Want To Understand Gun Violence? Try Using Your Gmail Account.

Our friends at the Gun Violence Archive have been tracking gun violence since 2014, and their data is often cited by news agencies, researchers and advocacy groups. The problem with what they publish, however, and it’s not their fault by any means, is that as an open source aggregator, GVA‘s data is more a reflection of how and why the media covers gun violence than as a comprehensive picture of what is going on. 

To begin with, and again this is a problem which the GVA admits to as well, suicides, even suicides committed with guns, rarely make news. Unintentional shootings are also events which never attract any public concern unless it’s when the four-year old grabs the gun and shoots the older sister in the head. Finally, intentional shootings where the victim survives are undercounted by as much as half, again a function of media coverage which open-source aggregators are unable to overcome.

I have created my own little GVA version by simply going into my Gmail account and setting alerts for the following terms: ‘shootings,’ ‘gun violence’ and ‘guns.’ Every day those three alerts generate thirty or more links to internet-based media stories, many of which also end up being sourced by the GVA.  Much in the same way as many people start their mornings off with a cup of coffee and a newspaper or other source for news, I begin my day with coffee and those Gmail alerts.

I would estimate that over the last five years (I started reading the Gmail alerts at some point in 2014) I have read or at least scanned 30,000 media sources related to the violence caused by guns. And if anyone reading this column decides to send me a snarky email about how ‘it’s not the guns that cause the violence, it’s the people using the guns,’ do me a favor and save your time and mine, okay? I made an executive decision last week to stop replying to any email that scores higher than five on what Al Franken calls the dumbness scale, and that message earns a ten.

The reason I read these alerts is because I have always felt uncomfortable whenever my gun-research friends in public health describe what they are doing as creating an ‘epidemiology’ of gun violence. The CDC defines epidemiology as the “study of distribution and determinants of health-related states among specified populations and the application of that study to the control of health problems.” But gun violence is a very special problem because with the exception of gun-suicide and accidental shooting, every other gun injury is caused by someone other than the person who gets hurt. So the fact that our data on gun injuries gives us detailed information about the person who got shot, doesn’t tell us very much about the individual who pulled the trigger and committed the crime. And make no mistake about it, more than 75% of all gun injuries happen to be crimes.

Thanks to  FBI-UCR data, we know where and how these crimes occur, and we also know whether the shooter and the victim had some degree of contact before the event. So we know the what, the who and the where of gun violence, but we don’t know the why. More than one and one-half million violent assaults take place every year but guns are involved in less than one hundred thousand of these events. How come more than 90 percent of the people who want to really hurt someone else do it without using a gun? The answer to that question is what epidemiological research should provide.

My public health researcher friends might consider spending a little less time gathering data and a little more time actually reading descriptions of how people get shot. After all, when it comes to something as complicated as violence, the devil has to be found in the details, right?

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