Are Blunt Objects More Common Homicide Weapons Than Rifles?

This column says so:

According to the FBI annual crime statistics, the number of murders committed annually with hammers and clubs far outnumbers the number of murders committed with a rifle…. [For instance, i]n 2005, the number of murders committed with a rifle was 445, while the number of murders committed with hammers and clubs was 605….

I’m not sure this is right, for a simple reason: The FBI statistics also include “Firearms, type not stated,” which suggests that not all rifle homicides are labeled as such in the FBI data:

Weapons 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Total 14,965 15,087 14,916 14,224 13,636
Total firearms: 10,158 10,225 10,129 9,528 9,146
   Handguns 7,565 7,836 7,398 6,800 6,452
   Rifles 445 438 453 380 348
   Shotguns 522 490 457 442 418
   Other guns 138 107 116 81 94
   Firearms, type not stated 1,488 1,354 1,705 1,825 1,834
Knives or cutting instruments 1,920 1,830 1,817 1,888 1,825
Blunt objects (clubs, hammers, etc.) 608 618 647 603 611
Personal weapons (hands, fists, feet, etc.) 905 841 869 875 801
Poison 9 12 10 9 6
Explosives 2 1 1 11 2
Fire 125 117 131 85 99
Narcotics 46 48 52 34 45
Drowning 20 12 12 16 8
Strangulation 118 137 134 89 121
Asphyxiation 96 106 109 87 77
Other weapons or weapons not stated 958 1,140 1,005 999 895

It thus seems that local law enforcement reports about 13-20% of all gun homicides to the FBI without indicating what the gun type is — likely because this isn’t clear to the coroner (e.g., the wound was made by a bullet that could have been fired either from a rifle or a handgun) and the crime hasn’t been solved, or perhaps just because the police department doesn’t bother to provide the gun type data even if it knows it. We don’t know what fraction of these homicides involved rifles, but it seems unlikely that the fraction is 0%. If we assume that 5% of the homicides involved rifles (following the breakdown between known handgun homicides and known rifle homicides), then blunt object homicides would still exceed rifle homicides. If it’s 20%, for instance if handgun homicides are more likely to be provably identified as such, but rifle homicides are more likely to seem ambiguous, then rifle homicides would exceed blunt object homicides.

The article briefly acknowledges the uncategorized guns problem, without noting its magnitude: “While the FBI makes is clear that some of the ‘murder by rifle’ numbers could be adjusted up slightly, when you take into account murders with non-categorized types of guns, it does not change the fact that their annual reports consistently show more lives are taken each year with these blunt objects than are taken with Feinstein’s dreaded rifle.” But the FBI’s reports don’t show this, because they don’t actually give a count of rifle murders — they give a lower bound for such murders (the cell labeled rifles) and an upper bound (the cell labeled rifles, added to the cell labeled “Firearms, type not stated”), and we don’t know exactly where the actual rifle murder count falls.

In any event, I don’t think one can say with any confidence that rifle murders are less common than blunt object murders. I’m generally skeptical of gun control proposals, whether aimed at handguns or rifles, because I think most such proposals will either have little effect on anyone, or would tend to interfere with self-defense much more than they would interfere with crime. But until we have a better sense of what the “firearms, type not stated” category means, I wouldn’t assume much about rifle murder counts.

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