Background

Over 13,000 Americans die by firearm homicide every year. In 2018, 13,958 Americans died by firearm homicide — more than 38 people each day. In the past decade, we have lost 123,371 Americans to firearm homicide — more than twice as many Americans as were killed in the Vietnam War.8,9

Homicides make up more than one-third of all gun deaths, and nearly three out of every four homicides are by firearm.10 While homicide is certainly not a uniquely American problem, the firearm homicide rate in the United States is 25.2 times higher than other industrialized countries.11

Understanding the factors that elevate risk of violence is important for tailoring solutions to prevent firearm homicide. Evidence-based risk factors for interpersonal violence include:

  • Adverse childhood experiences12,13,14
  • Availability of alcohol15,16,17
  • Availability of guns18,19
  • Being male20
  • Being young21
  • Cruelty to animals22
  • Domestic violence23,24
  • Economic inequality25
  • Exposure to violence26,27
  • History of early aggressive behavior28
  • Impulsivity29,30
  • Impulsive anger31
  • Past violent behavior32
  • Poverty33,34
  • Risky alcohol use35
  • Risky substance use36,37,38
  • Trauma39
  • Unemployment40

 

Intersection of Firearms and Homicide

Access to firearms — such as the presence of a gun in the home — is correlated with an increased risk for homicide victimization.41,42 Studies show that access to firearms doubles the risk of homicide.43 Nearly 75% of all U.S. homicides are by firearm.44 Firearm homicide is a complex issue that includes different types of gun violence — domestic violence, community violence, mass shootings, and police-involved shootings — and requires an array of different policies, programs, and practices if we want to see meaningful change.

Domestic Violence

Guns and domestic violence are a lethal combination. Nearly half of all women murdered in the United States are killed by a current or former intimate partner, and more than half of these intimate partner homicides are by firearm. Women are five times (400%) more likely to be murdered by an abusive partner when the abuser has access to a gun.45,46

More than one in four homicides in the United States are related to domestic violence, and the use of firearms in domestic violence situations increases the risk that there will be multiple fatalities.47 Victims in a domestic homicide could include an intimate partner, family members, or the perpetrator.

Community Violence

Many of the gun homicides in the United States are concentrated within neighborhoods of color whose residents face a host of systemic inequalities – discrimination, lack of economic opportunities, and under-resourced public services. In 2015, 26% of firearm homicides in the U.S. occurred within urban census tracts that contained only 1.5% of the population.48 Black Americans are over ten times more likely to die by firearm homicide and Hispanic Americans are two times more likely to die by firearm homicide than their White counterparts.49 Yet even within these communities, only a small portion of the population is involved in firearm violence – as perpetrators, victims, or both.

Mass Shootings

While there is not one universally accepted definition of a mass shooting, these events are typically described as a shooting in which four or more people are shot and killed. Although mass shootings account for only around 1% of all firearm deaths, they dominate the news media surrounding gun violence.50 Mass shootings devastate entire communities and instill fear in the American public. Every community in the United States, at any venue imaginable, experiences the impacts of these shootings.

Police-Involved Shootings

According to the CDC, more than 500 Americans die by legal intervention every year.49 However, the government’s data (including CDC data) provide a substantial under-count of police-involved injuries and deaths. To address this gap, a number of media sources have tracked police-involved shootings in recent years, most notably the Washington Post’s Fatal Force database. This database found that 1,000 Americans are shot and killed by police every year – more than double the number of police-involved fatal shootings than are reported in FBI and CDC databases.51  Black Americans are disproportionately impacted by police-involved shootings and are killed at more than twice the rate as White Americans.52

 

Lethality of Firearms

While only 22% of attempted homicides with a gun are lethal, guns are still incredibly lethal means.51 For comparison, 90% of suicide attempts by firearm are lethal.52 Given the lethality of firearms, nearly three out of every four homicides are committed with firearms.53 Indeed, guns are used in homicides nearly eight times more than the second most common method of homicide, cutting/piercing.54 For those who do survive a homicide attempt, there are often lasting physical, psychological, and emotional scars. The costs of gun violence extend well beyond the direct healthcare costs.

Further, some types of firearms are associated with more mass shooting events. Assault weapons and large capacity magazines are designed for the sole purpose of killing as many humans as possible as quickly as possible. One study found that assault rifles were used in 85.8% of mass shooting deaths from 1981-2017.55

Given that access to firearms increases the risk of homicide, reducing access to firearms for those who are at an increased risk of violence will reduce homicides.

To learn more, visit our page on nonfatal gun violence and our page on assault weapons and large capacity magazines.

Preventing Firearm Homicide

Firearm homicide is a complex issue that includes different types of gun violence — including domestic violence, community violence, and mass shootings — and, as such, requires an array of different interventions to make meaningful change.

To address firearm homicide in the U.S., we need to focus on three key areas: the root causes of gun violence, high-risk gun users, and the gun itself. Each of these areas may be addressed by a myriad of programs and policies.

Root Causes of Gun Violence

Structural inequalities are caused by racist policies that target communities of color and create segregated and underinvested neighborhoods; these inequalities fuel gun violence.56 The root causes of gun violence include discrimination,57 income inequality,58 poverty,59 underfunded public housing,60 under-resourced public services,61 underperforming schools,62 lack of opportunity and perceptions of hopelessness,63 and easy access to firearms by people at high risk for violence, such as those with a history of violence.64

  • Addressing social determinants of health in structurally disadvantaged communities: Policies that address the root causes of gun violence often address what are called social determinants of health. Social determinants are “the conditions in which people live, learn, work, play, and worship.” Addressing these social determinants in an equitable way can help improve health and reduce health disparities.65
  • Community-based violence prevention programs: Community-based violence prevention programs focus specifically on high-risk gun users to interrupt cycles of violence. These programs also provide a wide range of social services (including increased funding for recreation and community centers, parks, and pro-social development opportunities, and funding for programs that clean and rehabilitate blighted and abandoned property) to participants, thereby seeking to mitigate the effects of structural disadvantage that fuel violence.66,67

High-Risk Gun Users

The majority of gun users are law-abiding citizens. However, there are certain factors that elevate risk of perpetrating interpersonal violence, including adverse childhood experiences,68,69,70 anger,71availability of alcohol,72,73,74 availability of guns,75,76 being male,77 being young,78 domestic violence,79,80 economic inequality,81 exposure to violence,82,83 impulsivity,84,85 past violent behavior,86 poverty,87,88 risky alcohol use,89 risky substance use,90,91,92 trauma,93 and unemployment.94 Gun violence prevention policies and programs that reach those people who are at elevated risk of violence based on behavioral risk factors are an efficient way to stop gun violence.

  • Extreme Risk Laws: Extreme risk laws are state laws that provide a formal legal process to temporarily reduce an individual’s access to firearms if they pose a danger to themselves or others. For every 10-20 firearm removal orders issued, one life is saved.95
  • Domestic Violence Firearm Prohibitions: Nearly half of all women murdered in the United States are killed by a current or former intimate partner, and more than half of these intimate partner homicides are by firearm. Reducing abusers’ access to firearms is effective in preventing intimate partner homicide.96,97
  • Community-Based Violence Prevention Programs: In addition to providing social services to address root causes of gun violence, these programs identify high-risk gun users and seek to interrupt cycles of violence by (1) addressing the underlying social and economic inequalities that fuel gun violence, and (2) funding gun violence intervention and prevention efforts that authentically engage individuals impacted by gun violence.

The Gun Itself

Firearms are especially deadly weapons. Addressing the features of the firearm that can help solve crimes or reduce their lethality will prevent firearm homicide.

  • Microstamping: Microstamping technology imprints microscopic identification codes on bullet cartridge casings when the weapon is fired; these codes correspond with the firearm’s serial number. This technology enables law enforcement to match cartridges found at crime scenes directly to the gun that fired them without recovering the firearm itself. If widely adopted, microstamping could help law enforcement solve more gun crimes, interrupt cycles of violence, and reduce gun violence.
  • Banning Assault Weapons and Large Capacity Magazines: Assault weapons and large capacity magazines allow even novice shooters to indiscriminately fire dozens of rounds within seconds. These weapons are designed for the battlefield and have no place in our communities.

Firearm Homicide in the United States

The number and rate of firearm homicides were mostly steady from 2009-2014, but increased nearly 32% from 2014-2017. While the firearm homicide rate increased 17% from 2009-2018, 2018 is the first year since 2014 where the firearm homicide rate has decreased from the previous year. Five hundred eighty-four (584) fewer people died by firearm homicide in 2018 than in 2017, such that the firearm homicide rate decreased 4.5% (from 4.65 to 4.44 firearm homicides per 100,000 people, respectively).

Firearm Homicide Deaths in the United States,
2009-2018

Number of deaths

Source: CDC WONDER.

 

Firearm Homicide Rate in the United States,
2009-2018

Age-adjusted rate per 100,000

Source: CDC WONDER.

All rates listed are age-adjusted in order to allow for accurate comparisons between populations with differing age distributions.

 

Geographical Variations

Firearm homicide impacts communities across the country, but is more prevalent in some states. Homicide rates (by firearm and by other means) are generally higher in places where household firearm ownership is more common.98,99,100

Firearm homicide rates also vary greatly within states. Americans who live in large metro areas are roughly twice as likely to die by firearm homicide compared to those living in non-metro (rural) areas.101

Communities of color, particularly those experiencing structural inequities (such as poverty, underfunded public housing, under-resourced public services, and underperforming schools) are disproportionately impacted by firearm homicide.102,103 These inequities are caused by racist policies that target communities of color and create segregated and underinvested neighborhoods.104

Black Americans are 10 times and Hispanic Americans are twice as likely to die by firearm homicide when compared to White Americans.105 This firearm violence is also highly concentrated in a small number of disadvantaged neighborhoods often suffering from the legacy of discriminatory policies. In 2015, 26% of all firearm homicides in the United States occurred in census tracts that contain only 1.5% of the American population.106,107

While it is important to look at the overall firearm homicide rates for states, we must also recognize that firearm homicides are a localized problem with significant variation across small geographic distances. For example, in St. Louis, a city with one of the highest homicide rates in the nation, 40% of all firearm homicides occurred in only 8 out of a total of 79 residential neighborhoods.108

The majority of gun violence also occurs within small social networks of individuals who are often caught in cycles of violence as perpetrators and victims.109,110,111 In Oakland, for instance, just 0.1% of the population drives the majority of the city’s homicides,112 while in New Orleans, networks of 600 to 700 individuals are linked to most of the city’s murders.113 Even within Chicago’s highest violence neighborhoods, those who have a social network in which someone was murdered are 900% more likely to die of homicide than neighboring residents.114 The vast majority of homicides in each of these cities are by firearm.115

Firearm Homicide Rates by State, 2018

  • 0.65 to 4.35
  • 4.36 to 8.06
  • 8.07 to 11.77
  • 11.78 to 15.59

Source: CDC WONDER.

All rates listed are age-adjusted in order to allow for accurate comparisons between populations with differing age distributions.

Note: The CDC considers firearm homicide rates based on fewer than 20 deaths “statistically unreliable” and suppresses firearm homicide rates based on fewer than 10 deaths. Fewer than 20 firearm homicides were reported during 2018 for the following states: Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming. Since a single year of data does not produce a reliable rate and would exclude these states from the above graphics, we chose instead to use firearm homicide rates spanning the most recent three years (2016-2018) for these states in order to include them for comparison.

“Research consistently points to the relationship between gun violence, poverty, and structural inequalities. Firearm homicide disproportionately impacts African-American communities. It’s the leading cause of death for Black men under the age of 55, and young Black women are 7 times more likely than their non-Hispanic white counterparts to be murdered by a firearm. This is a public health issue and should be treated as such.”

- Kayla Hicks, Special Advisor to Executive Director

Disparities Across Demographics

Firearm homicide impacts different populations in different ways. This is important because knowing how different groups of people are at risk can help tailor prevention programs, including firearm safety interventions.

While no population is immune from firearm homicide, some demographic groups are at higher risk. Firearm homicide victims are disproportionately male and disproportionately Black.

By Sex

Males die by firearm homicide at overwhelmingly higher rates than do females. Indeed, in 2018, 83% of homicide victims were male. On average, men die by firearm homicide more than 5 times more often than women.116 As such, across all racial and ethnic backgrounds, males have higher rates of firearm homicide and homicide overall.

Firearm Homicide Deaths by Sex, 2018

Male

83%

Female

17%

Source: CDC WONDER.

 

 

By Race, Ethnicity, and Age

Overall, firearm homicide rates are highest among Black people as compared to people of other racial and ethnic identities and firearm homicide risk is highest among people ages 20-34 across the entire population.

In 2018, 58% of firearm homicide victims were Black, despite making up only 13% of the population. Black males ages 20-34 die by firearm homicide at disproportionately higher rates than the rest of the population; in 2018, Black men ages 20-34 had a firearm homicide rate nearly 17 times higher than their White male counterparts. Hispanic/Latino and American Indian/Alaska Native males ages 20-34 are also at an increased risk for firearm homicide victimization. In 2018, American Indian/Alaska Native and Hispanic/Latino men ages 20-34 were nearly three times more likely to die by firearm homicide than their White male counterparts.

Among all females, Black women ages 20-34 have the highest firearm homicide rate; in 2018, Black women ages 20-34 had a firearm homicide more than 5.5 times higher than their White female counterparts. Looking at rates by sex, race, and age together can help illustrate who dies by firearm homicide in the United States.

Female Firearm Homicide Rates by
Race, Ethnicity, and Age, 2018

Rate per 100,000

Age group

American Indian/Alaska Native
Asian/Pacific Islander
Black
White (non-Latino)
Hispanic/Latino (any race)

Source: CDC WONDER.

Note: The CDC considers firearm homicide rates based on fewer than 20 deaths “statistically unreliable” and suppresses firearm homicide rates based on fewer than 10 deaths. Fewer than 20 firearm homicides were reported during this time period for the following races and therefore are omitted from the above chart: American Indian/Alaska Native females, all age groups; Asian/Pacific Islander females, all age groups; Black females ages 75+; and Hispanic/Latino (any race) females ages 75+.

Male Firearm Homicide Rates by
Race, Ethnicity, and Age, 2018

Rate per 100,000

Age group

American Indian/Alaska Native
Asian/Pacific Islander
Black
White (non-Latino)
Hispanic/Latino (any race)

Source: CDC WONDER.

Note: The CDC considers firearm homicide rates based on fewer than 20 deaths “statistically unreliable” and suppresses firearm homicide rates based on fewer than 10 deaths. Fewer than 20 firearm homicides were reported during this time period for the following races and therefore are omitted from the above chart: American Indian/Alaska Native males ages 55-74 and 75+; Asian/Pacific Islander males ages 55-74 and 75+; Black males ages 75+; and Hispanic/Latino (any race) males ages 75+.

Recommendations

Enact and implement policies, programs, and practices that reduce easy access to firearms by people at risk of perpetrating interpersonal violence and invest in interventions that address the root causes of gun violence.

Laws that reduce easy access to firearms for people at elevated risk of violence are associated with reductions in homicide. Additionally, addressing the root causes of gun violence through community-based gun violence prevention programs is an important part of homicide prevention. We recommend the following policies, programs, and practices to prevent firearm homicide:

  • Community-based gun violence prevention programs: Community-based violence prevention programs interrupt cycles of violence. These programs provide a wide range of social services to address the root causes of gun violence; they are essential to preventing shootings in communities impacted by daily gun violence. Federal, state, and local policymakers should invest in such programs as part of violence prevention efforts.
  • Universal background checks with licensing: Universal background checks require a background check on all firearm sales and transfers. Without universal background checks, it is far too easy for prohibited purchasers to acquire firearms. Requiring background checks on all gun sales helps to reduce firearms trafficking. Background checks should be required on every gun sale and transfer in the United States, including private and online sales. See Universal Background Checks for more information. Universal background checks are found to be most effective when administered through a firearms licensing system. Licensing laws, also called permit-to-purchase laws, require individuals to obtain a license or permit before purchasing a firearm. These laws vary from state to state, but in addition to a background check, may require an in-person application, safety training, fingerprints, and a waiting period. Research has found that these laws are effective at reducing homicides, suicides, and firearms trafficking. States should enact licensing laws and continuously monitor and evaluate the law to ensure equitable implementation.
  • Microstamping: Microstamping technology imprints microscopic identification codes on bullet cartridge casings when the weapon is fired; these codes correspond with the firearm’s serial number and enable law enforcement to match cartridges found at crime scenes directly to the gun that fired them, without recovering the firearm itself. Microstamping has the power to help law enforcement solve shootings, interrupt cycles of violence, and ultimately prevent future shootings. Microstamping should be required in new semi-automatic pistols.
  • Extreme risk laws: Extreme risk laws empower law enforcement and the people closest to an individual at elevated risk of harm to self or others to intervene to help prevent gun tragedies before they occur. These state laws allow law enforcement, and in some states family and household members, among others, to petition a judge to temporarily limit an individual’s access to firearms if they are at elevated risk of violence. Evidence suggests extreme risk laws may be used to help prevent homicides. Every state should have its own extreme risk law and continuously monitor and evaluate the law to ensure equitable implementation and ongoing effectiveness. See Extreme Risk Laws for more information.
  • Domestic violence firearm prohibitions: Guns and domestic violence are a lethal combination. Laws that reduce abusers’ access to firearms are associated with reductions in intimate partner homicide; such laws should be enacted at the state and federal levels. See Domestic Violence and Firearms for more information.
  • Reporting lost and stolen firearms: Lost and stolen reporting laws require individuals to report the loss or theft of their firearm to law enforcement, who then enter the information into an FBI firearms database. Lost and stolen reporting laws help reduce the flow of illegal firearms by identifying gun traffickers and helping to recover lost and stolen guns faster, thereby reducing interstate gun trafficking and violent crime. States should enact lost and stolen reporting laws.
  • Banning assault weapons and large capacity magazines: Assault weapons and large capacity magazines increase fatalities and do not belong in our communities. Congress should reinstate the federal ban on assault weapons and large capacity magazines. In the absence of federal action, states should continue to enact assault weapons and large capacity magazine bans. See Assault Weapons and Large Capacity Magazines for more information.
  • Repeal “Stand-Your-Ground” laws: Stand-your-ground laws allow individuals to use deadly force even when there is an option to safely retreat from a potentially dangerous situation. These laws create a “shoot-first-ask-questions-later” culture in which a person can take a life when it is unnecessary. Research suggests that stand-your-ground laws do not deter crime but increase homicide rates, and when these laws are combined with racial bias that exists within society, they result in the disproportionate killing of Black Americans. States should repeal stand-your-ground laws.
  • Lethal means safety counseling: Lethal means safety counseling is an evidence-based healthcare intervention that is effective in preventing firearm injury and can be used to help prevent homicides. Lethal means safety counseling helps healthcare providers work collaboratively with at-risk patients and their families to temporarily reduce access to firearms until the elevated risk subsides. Healthcare professionals should be trained on lethal means safety counseling as an injury prevention intervention. All patients should be asked about firearm access and provided safer storage information. Patients with homicidal thoughts or behaviors should receive more in-depth lethal means safety counseling. See Lethal Means Safety Counseling for more information.
  • Avoid alcohol when accessing guns: Just like driving a car, alcohol and other substances increase risk of violence and injury. Firearm access should be limited after consuming alcohol and other substances.

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Last updated July 2020