We often talk about gun violence in terms of its emotional cost: the tragedy of a lost loved one, the abject unfairness of a random shooting, the senseless death of a student. Indeed, the emotional costs are real, but they are not the only costs, as a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association makes clear. In the aptly named “Medical Costs of Gunshot Injuries in the United States,” four social scientists contributed the most comprehensive (to my knowledge) analysis of the actual medical costs of gun violence in the United States. The study was published in 1999, so its absolute data on violence rates will present higher numbers (crime rates have dropped nationwide since their peak in 1994), but with the ever-increasing costs of healthcare, the costs of care in individual cases have risen since this study was performed. (Applying a polynomial interpolation to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, per capita health expenditures have doubled between 1994—the study year—and 2007.)
According to this study, lifetime medical costs alone of gunshot injuries range as high as $79,927 per incident (New York State lifetime medical cost for treating self-inflicted non-fatal injuries). That’s in 1994 dollars. Adjusting for inflation, that number would be $113,348. But adjusting for the increase in medical care costs over the past 14 years, that number would now be a shocking $160,448. Other costs are not quite so high, but nevertheless disturbing: the average lifetime medical cost in New York State for all types of gun injury (again in 1994 dollars) was $34,420 (that’s $47,448 in today’s dollars, or $69,096 at today’s medical costs).
In the study year, there were some 134, 445 gunfire-related injuries in the US. (By my calculation, that’s approximately five injuries per 10,000 US residents.) The authors estimate that these injuries cost some $2.3 billion per year in 1994 (that would be $3.2 billion in today’s dollars, or $4.6 billion at today’s healthcare costs). And that’s just the medical costs. Investigation, prosecution, incarceration: all of these costs are separate and no doubt substantive.
But wait, you say. Crime rates are down since their peak in the mid-’90s. Surely we are spending less now than we used to be, right? Although I want to go find more recent data, I contend, in the absence of that data, that we are spending as much or more annually now than we were then. Why? Other data, in this case from the FBI, indicates that although the homicide rate has stayed fairly stable since 2000, the rate of homicide by gun or explosive weapon has increased dramatically:
Oh, and one last thought. Think this is all somebody else’s problem? I mean, after all, it’s not like you are paying for this medical care, right? Wrong. 49% of these costs are born by the government (read: your tax dollars), and another 18% are paid by private insurance (read: higher insurance premiums). Directly or indirectly, you are footing the bill for 67% of the medical costs of gun violence. That’s $3.1 billion of your money we spend per year.