I‘ve been pretty quite here recently – some intense projects and my travel schedule haven’t left me much time to write. I do have a few half-written posts that I’ll try to finish up soon. In the meantime, here’s a short series that veers a bit from pure technology and into the interconnected realm of data analytics and social sciences…
A few weeks ago I was talking to a family member in the U.S. (I’m a U.S. citizen currently living in Germany) and we were discussing the recent spate of weather and other natural disasters that were hammering the states. When we were done he said, “Well as crazy as it is here I’d take this any day over what you’re dealing with.”
I was a bit confused, and asked what disaster he was referring to. He clarified, “No, I mean all of the terrorists driving trucks into crowds and setting off bombs on trains and stuff.”
Ah, right. I’ve heard similar statements several times since I moved to Europe and never quite understood them – after all, while horrific, the sheer number of terror related deaths in either Europe or the U.S. is in the dozens or low hundreds; I was pretty confident that the probability of being a victim of a terrorist is far lower than many other forms of violent crime or preventable death. I replied, “You know, there are more gun deaths each day in the US than terrorism deaths in Europe every year. What you should be afraid of is walking out your door.”
Not surprisingly, we agreed to disagree and the conversation ended cordially. However, it got me thinking: Was I right that someone in Europe is less at risk from an Islamic (or other radical) terrorist than an American is from another American with a gun? If not, why is the fear factor from terrorism so much greater than gun violence?
The first question sounded like a straightforward data analytics exercise, so I busted out a Jupyter notebook to explore, grabbed some data and challenged the hypothesis.
To analyze terrorism I chose the Global Terrorism Dataset (GTD), a very comprehensive collection of worldwide terrorism over the last half century. The gun violence datasets were harder to come by, in part due to the successful lobbying efforts by the National Rifle Association (NRA) which blocks government research on gun violence, so I chose to work with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Multiple Causes of Death dataset which classifies all deaths in the US, including deaths by firearms. The latest year that the GTD and CDC set fully overlap is 2015, so I chose that as the year to focus on.
If we zoom into this decade and look only at the US and Western Europe, this is what we see:
2015 terror deaths EU: 171.0 total, or 0.23 per million residents
2015 terror deaths US: 44.0 total, or 0.14 per million residents
Gun Deaths in the U.S. (round 1)
Ok, how does that compare to the risk of dying from a gun in the US? Here’s a high-level breakdown of US gun deaths in 2015:
suicide 22060 homicide 13018 accident 489 other 284
2015 gun homicides US: 13018 total, or 40.29 per million residents
Gun Deaths in the U.S. (round 2)
On an absolute basis, American men are ~6X more likely to be victims of gun violence, while on a percentage basis, men and women have similar levels of root cause, with suicide being the major contributor.
How about race?
The differences here are striking – blacks and hispanics are far more likely to die from homicide while whites are overwhelmingly likely to take their own life. To get a different perspective, let’s look at this on a percentage basis:
Again, a pretty strong correlation.
And now let’s look at age. Here are two views, one broken down by intent and the other by race:
(Note: the bump around 50 is due to a spike in white male suicide… Remember, remember the month of Movember…)
While tragic, the suicides, accidents and undetermined cause events aren’t relevant to this analysis so we’ll exclude those to focus exclusively on homicides and revisit the age vs race graph in this light:
2015 gun homicides US (white, over 30, college degree): 392 total, or 1.21 per million residents
So even this limited demographic is still ~5X more likely to die from gun in the US than a European is from a terrorist attack.
Ok, let’s review:
- In 2015 a person in Europe had less than one in a million chance of being killed by a terrorist.
- That same year, a person in the U.S. had a probability up to 40 in a million of being killed by another American with a gun.
At this point I think I can be pretty confident that my original hypothesis is correct: an American is at much higher risk of being killed by another American with a gun than a European is of being killed by a terrorist.
In the course of exploring this data I have to admit I was surprised at some of the things I found and want to explore them further – for example:
- What’s going on with terrorism in the rest of the world?
- How does the casualty rate from guns and terrorism compare with other preventable deaths?
- Why is the fear factor orthogonal to the reality of the actual risks?