Posted: October 17, 2015
Updated: December 16, 2015

This post was born out of frustration. There have been 24 school shootings so far in 2015. Combined they left 21 dead and 38 injured. That's 21 more deaths and 38 more injuries than there needed to be.

I wanted to know if there was a solution. Something that both sides to the debate on guns in America could agree upon. I've also recently been inspired by explorable explanations - a way of visualizing and interacting with data that can help make both complex situations and abstract ideas more concrete.

So this post is my first attempt at doing just that. I take a loaded and complex topic and try to make at least a little sense of it through the lens of one proposed solution. In the end, this turned out to not be about a solution to school shootings, at least not directly. But it is about decreasing the number of needless deaths due to firearms. And maybe that can be a first step to a healthier and safer gun culture in the US.

Because the interactive parts for this will take a little bit of time to create, I'll be publishing updates to this post in 3 parts.


Guns are weapons that can and do kill people. There were 464,033 deaths due to firearms from 1999-2013.

I'd initially thought this number would largely be attributed to gun violence, like the kind I see when I turn to the news on TV. Instead, I found that suicides accounted for 6 out of 10 firearm deaths in 2013. 60%! And that rate has remained fairly consistent for at least the past two decades. In addition to that, again between 1999 and 2013, nearly 10,000 people in the US died from unintentional shootings. Of that group, 2,260 tragically were young people between the ages of 0 and 19.

Seeing that "0" in the age range is particularly heart-wrenching as a new parent. And there were more numbers, lots of numbers, that came from reading reports and looking through data - this little web app from the CDC was particularly helpful. While wading through all this, it's worth remembering that these numbers are more than just a data point on a chart. These numbers are people. And even if that number is as low as 1, that "1" still represents a worth that's immeasurable.

Firearm deaths by state, 2010 - 2013
Click on a state to see its stats.

Prevention of suicides and unintentional deaths feels like an area that's less contentious than say... gun ownership. Firearm owner or not, people should be able to agree that preventing these deaths is a worthy goal to strive for. So maybe this is one place for all to find common ground, draw up strategies and save lives.


To form a solution, we can look at two points on the nature of suicides.

First, not all suicide attempts result in death. Suffocation, poisoning and use of firearm are the three leading forms of suicide. Of these, firearms have the highest fatality ratio at 85%. Compare this to medication overdoses which, despite being the most common form of attempting suicide, result in a fatality 2% of the time. People who become suicidal are far far more likely to die if they make the attempt using a gun.

Second, suicides are typically impulsive acts. In a 2001 study of people who survived near lethal suicide attempts, 1 out of 4 went from the decision to commit suicide to the actual attempt in less than 5 minutes. 7 out of 10 made the attempt in less than an hour. The impulsive vulnerability of the person along with the lethal nature of a gun is a big reason the death toll is as high as it is.

Guns are an irreversible solution to what is often a passing crisis. Suicidal individuals who take pills or inhale car exhaust or use razors have time to reconsider their actions or summon help. With a firearm, once the trigger is pulled, there's no turning back. [src]

Empirical evidence suggests that we can reduce the rate of suicides by making it more difficult for a person to die in an act of deliberate self-harm. Fortunately, we already have a method that's shown it can do this for firearms. Gun locks. From trigger locks to cable locks to gun safes, the means of safely storing a gun are widely known, available and cheap. When states enact laws that require their use for handgun storage, we see 68% fewer firearm suicides per capita than states without these laws.

A simulation on gun lock effectiveness
Adjust the sliders to observe changes when a gun lock is used. Press "Start" to begin.
Note: The "chance at prevention" default value is only an estimate based on the success of states with gun lock laws. Because its actual effectiveness on a more inividual case-by-case basis is unknown (at least to me), I've left it adjustable.

The simulation isn't perfect, but it gets the idea across. The use of gun locks on stored firearms reduces the number of attempted suicides and so reduces the number of deaths.


So through the use of gun locks we've got a low-cost and easily attained means of reducing firearm fatalities. We have evidence that suggests putting policies in place to require their use does result in fewer suicides per capita. There's also public support for these laws with 67% of respondents in a 2013 survey saying they'd be in favor of a law that would require gun-owners to lock their firearms.

Yet, only 11 states mandate that locks be provided with the sale of a firearm. And just 4 - California, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York - have laws that require they be safely stored and locked when not in use. If more states enacted these policies, how many fewer gun suicides would we have seen?

What if states had gun lock policies in place
Click on states to see how many estimated lives could've been saved from 2010-2013.

Working off of data showing that gun lock laws result in 68% fewer firearm suicides per capita, if all 50 states had some form of the policy in effect, an estimated 49,024 lives would've been saved.

Learn more from the resources below. Share your knowledge with others. And support an organization to help push through smart gun laws in your state.


This is a list of resources I came across while learning about this topic. Not all are necessarily referenced above, but they did help form and shape the opinions stated.


The design for the second and third interactives were inspired by the following works: