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Gun-related homicides and injuries down as firearm sales soar

Analysis shows deaths have decreased in Virginia despite a surge in business

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Gun-related homicides and serious injuries from gun assaults in Virginia have been trending downward for at least six years, and a new survey suggests the state’s booming gun sales have not triggered an increase in the proportion of people slain by a gun or who use a firearm to commit suicide.

Figures from Virginia’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner show firearm-related homicides declined in four of the seven years from 2005 through 2011 — the latest reporting year available — from 357 killings to 242, for an overall decrease of 32 percent.

When state population increases are factored in, gun-related homicides fell 37 percent, from 4.72 deaths per 100,000 in 2005 to 2.99 in 2011.

Injuries from gun-related assaults in Virginia that required hospitalization have declined four of those same seven years from 392 injuries to 283, a drop of 28 percent, according to Virginia Department of Health records.

What’s more, “the increased availability of guns does not seem to correlate with an increase in the proportion of suicides and homicides by gun,” said Virginia Commonwealth University professor Thomas R. Baker, who in an analysis compared state vital records data on homicides and suicides with Virginia gun dealer sales estimates obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“It’s actually quite surprising and the opposite of what I would have hypothesized,” Baker said. “I would have thought that aggregate increases in gun sales would directly correlate to aggregate increases in the proportion of suicides and homicides by gun. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

The analysis adds a new wrinkle in the ongoing debate over guns in Virginia, where state lawmakers have been considering a raft of new gun control measures — largely similar to federal efforts being pushed by President Barack Obama in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre.

Virginia Senate and House legislative panels have already scrapped a number of bills that would have banned sales of assault-style weapons and large magazines and would have required background checks on all gun sales.

In November, Baker found that Virginia’s soaring gun sales did not translate into an increase in gun-related crime in Virginia during 2005-2011, after comparing violent-crime figures with six years of estimated gun sales by every federally licensed firearm dealer in Virginia.

The total number of firearms purchased in Virginia increased an estimated 73 percent during that period, while the total number of violent crimes fell 24 percent. Baker was strongly criticized by some gun control advocates in Virginia, who believed Baker was suggesting the increased availability of guns could be linked directly to the fall in crime.

“I never tried to argue that more guns led to less crime — just that more guns did not lead to more crime,” Baker said last week. “That was my only point.”

Baker said he’s not necessarily onboard with some academic studies that indicate more guns have caused a reduction in crime through deterrence.

“I don’t know if that’s true,” he said. However, the Virginia data “pointed out that that was possible.”

In his latest analysis conducted at the request of The Times-Dispatch, Baker used state health department data, which counts only Virginia residents, to calculate the proportion of homicides and suicides in Virginia committed with a gun between 2003 and 2011. Plotting them on a chart, he found the proportions of gun-related homicides and suicides tended to be fairly stable over those years.

For homicides, the number of deaths fluctuated from a low of about 67 percent of all slayings to a high of just over 73 percent. For suicides, the range was from 55 percent to about 60 percent.

Baker then calculated the year-to-year percentage change in the proportion of suicides and homicides by gun in comparison with Virginia gun dealer sales data from 2006-2011, obtained from Virginia State Police last year.

Baker said he found “no clear pattern of a relationship between the percent change in gun sales and the percent change in the proportion of suicides and homicides by gun.” Gun sales, he added, “have increased every year, but the proportion of suicides and homicides by gun have fluctuated up and down.”

Baker found the largest percentage decrease in the proportion of suicides and homicides by gun occurred during two years (2007-08 and 2010-11) when Virginia also saw the largest percentage increase in gun sales, Baker found.

Baker said that could be coincidental. “But the lack of a clear pattern between gun sales and the proportion of suicides and homicides by gun is interesting, at least for the small time window of 2006-11,” because the increased availability of guns doesn’t appear to correlate with an increase in the proportion of suicides and homicides by firearm.

“It’s the opposite of what I would expect in those two years,” Baker said, especially for suicides.

The Virginia gun sales data used in the analysis are derived from state background checks of purchasers and covers only those transactions made through the roughly 1,400 federally licensed firearms dealers in Virginia. It does not reflect activity between private parties, such as family members or collectors at gun shows, because Virginia law requires background checks only for sales through commercial dealers.

The transaction data does not specify whether the purchase was being made by an out-of-state buyer. Consequently, it is unknown how many guns have left Virginia and were later used in crimes or shootings that resulted in injuries or death.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who co-chairs the national gun control lobby Mayors Against Illegal Guns, has been critical of Virginia’s gun laws and described the state as the No. 1 out-of-state source for crime guns in New York.

In a U.S. Department of Justice report released last year, Virginia was labeled the biggest exporter of firearms to the Empire State. The report said of the nearly 9,000 guns recovered and traced in New York in 2011, 407 originated in Virginia.

The Times-Dispatch examined the relationship between the increased availability of guns and gun-related deaths after two of the state’s foremost gun control advocates — Andrew Goddard and Lori Haas of the Virginia Center for Public Safety — raised the issue and said large reductions in violent crime has not produced an equivalent reduction in total gun deaths and injuries.

Goddard and Haas had children who were shot and wounded in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.

“By focusing on gun crime rather than gun deaths, (VCU professor Thomas) Baker neatly avoids the fundamental question: Have increased gun sales in the commonwealth driven this increase in the state’s gun death rate?” Haas wrote in a December opinion column in The Times-Dispatch.

Haas cited a statistic that showed Virginia’s per capita gun death rate — which included suicides and accidental deaths — had increased between 2006 and 2010.

However, gun-related homicides have dropped sharply, accidental deaths have remained static — averaging just over eight per year — and gun deaths of undetermined intent declined. Only gun-related suicides have shown an upward trend, rising 18 percent from 514 in 2005 to 609 in 2011, state records show.

By comparison, death by hanging, the second most common method of suicide, rose 44 percent during that period, from 136 deaths in 2005 to 196 in 2011. Also, nearly three times the number of Virginians died by choking on food or other objects during that period than from the accidental discharge of a gun, state records show.

Goddard, who has been busy tracking gun control initiatives through the General Assembly, said firearm-related deaths are still too high in Virginia and that the proliferation of guns has drawbacks that go beyond just armed criminal assaults.

“Despite a serious drop in ‘violent crime,’ both in Virginia and the nation, the total number of firearm deaths and injuries has not followed that pattern,” Goddard said.

He was referring to data that show total gun deaths and gun injuries falling between 2005 and 2011, but not at the same pace as gun-related violent crime in Virginia has dropped.

Asked whether suicides by firearms, which account for about 70 percent of the state’s gun deaths, should be included in the gun debate that largely centers on homicides and assaults, Goddard said: “It has always been part of the Virginia Center for Public Safety platform to track all forms of firearm death and injury. If you are to look at the rise in ‘legally purchased’ guns, then surely you need to look at the effect of that on one of the usages to which those legal weapons are put, which is not crime or assaults.”

“Virginians need to be informed that a decrease in violent crime is a very welcome thing,” Goddard added. “But if the increased sales of legal guns is to be considered as a factor in the decreased criminal use of illegal guns, then they should also be made aware that this proliferation of legal guns is not without its drawback — chiefly in the increase in gun suicides.”

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group, said it is “ludicrous” to say the increase in lawful gun ownership is related to the increase in the suicide rate.

“Japan has a much higher suicide rate than the U.S., and virtually none of those suicides involves a firearm,” he said. “A person bent on committing suicide has a plethora of ways to achieve that goal, and the availability, or lack of availability, of a firearm doesn’t change the outcome.”

Marcella Fierro, who retired in 2008 as Virginia’s chief medical examiner, said it remains to be seen whether a correlation exists between a greater availability of guns and firearm deaths. It depends on “whose hands they are in,” she said.

“If they’re good citizens, they’ll act responsibly,” Fierro said. “But we’ll see if the number of suicides increases. To me, it really depends on that lethal triad of emotional illness/depression, alcohol and easy access to firearms.”

mbowes@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6450

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