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Commentator Mark Shields said more Americans have been killed by gunfire since 1968 than in all the wars in the nation's history. Is that correct?
Since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., supporters and opponents of gun control have thrown out statistics to support their point of view.
Here’s one that caught our eye, offered by liberal commentator Mark Shields on the Dec. 21, 2012, edition of the PBS NewsHour.
Shields told host Judy Woodruff, "You know, Judy, the reality is -- and it's a terrible reality -- since Robert Kennedy died in the Ambassador Hotel on June 4, 1968, more Americans have died from gunfire than died in … all the wars of this country's history, from the Revolutionary through the Civil War, World War I, World War II, in those 43 years. ... I mean, guns are a problem. And I think they still have to be confronted."
Is the death toll that high? Let's examine each half of his comparison.
Deaths from warfare
We found a comprehensive study of war-related deaths published by the Congressional Research Service on Feb. 26, 2010, and we supplemented that with data for deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan using the website icasualties.org. Where possible, we’ve used the broadest definition of "death" -- that is, all war-related deaths, not just those that occurred in combat.
Here’s a summary of deaths by major conflict:
4,435War of 1812
13,283Civil War (Union and Confederate, estimated)
2,446World War I
116,516World War II
58,220Persian Gulf War
Another 362 deaths resulted from other conflicts since 1980, such as interventions in Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia and Haiti, but the number is not large enough to make a difference.
The number of deaths from gunfire is a bit more complicated to total. Two Internet-accessible data sets from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allow us to pin down the number of deaths from 1981 to 1998 and from 1999 to 2010. We’ve added FBI figures for 2011, and we offer a number for 1968 to 1980 using a conservative estimate of data we found in a graph in this 1994 paper published by the CDC.
Here is a summary. The figures below refer to total deaths caused by firearms:
1968 to 1980 377,000 1981 to 1998 620,525 1999 to 2010 364,483 2011 32,163 Total 1,384,171
We should note that these figures refer to all gun-fire related deaths -- not just homicides, but also suicides and accidental deaths. In 2011, about one-quarter of firearm-related deaths were homicides, according to FBIand CDC data. Using total firearm-related deaths makes the case against guns more dramatic than just using homicides alone.
When we rated a previous Facebook post, we lowered an otherwise True claim to Mostly True because it said that "nearly 100,000 people get shot every year." We found that the number of gun deaths and non-fatal injuries added up to 104,852, but we concluded that the term "get shot" could suggest victims who got shot by someone else rather than by their own hand. We don’t see a similar problem with the way Shields’ comment was phrased -- namely, "died from gunfire."
Since Shields’ comparison was otherwise accurate, with about 1.4 million firearm deaths to 1.2 million in war, we rated his claim True.