Are We In The Middle Of A Gun Violence Epidemic, Or Is It Something Worse?

I happened to glance at the remarkable Gun Violence Archive website today and two things caught my tired, old eyes.  First, the site has added maps, which allows someone at a glance to see the location of mass shootings, the places where law enforcement officers have been shot or killed, and the locations where people were shot or killed by police.  I’ll comment below on what these maps mean to me, but first I want to spend a few paragraphs discussing the other thing that caught my eye, namely, the number of people who have been killed this year by guns.

GVA            The figure for fatal shootings is unbelievable: 9,175.  If gun shootings continue at this level for the rest of the year, we end up at more than 14,000 who lost their lives due to guns, which will also be an unbelievable figure.  And it’s unbelievable for two reasons: first, because the number would mark an extraordinary increase from previous years; second, because the numbers captured and then published by the Gun Violence Archive go far beyond the numbers presented by anyone else, including the government agencies who are paid by us – the taxpayers – allegedly to track and publish these numbers on official terms.

According to the CDC, the total for all gun deaths other than suicide was 11,995, a number which includes homicides, accidental shootings and what is politely referred to as ‘legal interventions, which means that someone was shot (and killed) by a cop.  The FBI doesn’t track deaths, it tracks crimes, and they say there were 11,971 homicides in 2014, of which 8,124 were committed by someone who used a gun.  If we compare these 2014 numbers to the number in the GVA, both the CDC and FBI come up short.

I trust the GVA not because their numbers are higher than the other figures, but because their research is rigorous and comprehensive. But let’s not forget that since GVA pulls its information from media and other open sources, by definition even its number undercounts what’s really going on.  Notwithstanding these caveats, what the GVA shows is that gun deaths went up 7% from 2014 to 2015, and if the current carnage rate continues until year’s end, the 2016 figure will jump at least another 4% again. Is there a chance that we are now looking at an annual 5% increase in gun deaths every year?  That’s not only a good possibility; the numbers actually indicate that the increase in annual gun-deaths might be higher than that.

Now let’s take a look at the new GVA maps.  There are three maps that show the location of this year’s mass shootings, the location of cops shot or killed and persons shot or killed by cops. I am hopeful the GVA will eventually give us is a map showing the location of all person-to-person shootings because what I suspect we will see is that gun violence is generic to all 50 states.  And this should not surprise given the number of times each year that someone kills or injuries someone else with a gun.

If the annual rate of gun deaths continues to mount at 5% a year, by 2024 we will be over 20,000 gun deaths, and if we add that number to what has also been an upward trend in gun suicides, we could be looking at gun violence claiming more than 50,000 lives each and every year. Gun violence is often called an ‘epidemic,’ but I prefer the approach taken by one of our most brilliant gun researchers, Katherine Christoffel, who considers gun violence to be endemic to our society because it exacts a constant and more ongoing toll.

Feel free to download Dr. Christoffel’s article and consider what she has to say. The bottom line is that unless we take very dramatic and very forceful steps to curb gun violence, we may find ourselves with no choice but to accept this extraordinary loss of life as an ordinary state of affairs. And that is something we simply cannot permit.

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3 thoughts on “Are We In The Middle Of A Gun Violence Epidemic, Or Is It Something Worse?

  1. Thanks for the links and discussion. I will definitely look at this today.

    It would be interesting to look at this and look at Papachristos’ work on studying violence correlations, i.e., the ability to predict those who engage in urban violence (often using handguns) by looking at people’s associations. While gun violence is present everywhere, there are definitely hot spots and cold spots; those hotspots are often where you would expect–confluence of drugs, guns, and gangs. South sides of Chicago and Albuquerque are examples.

  2. I would not be so certain as to extrapolate the rise in gun deaths forward unless I attached a reason for it to go up. A Trump presidency, for example. Gun violence, as Christoffel shows, is a phenomena that has strong correlations with social issues rather than simply being a function of having guns.

    While the the endemic/epidemic model seems appropriate, its not clear to me Christoffel’s suggestions for gun violence reduction are all too specific to the underlying causes. Looking at her Figure 1 (the graph isn’t much different if you use gun deaths per 100k people–I re-plotted it), the gun violence maxima correspond to events such as the Great Depression/Prohibition, the gradual de-industrialization of cities and the drug wars of the nineties. So if one were to ask the question “what could we do to reduce the violence maxima” then rather than focusing only on gun control and public health, one would ask how to control not only the misuse of guns but how do we cope with these sorts of traumatic periods in the nation’s recent history that provide the motive (guns are the means) and minimize the interplay of guns and difficult times. In these cases, controlling for the rise in violence, both homicide and suicide, caused by drug wars or economic instability may involve social programs aimed at drug intervention and decriminalization, poverty/unemployment intervention, and mental health care. And, of course, stopping the interplay of these other conditions and grabbing for the guns with targeted efforts at firearms control. So it is much bigger than a public health, injury prevention, and gun control problem.

    Good article. I need to read it yet a third time and not while multitasking!

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