Shootings Costing U.S. $174 Billion Show Burden of Gun Violence

Shootings Costing U.S. $174 Billion Show Burden of Gun Violence
A knitted angel hangs under a sign near a cemetery in Newtown. Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

Televised images of Connecticut families grieving the loss of 26 first-graders and educators this week made Alfredo Valentin relive the pain he’s endured since his teenage son was shot dead in New York 18 years ago.

Shock, grief and an obsession with bringing the killers to justice consumed him for years. It brought financial ruin on his family, which had prospered from the real estate brokerage he ran in the Bronx. He lost the business and borrowed money to support his wife and daughters. It took years before he could work again. The damage, Valentin said, is permanent.

“You learn how to control the pain, do some work, but your heart isn’t in it, your edge is gone,” said Valentin, 69. “We got used to living with less.”

The impact of gun deaths and injuries go well beyond heartbreak to include billions of dollars of losses to the economy. The cost of U.S. gun violence in work lost, medical care, insurance, criminal-justice expenses and pain and suffering amounted to as much as $174 billion in 2010, according to data compiled by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Calverton, Maryland.

The nonprofit organization provides cost estimates of illnesses and injuries for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Transportation Department and industry associations, said economist Ted Miller, the group’s principal research scientist.

Columbine Massacre

The institute placed the cost of gun violence as higher than the total for U.S. alcohol-related automobile crashes, which was calculated at $129.7 billion in a 2006 study conducted for the road-construction industry, he said.

The societal cost of just one gun homicide averages $5 million, according to the institute. That includes $1.6 million in lost work; $29,000 in medical care; $11,000 on surviving families’ mental-health treatment; $397,000 in criminal-justice, incarceration and police expenses; $9,000 in employer losses; and $3 million in pain, suffering and lost quality of life.

Miller’s gun-injury cost estimate may be the highest of several conducted in the years since the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School massacre, when two seniors killed 12 fellow students and a teacher, and injured 21.

Economic Toll

In 2002, two public-policy professors -- Philip Cook of Duke University and Jens Ludwig from Georgetown University -- published “Gun Violence: The Real Costs,” based on research begun in the late 1990s. It calculated the costs to be at least $100 billion.

“It’s an economic cost in that it’s a reduction in the standard of living and quality of life in the same way that having dirty air or traffic congestion can be translated into an economic cost,” Cook said in a telephone interview.

Miller’s institute prepared its cost estimates based on 2010 CDC data, the most recent available. The agency reported 105,177 shootings resulting in injury in 2010. Of those, 31,672 died by homicide, suicide, law-enforcement action or accident; 38,566 survived after hospital stays; and 34,939 were treated and released from emergency rooms.

It derived its numbers by using formulas established by economic models often used by courts, and reports of government agencies and hospitals, Miller said in a phone interview.

‘Large Problem’

The U.S. Health and Human Services Department supplied total and average costs of shooting-related hospital stays, Miller said. The group estimates the cost of lost work -- even uncompensated household chores -- and future earnings with data from the Labor Department and Census Bureau, Miller said.

Dividing the $174 billion total by the number of guns in the U.S. -- 270 million as reported by the United Nations’ International Small Arms Survey -- the institute calculated the cost to society of each civilian-owned firearm in the U.S. at more than $644.

“The data shows this has been a very large problem for a very long time and the costs it imposes are far greater than what we collect in sales and excise taxes on guns every year,” Miller said. “Gun ownership is like smoking, an expensive and dangerous habit.” Its costs dwarf the $28.2 billion budget of the Justice Department, he said.

For Valentin, the costs include his inability to earn income from his real-estate business for years after the death of his 17-year-old son, Derek.

Bronx Bloodshed

A history buff planning to go to college, Derek was killed Aug. 8, 1994, shot three times in the back. A friend died from two bullets to his chest.

They were unarmed, walking on a Bronx sidewalk intending to confront a group of youths from a nearby prep school who had harassed Derek about girl he was dating, Valentin said. Police later learned one of the assailants had bought the handgun for $50, he said.

Valentin told his story in an interview with Bloomberg Markets magazine about a year after the Columbine incident. At the time, six years after his son’s death, he described how his obsession with his son’s killers prevented him from working even after their trial ended with two years later with two convictions. A judge sentenced the shooter to 33 years to life for second-degree murder; a second defendant spent four years in jail and got two years’ probation for solicitation of the crime, he said.

He and his wife required six months of psychotherapy; he lost his office, spent all of his retirement savings and ran up tens of thousands of dollars of credit-card debt, he said.

Lingering Pain

In an interview this week, he described how the feelings from the slaying flooded back as he watched the nonstop television news coverage from Newtown, Connecticut, where Adam Lanza killed 27 on Dec. 14 before fatally shooting himself.

“I couldn’t take my eyes off it as I saw that father talking about losing his little daughter,” Valentin said. “My chest got tight, it was too much. My wife told me to turn it off because we couldn’t watch it anymore.”

After his son’s death, he eventually returned to work. Over the past decade, he recouped enough of lost income to allow him to partly retire and allow his daughter to run the business. He spoke from Florida, where he and his wife were visiting his other daughter for the holidays.

He said he can’t stop thinking about the families who lost loved ones in Newtown and what they will experience this holiday season and for the rest of their lives.

“Instead of gifts, they’re buying flowers to take to the cemetery,” he said. “You’d be surprised how the hurt never goes away.”

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