Do Baseball Bats and Hammers Really Kill More People Than Guns?

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Feb. 14 2013 1:54 PM

Baseball Bats and Hammers Do Not Kill More People Than Guns

Why do people keep saying they do?

A Blacksmith's hammer.
The claim that baseball bats and hammers kill more people than guns is the result of a 30-year-long telephone game

Photo by Mathias Kniepeiss/Getty Images

Georgia congressman Paul Broun claimed after Tuesday’s State of the Union address that “There are more people killed with baseball bats and hammers than are killed with guns.” Explainer readers may remember Broun as the congressman who believes the Earth is 9,000 years old. What about his hammer and baseball bat claim?

He’s wrong again, but he’s getting warmer. According to FBI data, 8,583 people were murdered with firearms in 2011. Only 496 people were killed by blunt objects, a category that includes not just hammers and baseball bats but crowbars, rocks, paving stones, statuettes, and electric guitars. Broun was off by a factor of at least 17 this time, a significant improvement on his estimate of the age of the Earth. The blue planet is 4.54 billion years old, or more than 500,000 times older than Broun believes it to be.

Guns are, undeniably, the American murderer’s weapon of choice. The number of people murdered with firearms in 2011 was more than twice the number murdered by every other means combined, including fists, swords, poison, explosives, arson, and strangulation.

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Those statistics are for intentional killings only. What about accidental deaths? According to data from the CDC, 606 people were killed in gun accidents in 2010. The number of people accidentally killed by any piece of sporting equipment was 18. Four people were killed by nonpowered hand tools such as hammers.

Baseball bats gained a reputation as a weapon after the mobster Al Capone used one to bash in his rivals’ heads. The oft-repeated claim that baseball bats and hammers kill more people than guns is the result of a 30-year-long telephone game. Beginning in the 1980s, many gun enthusiasts argued that logical consistency required extending any new gun restrictions to knives, baseball bats, and other household objects that could be used as murder weapons. When the Senate debated the Brady bill in 1992, Republican Bob Smith of New Hampshire wondered, “Should we ban baseball bats?” Other members insisted satirically that the Brady Bill’s waiting period must be extended to bats, knives, and automobiles.

Gun advocates soon added statistics to strengthen this line of argument. Responding to the proposed assault weapons ban in 1993, the Washington Times published an article stating that “baseball bats kill more people than AK-47s in at least one big city.” Columnist Mike Royko extended the argument slightly in 1994 after a ban on assault weapons was passed, writing that “there are all sorts of mundane or bizarre weapons used in more crimes than the weapons that Congress just voted to ban.” He included in his list baseball bats, cutlery, and feet. Within a decade, gun-rights activists were making the same broad and demonstrably incorrect claim Broun made on Tuesday. A 2004 letter to the editor in a Connecticut newspaper stated that “more people are attacked, maimed, and killed with baseball bats than firearms.” (The letter carried the ironic title, “Assault weapons letter was full of inaccuracies.”)

In its early, more modest form, the argument is plausible. Rifles killed 323 people in 2011, and shotguns killed 356—both lower totals than blunt objects racked up that year. Of course, the blunt objects category includes more than just baseball bats and hammers, but only a portion of rifle deaths involve assault rifles.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and Earthwire. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.