If you are concerned about gun violence, then sooner or later you’ll have to spend some time looking at the extraordinary data collected by the CDC and housed in an online repository known as the National Violent Death Reporting System, aka the NVDRS. The data only covers reports from 32 states, many of them recently added, but it is so rich and so comprehensive as regards gun mortality and morbidity that it simply cannot be neglected by anyone who wants to go beyond the headlines of the gun debate and understand the issues from an objective point of view.
You can save yourself a lot of time and energy (as well as cutting through the bureaucratic red-tape that is often required to get access to the raw data) by simply accessing the relevant Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWR) published by the CDC based on information from the NVDRS. The data in the NVDRS is valuable because it is drawn largely from coroner’s reports, which are not only extremely detailed as regards the circumstances of the injury, but also tend to be comprehensive because coroners must report to state health departments which then report directly to the CDC. I am constantly surprised at how much critical information, like national incomes, population and employment are based on estimates, rather than comprehensive numbers. The NVDRS, on the other hand, is the real McCoy.
Following the bizarre incident in the Hayden, ID Wal-Mart, where a two-year old evidently discharged his mother’s concealed handgun, instantly killing her, I decided to look at this not from the vague media reports coming from the scene, not based on a few, online messages from grieving relatives and friends, and certainly not from the pronouncements that will now follow about ‘responsibility,’ ‘safety,’ ‘a learning moment,’ or any of the other bromides that have already begun to circulate about an event which we have witnessed many times before and will no doubt witness many times again. Rather, I want to see what I can learn about the death of Veronica Rutledge by comparing what I know and don’t know about her demise to the data on such events collected by the NVDRS and published by the CDC.
The last MMWR on unintentional gun deaths covers 16 states who reported data in 2010. Two of the states, like Idaho, were Western states (Utah and Colorado), several others were Mid-western states (Michigan and Ohio), five were Southeastern states, in other words, a good mix. Unintentional firearm deaths were less than 1% of all gun mortality (97% were suicides and homicides) which would be about par if we had data for all 50 states. An unintentional firearm death is defined as “a death that results from a penetrating injury or gunshot wound from a weapon that uses a powder charge to fire a projectile and for which a preponderance of evidence indicates that the shooting was not directed intentionally at the decedent.” Now I’m sorry if this is all very dry and somewhat obtuse but again, that’s what research into gun violence is all about. And it’s clear from the little bit that we know from Hayden, at least we can assume that the shooter in this case did not intentionally discharge the gun.
Here are some additional comparisons between Hayden and the unintentional gun deaths analyzed for 16 states in 2010. December was the lowest month for these incidents which makes the event in Hayden somewhat rare. In 2010 there was not a single, unintentional gun death in a public store, with two-thirds taking place in homes. More than 60% of the incidents involved handguns and three-quarters of the victims were White, but only 15% were women. Three-quarters of the shootings occurred because the gun went off “accidentally” or some other “mechanical” event took place.
To sum up: Accidental shootings don’t usually take place in December, they don’t involve women as victims and they don’t occur in public space. So what was a woman doing walking through WalMart during the Christmas holidays with a loaded gun?