Among the loony claims floating around the Internet, you occasionally come across some variation on this one: "More people are murdered by hands and feet [or knives, or pressure cookers] than by guns! Check the statistics!"
We did, and that particular claim is false.
However, we can see where it comes from, and what rhetorical purpose it serves. According to the FBI's tally of murders in the US from 2007-2011, numbers vary from year to year but the rough outline remains the same.* In 2011, there were 12,664 murders. Of those, 8,583 -- almost 68% -- were committed using guns. In comparison, knives or other cutting instruments accounted for 13%, and "personal weapons" -- hands and feet, perhaps the occasional savage head-butt -- for about 6%. (Explosives murdered 12 people in 2011, a huge increase from the previous years but still less than a tenth of a percent).
So what's going on? The false claims start with inflammatory articles like this one, posted at the Daily Caller. Here's the headline:
You are more likely to be killed by hands and feet than by a shotgun or rifleIt claims, more or less correctly,** that
Total murders by hands and feet in 2011 exceed the total number of murders by shotgun and rifle. Does that mean gloves and shoes need regulation because they are concealing deadly weapons? No, but it does mean that there is no need for any further regulation of long armsYou can see what happened. The article is about long guns -- rifles, shot guns, and the much-ballyhooed "assault weapons." And strictly on its own terms, it is accurate. But excitable readers may fail to ask "What about handguns?" Then they click all over the web, spreading their own misinterpretation of the story -- a misinterpretation which is all too easily come by, since the Caller article never mentions handguns.
Here's the fact: of those 8,583 gun murders in 2011, 6,220 -- 72% -- were committed with handguns. In 2011, 49% of all murders in the US were committed with a single class of weapon: handguns. This is an extremely important fact, of which nobody should lose sight in the current debate over gun laws. Handguns kill 8-10 times as many Americans as do rifles and shotguns.
Which means that while a ban on automatic rifles might very well make it more difficult for killers seeking mass casualties to commit their crimes, the place to begin, if we are serious about reducing the overall number of murders in our country, is with a dramatic reduction in the number of handguns.
*Note that the FBI reports murders, not deaths. This means that cases in which a death is ruled "accidental" -- father's loaded pistol kills boy in truck; toddler shoots woman at household party, and so forth -- are not included.
** We say "more or less" because the FBI's numbers also include several hundred "other guns" murders, and over a 1500 "firearms, type not stated." If as few as 50 of those murders were committed with long guns, the Caller is mistaken.