6,700 deaths by firearms in the EU each year

On June 25th 2015, the Flemish Peace Institute has published a new pioneering analysis of the linkages between gun ownership, firearms legislation and violent deaths in Europe. Amongst the main conclusions are:

  • In the EU approximately 6,700 people die as a result of shot wounds each year.
  • There is a relationship between firearm possession and the number of deaths by firearms: in countries with more firearms, there are usually more deaths by firearms.
  • Arms legislation has an important impact, namely with regard to preventing impulsive suicides and homicides with firearms.


The number of deaths by firearms in the EU has dropped 20%

In the EU approximately 6,700 people die as a result of shot wounds each year. This number is composed of 5,000 suicides (75%), 1,000 homicides (15%) and 700 unspecified deaths or accidents. The available figures show a decreasing trend (-20% since 2000 in the EU), especially in Central and Eastern Europe.

The 5,000 suicides by firearms per year represent 9% of all suicides in the EU. Especially older men commit suicide using a firearm. Earlier studies indicate that these suicides are usually committed with legal firearms.

On average, in the EU 1,000 homicides are committed with firearms each year, but this number varies considerably from one Member State to another. Homicides with firearms represent 20% of all homicides in the EU, a percentage that is far below the worldwide average (40%). Little is known about the legal/illegal nature of arms used in homicides.

Men are more often victims of firearm homicides than women. Male victims are often young, whereas female victims are usually older. This may be related to the context in which the homicides take place: female victims are often victims of domestic violence at the hands of their (ex-)partners, whereas men become victims in more diverse contexts, such as crime, street violence, etc.

Nearly 80 million guns in the EU

There are currently at least 25 million gun owners in the EU, mainly men. Together, they own approximately 79.8 million guns. This means an average gun ownership rate of 15.7 guns per 100 people in the EU. Arms possession varies between Member States. Most firearms can be found in the larger countries (France, Germany), but other countries (e.g. Finland, Cyprus or Sweden) have higher gun ownership rates per capita. There is no clear trend in firearm possession in the EU: in some countries it has decreased in recent years, while in others it has increased.

Hunting is the most common reason why Europeans have a firearm, followed by professional reasons (e.g. police) and sports shooting. To a lesser extent, reasons for firearm possession are personal protection or collecting. Europeans mainly own rifles (e.g. hunting rifles) and to a lesser extent handguns, such as pistols and revolvers.

The more firearms, the more deaths by firearms

There is a relationship between firearm possession and the number of deaths by firearms. In countries with more firearms, there are usually more deaths by firearms. This relationship is strongest in the case of suicides committed with a firearm, and less pronounced in the case of firearm homicides of women.

It is sometimes argued that, when no firearm is available, another instrument will be used for the suicide or the homicide (‘substitution’). This would mean that in countries where firearm possession rates are lower, there are more homicides and suicides using instruments other than firearms. However, statistical analyses show this is not the case.

Taking into consideration all figures, no relationship can be established between the number of firearms and the total number of homicides and suicides: where there are more firearms, the total number of homicides and suicides is not consistently higher or lower, and vice versa. This is not surprising: 1) the numbers of homicides and suicides committed using a firearm only represent a part of the total number of homicides and suicides (20% and 9%, respectively), which renders a possible statistical effect on the total number of violent deaths difficult to detect within the larger picture; and 2) a lot of factors have an influence on the extent to which homicides and suicides take place in a country: the economic situation, mental healthcare, the law enforcement, government campaigns, gun laws, etc.

Arms legislation can reduce the availibility of firearms in case of impulsive acts

A large proportion of all suicides are impulsive acts. Furthermore, a considerable share of homicides occur as a result of ‘expressive violence’, concretely in a domestic context. Research has shown that a firearm is often used in this type of suicides and homicides.

These findings provide a basis for policy measures. To prevent impulsive suicides and homicides linked to domestic violence, limiting the availability of firearms can make a difference”, says Nils Duquet, researcher at the Flemish Peace Institute. “Therefore, the purpose of arms legislation and other (European) policy measures must be to limit the possession of firearms to those capable of using them in a responsible way and keeping them in a careful and safe manner.” According to Mr Duquet, relevant measures include, for instance, the introduction of a legitimate reason for the possession of arms, background checks and safe storage rules. Restrictions on the possibility of taking home firearms that are used in a professional context can have a major impact.

The impact of such measures is only to a certain extent affected by ‘substitution’ (substituting the firearm for another instrument). The available research shows that in European countries where such policy initiatives have been taken, the total number of suicides and homicides has dropped. Reducing the availability of firearms can give people time to think twice in case of impulsive acts or receive help. Firearms are also very deadly instruments. When one does continue with the impulsive suicide or homicide attempt, other instruments (medication, strangling, stabbing weapons, etc.) often have less lethal outcomes.

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