicides of young African-American men occurred by firearms, compared to 68 percent of homicides by firearms in the general population.5 Even though violent crime rates, including crimes committed with guns, have declined each year since 1993, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation trend reports,6 guns remain the leading cause of death for young African-American males.7

If all Americans were killed with firearms at the same rate as African-American males between the ages of 15 and 24 (103.4 per 100,000), there would be 276,843 firearm homicide victims annually in the United States. (Based on 1997 CDC numbers and a total population of 267,636,061.)

The Nonfatal Gun Crime Victimization

For every firearm death, there are approximately three nonfatal firearm injuries that show up in hospital emergency rooms. With no mechanism, such as a national registry, to collect uniform national data on nonfatal firearm injuries, this is, at best, an estimate based on a sample of hospitals.8 There may be many more non-fatal firearm victims who do not go to hospital emergency rooms for treatment. Others have estimated four to six non-fatal injuries for each gun death.9 In addition, many crime victims may be traumatized by the presence of a gun during a crime, whether or not the gun was fired. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) in 1998, victimizations involving a firearm represented 23 percent of the 2.9 million violent crimes of rape and sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault. In 1998, 670,500 crime victims reported facing an assailant with a gun.10

Secondary Victims

The number of deaths and injuries is just a crude index of the effects of gun violence in the United States. There is an even greater number of secondary victims, sometimes called covictims or survivors of homicide. These are the parents, children, siblings, spouses, and others who have lost a loved one or friend to gun homicide. In the aftermath of a homicide, covictims must deal with law enforcement, the medical examiner, the press, and the court system, among others. They may have to clean up a crime scene, pay the homicide victim's medical bills, and arrange for a funeral and burial.

" It is estimated that each homicide victim is survived by an average of three loved ones for whom the violent death produces a painful and traumatic grief."

—Deborah Spungen
Homicide: The Hidden Victims
Sage Publications, 1998

Secondary victims also include those who are touched by or witness gun violence in their homes, schools, or workplaces or on the street. In the Nation's largest public housing projects, the damage goes well beyond the lives lost and injuries inflicted. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, public housing residents are more than twice as likely as other members of the population to suffer from firearm victimization, one in five residents reports feeling unsafe in his or her neighborhood, and children show symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) similar to those seen in children exposed to war or major disasters.11 This is consistent with numerous studies finding high rates of exposure to violence particularly among youth in urban communities. In one study, almost two-thirds of high school students had witnessed a shooting, and in another, 70 percent of the youth ages 7 to 18 in a public housing project had witnessed a shooting and 43 percent had seen a murder.12 Recent data also indicate substantial exposure to gun violence among suburban school-age children.13

Multiple-Victim Shootings

While the number of crimes committed with firearms has been falling to levels not seen since the mid-1980s,14 media coverage and public awareness of gun crime are increasing.

" Even those who have never encountered a gun are aware of the widespread presence of guns in our communities, witness news reports of gun-related crime, domestic murders, and high-profile shootings at schools, churches and other public places. The ever-present fear that someone we love might be killed or injured is another form of gun trauma."

—From The Bell Campaign’s
World Wide Web site at www.bellcampaign.org
The Bell Campaign is now referred to as the font color="#333333">Million Mom March Foundation (http://www.millionmommarch.com).

In the past few years, a rash of multiple-victim tragedies has erupted in schools, workplaces, churches, nursing homes, fast food restaurants, shopping malls, and transportation. These are very public venues-places that we frequent on a daily basis and where we should feel safe. When a gun massacre interrupts play in a daycare center, prayer in a church, or commuters going home from work, it shatters our most basic sense of security. Consequently, even though the percentage of homicides involving five or more victims was less than 0.05 percent in 1998,15 these are the ones that receive the overwhelming majority of the media's attention. In addition, the multiple-victim shootings in public places may be ones that create the most secondary victims as whole classrooms of first graders, cafeterias full of teenagers, and hundreds of fellow workers witness a mass shooting. The media coverage alone multiplies the number of persons victimized by the crime.

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Working With Victims of Gun Violence
July 2001
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