How Gun Violence is Costing You Money

May 6th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

Some of the most common arguments for adopting stricter gun-control laws center around the emotional toll of violence. The economic implications, which are often overshadowed by the raw pathos of a violent crime, are rarely examined. 

Not surprisingly, higher rates of gun violence have costly implications. New estimates detail just how devastating––emotionally as well as economically––gun violence is for Americans each year.

As part of their ongoing series tracking the economic tolls of gun violence, Mother Jones recently released a list of states' estimated annual total cost of gun violence, and how it breaks down for each taxpaying resident. Wyoming, for example, has a small population, but has the nation's highest rate of gun deaths, costing each Wyoming taxpayer about $1,400. In Louisiana, which has the highest gun homicide rate, each resident pays more than $1,300 per year. Conversely, in states with low gun ownership and strict gun laws, like Hawaii and Massachusetts, residents pay significantly less towards gun related violence––around one-fifth as much as the states that pay the highest. 

The state-by-state, cost-per-capita breakdown can be shockingly high. But on a national scale, the numbers prove even more staggering. Earlier in April, Mother Jones reporters published a spread of what annual gun violence costs in the U.S., finding the sum total to be more than $229 billion yearly––nearly as much as Medicaid spending amounts to. So why (and how) is that number so high?

h/t Mother Jones

Researchers say that the answer could be traced to volume. "The number of guns in the U.S. is rising; firearm violence may be rising with it," Ted Miller, a researcher at the independent non-profit Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, told ATTN:. "Mass shootings certainly seem to be." And with higher rates of gun violence, parallel costs are soaring. 

Miller, who provided much of the research Mother Jones uses, has been studying the costs and consequences of injury and violence, as well as substance abuse, for decades, and his work is used by a number of governmental divisions including the Department of Transportation, and the Justice Department. According to the report, he's one of the few researchers who has delved deeply into costs relating to gun violence stretching back to the late 1980s. 

"I'm primarily a safety economist," he said in an email. "I've done my studies of firearm injury costs because firearms are a major child injury issue, a major crime issue, and a major suicide issue. I wanted to help inform decision-making around those issues as I do around other safety issues."

Miller crunched numbers with the Mother Jones team to come up with the $229 billion number, which is split up into two categories: direct and indirect costs. The former accounts for all the upfront costs associated with gun injuries like emergency medical service, law enforcement investigations, long-term health issues, and court and prison costs. According to the report, taxpayers pick up almost 90 percent of these costs, which amount to a significant drain: each gun homicide, for example, costs about $400,000, and there are, on average, 32 of them each day. 

On the other hand, indirect costs include less immediately obvious things like lost income, diminished workforce, and quality of life impacts. These costs are largely based on Miller's average estimate of a "statistical life," which is about $6.2 million, based on jury awards for victims of wrongful injury and death. It's these far-reaching costs that add up: impacts on victims' quality of life, for example, cost about $169 billion, and lost wages account for around $49 billion annually. But even those estimates don't cover all the potential, more abstract costs, Miller told ATTN:. In addition to gaps in long-term medical and disability expenses from gunshots, "neighborhood fear and PTSD can have significant costs. Witnessing gun violence also can scar children for life. We did not account for those costs," he said. 

By all accounts, the statistics point to a public health crisis. But perhaps more surprising than the numbers, though, is the dearth of research previously dedicated to the subject even though there are curious, disturbing trends: as violent crime overall has declined recently, gun violence has climbed since 2011, the report notes. It is this setting which has victims of gun violence and their families, employers, and society in an economic-information vacuum. There's no clear answer for the lack of definitive research, but the report's authors point to one likely candidate: hard-line gun advocates and their lobbies. 

The report cites a passage from an editorial in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine that points to a "suppression of science" on the part of powerful gun lobbies. 

Two years ago, we called on physicians to focus on the public health threat of guns. the profession's relative silence was disturbing but in part explicable by our inability to study the problem. Political forces had effectively banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other scientific agencies from funding research on gun-related injury and death. The ban worked: A recent systematic review of studies evaluating access to guns and its association with suicide and homicide identified no relevant studies published since 2005.

In 2013, President Obama signed an executive order that would give the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a new budget, thus freeing up the agency to study gun violence. But Congress is still in control, and it's no secret that the National Rifle Association, for example, provides heavy backing to many congressional campaigns to buy favors down the road. And because political influence so heavily affects research funding, pushing opposite a powerful lobby could jeopardize future efforts. "There are so many big issues in the world, and the question is: Do you want to do gun research? Because you're going to get attacked," David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center told Mother Jones. "No one is attacking us when we do heart disease."
But expanding public knowledge of just how much of a toll gun violence reaps on Americans could signal a need for more research, and even spur advocates who claim that gun violence is not a public health crisis to back up that stance with numbers. "Costs are an excellent way to measure and communicate problem size," explained Miller. "They let us compare firearm injury to other societal ills, [and] they also let us assess the return on investment in preventive interventions." 
The distinction between the public health crises that draw rigorous research from governmental agencies––domestic violence, air pollution, traffic accidents––and gun violence is an invisible one for Miller. But it's barrier that only more research can hope to abolish. "I am always amazed at how much more firearm injury costs than impaired driving costs," he said. "Yet we do so much more to address driving injury."

Read the full report over at Mother Jones