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Report: Gun violence costs the US $229 billion each year

The annual economic toll of gun violence tops the cost of combating obesity, according to a new investigation by Mother Jones's Mark Follman, Julia Lurie, Jaeah Lee, and James West.

The investigation, conducted with the help of Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation economist Ted Miller, looked at homicides, suicides, police shootings, and massacres, based on 2012 data, to quantify the effects of gun violence, which remains a leading cause of death in the US.

The report's most shocking finding: the yearly economic cost of gun violence added up to $229 billion, which means gun violence costs each person in the US more than $700 every year.

About $8.6 billion of the $229 billion price tag is direct costs — for example, the cost of emergency respondents and health care for someone who's been shot, or the cost of putting someone in prison for a homicide. The rest of the costs, which add up to about $221 billion, are what economists call indirect costs, such as the potential economic gains that are lost when someone is killed or injured and can no longer make or spend money in the US.

Although homicides are on the decline across the US, Mother Jones found 33,000 Americans were killed by guns in 2012, about two-thirds of which were the result of a suicide. That's more fatalities than all prescription drug overdose deaths — an issue public health officials have called an "epidemic" — and nearly as much as all traffic deaths.

The US's high rates of gun violence contribute to the costs of mass incarceration

For each homicide caused by a gun, the largest direct cost is prison, which costs about $414,000 for each person who committed the crime, according to Mother Jones. The US pays for about 32 of these gun homicides every day, or more than 11,000 a year.

This reflects one of the points made by criminal justice experts to me last week: the US incarceration rate is significantly higher than other developed countries' in large part because America has so much more deadly violence. Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that the US homicide rate throughout the 2000s was more than three times the rate of Canada, four times that of the UK, and more than 10 times that of Germany.

As Keith Humphreys, a drug policy expert at Stanford University, suggested, this shows that the US will likely always need to keep a higher incarceration rate than other nations, due to the number of people who commit serious criminal offenses.

John Roman, senior fellow at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, argued that the US's higher homicide rate is driven in part by laws and cultural views that make guns more widely available across the nation, referencing studies that show places with more guns tend to have more homicides. "That's a choice we've made," he said. "Making that comparison [with Europe] highlights the choice we've made, and whether that's something we really want."

The Mother Jones investigation puts a human and economic toll on those policies and cultural influences that make guns widely available: 33,000 deaths and $229 billion in economic costs each year.

Read the full Mother Jones investigation.