Decades old gun deaths poster goes viral again

18 December 2012

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 applauds anyone who promptly corrects a claim they have previously made when they learn differently, but where do these handgun statistics originally come from?

United Nations

There are firearm homicides statistics available on the countries mentioned in Mr Fogle's tweet. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) provides homicide by firearms data (albeit incomplete) from 1995 to 2010. The most recent figures they quote for each country are:

  • In 2008, the number of homicides by firearm in Japan was 11
  • In 2009, the number of homicides by firearm in England and Wales was 41
  • In 2004, the number of homicides by firearm in Switzerland was 57
  • In 2009, the number of homicides by firearm in Canada was 173
  • In 2004, the number of homicides by firearm in Sweden was 37
  • And last but not least, in 2010, the number of homicides by firearm in the United States was recorded as 9,960

These are quite different from the figures which went viral over Twitter although, as Mr Fogle notes, the 'sentiment' (the huge number of deaths by firearms in the US compared to everywhere else, even accounting for population differences) is still there.

However, we can do slightly better than the UN report by getting more up-to-date figures for some of the countries.

United States

The latest data from the FBI provides a fuller picture of homicides by firearms in America, state-by-state (please note that there is no data for Florida or Alabama). In 2011, there were 12,664 homicides. In 8,583 of those cases, firearms were the cause, and 6,220 of those firearms were handguns. This is not quite the 10,728 figure that was quoted by Mr Fogle.

The US Bureau of Justice also provides data on homicide trends. From 1976 to 2005, it charts the use of handguns in homicides. In 1980, the use of handguns in homicides was over 10,500, which fell steadily during the decade. In 1993 it hit a peak of 13,981 and has been on a general downward trend since then.

England and Wales

The Home Office has more up-to-date figures than the UNODC on homicides caused by firearms for England and Wales. In 2010/11, there were 60 victims of homicide by shooting, which was an increase of 19 from 2009/10. Handguns were used in over 3,000 offences during 2010/11, a fall of 17 per cent on 2009/10.

According to the Home Office, there has been a downward trend since 2001/02. The Home Office also provides information on the number of firearm certificates issued in England and Wales. In March 2012, there were 141,820 firearm certificates on issue, covering 477,888 firearms. As for shotguns, there were 562,696 shotgun certificates on issue on 31 March 2012.

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):

[Clipping from The Spokane Chronicle, 3rd March 1982]

The figure from the US is similar to the Bureau of Justice's figures for that year, although not exact. The true figure for the present day is several thousand fewer deaths per year.

In any case, this looks like a 32 year-old set of figures, and not one that should be repeated (or retweeted).


The most likely source of the confusion was this advert broadcast and printed in the early 1980s:

It looks like whoever read this recently assumed that it was contemporary - that "last year" is 2011. In fact, the (very) smallprint on the poster sources the claims to 1979 statistics from the FBI. This much is confirmed by several news and academic articles from the US in the early 80s.

Of course, "West Germany" should have sent alarm bells ringing, as the New Statesman (who also spotted the dated figures) noted earlier this week.

Update 3 October 2017

This article was updated when the image went viral again.

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