A November 2018 Facebook post about purported gun deaths “last year” (in this case, 2017) circulated in the aftermath of two back-to-back deadly mass shootings in early August 2019 (post archived here):
A sign held up at an unnamed event read:
Last Year Guns Killed …
48 people in JAPAN
8 in Great Britain
34 in Switzerland
52 in Canada
58 in Israel
21 in Sweden
42 in West Germany
10,728 in the US
No citations or links to additional information was included with the image; despite this, it was shared thousands of times on Facebook. But an initial search indicated that the statistics referenced (if accurate) were almost certainly not matched to 2017.
In December 2012, debunking site Full Fact quoted the exact same numbers as belonging to a then-current viral tweet:
On 15 December, TV presenter Ben Fogle tweeted:
“Last year Handguns Killed: 48 in Japan, 8 Great Britain, 34 Switzerland, 52 Canada, 21 Sweden, 10,728 in The United States #GunControlNow.” At the time of writing, it has been retweeted 3,637 times.
The next day however, Mr Fogle tweeted: “I have discovered the handgun fact wasn’t from last year but the sentiments remain the same #GunControlNow.”
Full Fact traced the precise figures back to a public service announcement from the early 1980s:
So where did these Twitter statistics come from?
It’s quite difficult to track down the original source, although a clipping from a newspaper in 1982 suspiciously contains exactly the same figures (missing out the no-longer existent West Germany):
They noted that the individual responsible for migrating the dated statistics to Twitter likely overlooked the fact that the figures cited were nearly four decades old. (As Full Fact points out, the inclusion of “West Germany” as one country ought to have been a clue about the claims’ age; West Germany functionally ceased to exist in 1990.)
So to start, the figures may have been accurate — in or before the year 1982. Typically, dated statistics can work to obscure the point of a sign, meme, or other statement of purported fact. In the case of this sign, which is clearly supportive of gun control, actual statistics for “last year”  would likely make its point more effectively.
According to a December 18 2018 New York Times article about gun deaths in 2017, the number of firearm-related deaths in the United States that year was exponentially (and horrifyingly) larger than those 1982 figures:
More people died from firearm injuries in the United States last year than in any other year since at least 1968, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There were 39,773 gun deaths in 2017, up by more than 1,000 from the year before. Nearly two-thirds were suicides. It was the largest yearly total on record in the C.D.C.’s electronic database, which goes back 50 years, and reflects the sheer number of lives lost.
That excerpt pointed to a perpetual debate in the context of gun death statistics in the United States — does suicide by firearm “count” with as a gun death? In discourse about the rate of gun deaths, that point of debate is frequently argued.
To determine the accuracy of the chart for 1982, we used the CDC Wonder tool. In 1982, the Centers for Disease Control counted 32,957 total deaths by firearm; 13,830 of those were counted as homicides. In 1981, there were 34,050 total deaths by firearm, 15,089 of which were homicides. The number on the sign didn’t seem to tack to either of those years.
CDC Wonder mortality tables are only complete to 2016, so the same rates could not be calculated there for 2017. A separate CDC data sheet of detailed causes of mortality [PDF] listed a total of 39,773 deaths by firearm in 2017; 23,854 were suicide deaths. Overall, 15,919 firearm-related deaths in the United States in 2017 were not suicides, and 14,542 of that total were classed as homicides. That left 1,377 firearm-related deaths that were neither suicide nor homicide, among those likely accidental discharge incidents.
By any metric, the poster’s first statistic of 10,728 gun deaths “last year” in the United States underestimated the numbers, regardless of whether suicide is counted or not. Going solely by homicides, over 14,00 Americans were killed by guns in that manner in 2017 alone.
Moving on from the United States, the post claimed that firearm-related deaths numbered 48 in Japan, eight in Great Britain, 34 in Switzerland, 52 in Canada, 58 in Israel, and 21 in Sweden “last year.” The CDC does not compile mortality rates outside the United States, making it necessary to locate other sources by country for rates of homicide/death by cause.
That task is not as straightforward as it is with the United States, as gun mortality is typically calculated by rate per 100,000 people per country:
The CDC’s Wonder database shows that in 2017, 39,773 people in the US lost their lives at the point of a gun, marking the onward march of firearm fatalities in a country renowned for its lax approach to gun controls. When adjusted for age fluctuations, that represents a total of 12 deaths per 100,000 people – up from 10.1 in 2010 and the highest rate since 1996.
What that bare statistic represents in terms of human tragedy is most starkly reflected when set alongside those of other countries. According to a recent study from the Jama Network, it compares with rates of 0.2 deaths per 100,000 people in Japan, 0.3 in the UK, 0.9 in Germany and 2.1 in Canada.
Elements of the sign are echoed in those estimates — the United States has 12 gun deaths per 100,000 Americans, contrasted with fractions of one in most other countries listed. In the United States, 73 percent of homicides are gun-related, compared to 38 percent in Canada and just three percent in the UK.
In terms of apples to apples comparisons, the chart said that 48 people were killed “last year” in Japan in a post that was shared in 2018. In 2017, a total of three people were killed by guns in Japan, not 48.
Some of the listed countries had higher rates of firearm homicides (but not total deaths) than indicated on the poster. In 2017, there were 266 gun-related murders in Canada. A 2018 news story estimated between 50 and 60 gun homicides in England and Wales, contrasted with the figure of eight on the poster. Neither set of statistics counted gun-related deaths that were not homicides.
With Switzerland, the numbers were once again not entirely comparable. The poster referenced 34 gun deaths “last year”; one source references 47 attempted homicides with a rate “near zero”:
The country has about 2 million privately owned guns in a nation of 8.3 million people. In 2016, the country had 47 attempted homicides with firearms. The country’s overall murder rate is near zero.
Notably, the Swiss have broader access to guns than most of their European neighbors. After Switzerland (and eliding the no-longer-in-existence West Germany), that leaves Sweden and Israel. For Sweden, there were 41 deaths to the image’s 21:
In the 306 confirmed shooting incidents during 2017 there were 41 deaths and 135 instances of injury. July had by far the highest number of injuries from shootings – 25 compared to the next highest which was 16 in both September and October.
Notably, Sweden experienced a very sharp spike in gun deaths in 2017, and previous years hovered closer to or below the provided number of 21 deaths. We were unable to find any recent statistics for gun homicides in Israel; a 2012 dataset listed a total of six firearm-related homicides in Israel versus 58 on the poster.
Overall, the poster wasn’t completely misleading in its claim. In the aggregate, more than 30,000 Americans die each year by firearm, and in 2017, more than 15,000 people died in gun-related homicides. By contrast, Canada had 266 gun homicides the same year, and the other countries listed had far fewer than either — with a total of just three gun deaths in Japan.