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Guns killed more Americans in 12 years than AIDS, war, and illegal drug overdoses combined

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

50 people were killed at a shooting at the Pulse gay bar in Orlando, Florida. It's a shocking number — the largest mass shooting in American history. It's also part of a rolling national tragedy: roughly 33,000 Americans every year are killed with firearms (homicides, suicides, and accidents).

In the abstract, it's hard to appreciate just how catastrophic this death toll is. So we made a chart to make things more concrete. It compares the number of Americans killed by guns between 2001 and 2013 to the number of Americans killed by war, AIDS, illegal drug overdoses, and terrorism combined during the same time period. It turns out that guns killed more Americans than all of those horrors put together:

Gun deaths compared to deaths from AIDS, illegal drug overdoses, war, and terrorism.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

Here's how each of these compares specifically to gun deaths.

1) Terrorism

Shootings like Orlando, where there's some suspicion the perpetrators may have links to ISIS or other terrorist groups, are relatively rare. Even in 2001, more than 10 times as many Americans were killed by guns in any incident linked to terrorism. In an average year between 2002 and 2011, there were roughly a thousand times as many Americans killed by guns as by terrorism:

Javier Zarracina/Vox

(Javier Zarracina/Vox)

2) The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

In total, 6,863 Americans died fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (per iCasualties); guns killed almost five times as many Americans in 2013 alone. Here's a year-by-year comparison during the heights of both wars:

(Javier Zarracina/Vox)


AIDS spread to hundreds of thousands of Americans in the '80s and '90s; when the government at first failed to confront the problem, it was rightly considered an outrage. Since then, public health campaigns have limited the spread of HIV and antiretroviral drugs prevent many people with HIV from developing AIDS. Guns kill far more Americans per year than AIDS, and yet aren't treated as a public health crisis by the US government:

(Javier Zarracina/Vox)

4) Illegal drug overdoses

The risk of overdose deaths are one of the many reasons the US government is waging a war on drugs. Yet illegal drug overdoses kill about one-third as many Americans per year as gun-related homicides, suicides, and accidents:


Javier Zarracina/Vox

5) Auto accidents

Guns aren't the leading killer in the United States. Things like heart disease and cancer kill a lot more people annually than guns. The toll from guns is still quite significant; it's roughly comparable to the number of people killed by car accidents every year:

Javier Zarracina/Vox

(Javier Zarracina/Vox)

The federal government has spent a lot of money and time trying to lower the death toll from things like car accidents and AIDS. It's waged metaphorical wars on terrorism and drugs, and literal ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, to keep Americans safe. And yet the United States won't take the most basic steps on the national level, such as requiring background checks on every gun sale in America, to reduce the death toll from guns.

"We spent over a trillion dollars, and passed countless laws, and devote entire agencies to preventing terrorist attacks on our soil, and rightfully so," President Obama said in an October address following a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College. "And yet we have a Congress that explicitly blocks us from even collecting data on how we could potentially reduce gun deaths. How can that be?"