Does a Fatal Shooting Really Cost More than $5 Million?

Police tape hangs in front of a crime scene.

Photo by Larry W. Smith/Getty Images

When we talk about the cost of gun violence, generally we’re referring to a bullet’s physical toll, and the effect that gun-related injuries and deaths can have on families and communities. But the financial cost of a gunshot wound can also be devastating, for both victims and the state. From medical bills to incarceration costs to lost income, gun violence can keep exacting financial pain long after the victims have been buried or the bullet wounds have healed. That’s the main takeaway of “The cost of a bullet,” an impressive and important new series from the Providence Journal. In it, reporters W. Zachary Malinowski and Amanda Milkovits attempt to quantify just how much a typical gun incident costs Rhode Island. Here’s Milkovits:

Costs of the criminal justice system: the police investigation, prosecution and defense, court proceedings and incarceration. Medical costs for the shooting survivors. Quality-of-life losses, pain and suffering of Aynis’ family, friends and survivors. The estimated “lost productivity” from the violent death of a child. The costs to a neighborhood plagued by gun violence.

The bullet is just the beginning. The price keeps climbing, like a stopwatch without a pause button.

Using numbers compiled in 2010 by Washington, D.C., think tanks, Malinowski and Milkovits report that each fatal shooting ends up costing $5,094,980, with much of that sum consisting of quality of life costs and lost income. (A nonfatal shooting costs about $425,000.)

“Quality of life costs” attempt to put a monetary value on victims’ and family members’ pain, suffering, and loss of enjoyment of life. How in the world do you translate these sorts of nonmonetary damages into a specific dollar amount? These costs were estimated by an economist named Ted R. Miller, who has published widely on so-called hedonic damages. In a phone call this afternoon, Miller told me that he derived these numbers through a regression analysis of jury awards for pain and suffering in nonfatal assault cases—a method that’s known as the “willingness to award” approach. Miller then checked his numbers by incorporating data from surveys that ask people how much they would be willing to pay for safety from gun violence—the “willingness to pay” approach—as well as “physician ratings of the amount of functional capacity that’s lost to different injuries.” (Here are several academic journal articles that go into greater depth on Miller’s methodology.)

Though Miller’s work is peer-reviewed, and his methods are not particularly controversial, his numbers are still just estimates, not price tags. Given that, the precision of that $5,094,980 figure seems a bit misleading. But even if you subtract quality of life costs and focus only on numbers for which someone might one day receive a bill, the cost of a bullet is still substantial. On Monday, Malinowski profiled a local man named Ray Duggan who was shot and paralyzed nine years ago; his injuries have cost taxpayers about $2.5 million. In the third part of the series, which ran today, Milkovits reported on how much an average shooting costs the criminal justice system. When a 12-year-old girl was shot to death in June, the investigation cost the police at least $29,600 in overtime pay. The 10-day trial cost at least $13,140. The shooter, who pleaded guilty, has been held in a correctional intake center since July, at a cost of $119.39 per day; once he moves to state prison, he will cost Rhode Island $62,730 per year.

This is fascinating stuff, and I recommend that you read the whole thing. The next step would be to try and determine roughly how much money tougher gun control legislation would save the state and the nation. If the emotional argument for gun control doesn’t sway legislators, maybe a financial one would.