The research team at Everytown has put up a new website which gives an easy access to most of the numbers that we need to use in any discussion about gun violence. And I like this site because it not only aggregates numbers for each gun violence category in readable and understandable formats, but also provides links to the original data sources, which in most cases happen to be the FBI and the CDC.
This brings us to an issue about gun violence numbers that needs to be addressed, namely, the fact that most of the data comes from two agencies, one of which is concerned with crime and the other with health. Which means that gun violence is defined differently, the data collection methods are very different and the ways in which the data are analyzed is also dissimilar to the point that comparisons between the two data sources usually don’t work very well.
Not that the FBI and the CDC are the only two places where you can go looking for gun violence data. You can also relevant data collected and published by the National Crime Victims Survey, which operates under the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and somewhat more detailed CDC data can be found on the CDC’s WONDER database, although much of the latter data just links back to the WISQARS site.
The problem with all the data collections, however, is that none of the agencies whose reports are used, in the aggregate by the FBI or the CDC are mandated to submit any information at all. The FBI claims that its data represents submissions from 18,000 “city, university/college, county, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement agencies voluntarily participating in the program.” Note the word ‘voluntarily.’ As for the CDC, all their numbers are estimates based on reports from what thy refer to as a ‘representative’ group of hospitals, but in the case of intentional, non-fatal shootings, for example, they specifically state that the data is drawn from a sample that is too small to be considered reliable.
It’s unfortunate that the GVP community is committed to evidence-based arguments about gun violence when the other side couldn’t care less about how they use data at all. Take, for example, the attempt by John Lott to debunk President Obama’s claim about the frequency of mass shootings in the United States. After the Charleston shooting, Obama said, “we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency.” Lott looked at mass killings in other countries, then divided the number of fatalities by 1 million and this bizarre data manipulation made the U.S. the 11th country for mass violence attacks, exceeded by such places as Norway, Slovakia and the U.K. Between 2009 and 2015 these three countries together sustained 86 mass fatalities, whereas in the same time-period with a country that numbers 6 times as many people, ‘only’ 181 Americans died in mass attacks. But each of these countries experienced one mass shooting, the United States had twenty-five!
Everyone involved in GVP advocacy should welcome the Everytown data collection and should use it whenever they find themselves discussing gun violence in forums where such information can better inform the public at large. But I do have a suggestion for Everytown in terms of maximizing the value of their effort because sometimes I get the feeling that when the GVP presents hard evidence about gun violence, they sometimes present it only themselves. I think it would be great if Everytown could get these numbers in front of every public office-holder in America who could or might vote on legislation that will reduce the human carnage caused by guns. The Everytown numbers can better inform the public debate and should become part of the debate beginning right ow.