Armed America. Death By Gun. 7 Deadly Days

July 17, 1989

In one ordinary week, 464 people died in America's continuing epidemic of gunfire.

They are the commonplace tragedies that occur every day in communities across the U.S. The smoldering anger between a husband and wife ignites and ends with a pistol shot. The suffocating weight of depression vanishes, with gunfire, into the imagined peace of death. A hunting trip turns tragic, and a family is destroyed. The stupidity of playing with a loaded weapon leaves a young boy dead. The momentary incivility of a pair of barroom brawlers results in bloody death.

Events like these happen so often that Americans' sense of horror and outrage has been numbed. Death by gunfire has become nearly as banal in the U.S. as auto fatalities; shootings are so routine that they are sometimes ignored by the local news. Only by coming face to face with the needless victims does the wastefulness sink in.

And while the country is numb, the families and friends the dead leave behind are surely not. At any one time, the nation harbors a large tribe of those crying and struggling with the loss a gun has caused.

From May 1 to 7, 464 people were victims of an American epidemic; they were all shot in a single week. This year more than 30,000 others will share their fate.

If the U.S. were losing this many people to a killer virus or to a war, there would be a public outcry. Yet more Americans die of gunshot wounds every two years than have died to date of AIDS. Similarly, guns take more American lives in two years than did the entire Viet Nam War. Only automobile accidents (total deaths per year: 48,700) surpass shootings as the leading cause of injury-induced fatalities. But while auto safety is a continuing public preoccupation, most Americans seem inexplicably indifferent to guns or unwilling to do much about them.

Deaths by guns tend to be isolated, infrequent in any one community and seemingly random in their dispersion. The inanimate numbers, no matter how often they are repeated, cannot convey the heartbreaking stories that lurk within them. To attach faces to the statistics and find out where and how so many die, TIME has attempted to record every gunshot death in the U.S. in one full week. The victims on the following pages range in age from 2 to 87; they are black and white, Asian and Hispanic; they represent 42 states. The portraits are arranged day by day, and in alphabetical order by the state in which the shootings occurred. The information about the deaths comes from various official sources--police and coroners--and in some cases from families of the victims.

The pattern in these 464 deaths is depressingly clear: guns most often kill the people who own them or people whom the owners know well. Despite the outcry over street gangs and drug dealers, the week's homicides typically involved people who loved, or hated, each other--spouses, relatives or close acquaintances. Only 14 deaths were in self-defense. Just 13 involved law-enforcement officers; no on-duty police officer was killed during the week. And despite the current controversy over military-style assault rifles, most of the killing took place with ordinary pistols, shotguns and hunting rifles.

Instead of highlighting mayhem on the streets, the week of May 1 through 7 was a chronicle of private despair. The victims were frequently those most vulnerable in society: the poor, the young, the abandoned, the ill and the elderly. The most common single cause of death was suicide. People in the grip of despondency or disease who turned their weapons on themselves accounted for 216 deaths, nearly half the total; compounding the tragedy, nine suicides turned their rage outward, first killing someone else, including spouses or other relatives. Another 22 deaths were preventable accidents, often the result of a thoughtless few seconds of play with a supposedly unloaded firearm.

Even when a shooting involved a deadly collision of strangers, the provocation was only occasionally a dispute over drugs or gangland territory. Equally prevalent were fights at bars, robbery attempts and random shootings with no apparent intention to kill. In many instances, the fact that a gun was readily at hand at a critical moment produced what Karole Avila, a psychiatrist at Detroit Receiving Hospital, has called a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

It is of little comfort that, statistically, the situation has actually improved slightly in this decade. While gunshot deaths have roughly doubled since 1938, they dropped from 14.8 per 100,000 population in 1980 to 13.7 in 1986, the last year for which complete figures are available. One important reason is that the baby boomers are getting older, and the most probable criminal offenders are those between 18 and 24. Better emergency medical treatment is also keeping more victims alive: five times as many people are wounded as are killed by gunshots.

Some will continue to argue that it is people, not guns, who kill people. But the pervasiveness of gun ownership in America--one in every other household--is relevant. A gun assault is far more likely to prove fatal than an attack with a knife. Suicide by gun is more certain to succeed than by other methods. Many of the 464 people who died in that first week of May would still be alive today were it not for the convenient presence of a gun.

It is not easy to look at the faces on the following pages. There are anger and disgust at the brutality, sorrow for the young lives snuffed out, pity and sympathy for those who could find no other way to lift the burdens of life.

But in the end, there is a sense of embarrassment, even shame. How can America think of itself as a civilized society when day after day the bodies pile up amid the primitive crackle of gunfire across the land?

Copyright (c) TIME Magazine, 1995 TIME Inc. Magazine Company; (c) 1995 Compact Publishing, Inc.

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