Fact-check: Do 'more people die from hands, fists, feet, than rifles'?

Viral Facebook post: "More people die from hands, fists, feet, than rifles.”

PolitiFact's ruling: Mostly True

Here's why: In the midst of the gun control debate, a data-laden graphic shared on Facebook posits this: rifles are nothing compared to human brawn.

"More people die from hands, fists, feet, than rifles. Guess we should ban limbs now…," reads the May 25 post. Underneath, a graphic titled "Number of murder victims in the Unites States in 2020 by weapon used" shows rifle deaths at 455 and deaths from "personal weapons (hands, fists, feet, etc.)" as 662. The post includes a link to a website called Statista.

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed.

FBI data from 2020 does show that more people died from injuries sustained from other people’s fists, feet and hands than from rifles. But there’s a little more you should know about that data before you use it to draw conclusions.

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Statista researchers pulled data from the FBI’s Crime Data explorer, which does show that of the 17,813 homicides reported in 2020, 662 of them were committed with "personal weapons" — which the site indeed describes as hands, fists, feet, etc. — and 455 homicides were committed with rifles. So strictly going by the numbers, the post’s claim is accurate, but there are important caveats.

The FBI’s numbers also show that of all the homicides reported, 13,663 were committed with firearms of any kind, or about 77%. Only about 4% of homicides overall were from hands, fists and feet.

And 4,863 of those gun homicides were committed with firearms of a "type not stated," meaning law enforcement agencies didn't specify in their data reporting which type of gun was used. Enough rifles could be among those to push that total higher than personal weapons — even 5% would do it — though there’s no way to know for certain.

The FBI’s data is based on voluntary reporting. Not every law enforcement agency files an expanded homicide report. These statistics are based on reports from 15,875 of 18,623 law agencies, meaning the number of homicides is likely higher. The Centers for Disease Control, for instance, lists 19,384 gun homicides in the U.S. in 2020, based on U.S. death certificate information provided by the National Center for Health Statistics.

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The FBI statistics show that handguns were used in most of the gun homicides, with 8,029. That’s likely because "violent crime is typically higher in urban areas than rural ones, and handguns are better suited for urban living," said Adam Lankford, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Alabama.

Lankford and a colleague did a study in 2020 that found that semiautomatic rifles or assault weapons are increasingly being used in mass shootings.

"It makes sense that handguns would be used more often than long guns in muggings, gang violence, robberies, or any other form of violence where the perpetrator may try to hide his firearm before and after the crime," Lankford said. "Public mass shooters are less concerned about hiding their firearms because they typically don't expect to escape."

AR-15 or AR-15-style rifles have been used in many high-profile mass shootings, including at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, a concert in Las Vegas in 2017 and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018. Such weapons were also used in the two most recent mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York.

Salvador Ramos, the Uvalde gunman who police say killed 19 elementary school students and two teachers on May 24, used an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle in the attack, one of two rifles he purchased days earlier after his 18th birthday, the Associated Press reported.

Payton Gendron, the 18-year-old charged with fatally shooting 10 people in a racially motivated attack at a Buffalo supermarket on May 14, also used an AR-15-style rifle, the Associated Press reported.

Our ruling

A Facebook post claimed that more people were killed by hands, fists and feet in 2020 than by rifles.

FBI data does confirm that statistic. But the data source is limited, and the stat alone doesn’t tell the full story of the role firearms of all kinds play in homicides.

We rate this Mostly True.

Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

The National Rifle Association proceeded with its annual convention last weekend in Houston in the aftermath of the Uvalde school shooting.
The National Rifle Association proceeded with its annual convention last weekend in Houston in the aftermath of the Uvalde school shooting.

Our Sources

  • Facebook post (archived), May 25, 2022

  • Statista, "Number of murder victims in the United States in 2020, by weapon used"

  • FBI Crime Data Explorer, filtered for expanded homicide data in 2020

  • FBI, "Murder victims by weapon, 2015-2019" accessed May 25, 2022

  • Email interview with Adam Lankford, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at The University of Alabama, May 26, 2022

  • Voice of America, "History of mass shooters," June 1, 2021

  • Violence Project, mass shooting data through Buffalo attack

  • Pew Research Center, "What the data says about gun deaths in the U.S." Feb. 3, 2022

  • Associated Press, "​​Texas gunman warned online he was going to shoot up school," May 25, 2022

  • Associated Press, "​​Buffalo supermarket shooting: What do we know so far?," May 18, 2022

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: FBI data on deaths by 'hands, fists, feet' versus rifles