Why Don’t We Talk About The Real Gun-Violence Numbers?

You can’t go to a gun violence prevention (GVP) website without being confronted with the horrific numbers of people killed or injured by guns.  It’s well above 100,000 each year and it’s far beyond anything experienced by any other advanced country, like 20 times as high.  But if you think that such numbers really illustrate how big a problem we have in this country with guns, think again. In fact, the gun-violence numbers bandied about happen to be only a part of a much larger whole.

gun demo              The GVP community relies for its gun-violence victim data on the CDC because in theory, hospitals do a pretty good job of keeping track of their patients, and showing up with a bullet in your stomach or your leg has a way of attracting lots of attention from the medical staff. The only problem with these numbers is that a lot of people who suffer physical injuries from guns don’t show up or aren’t counted – either way, we need to better understand this issue before we can assume that we really know the health toll caused by guns.

The FBI has just issued its 2016 crime report, a document which breaks down crimes in terms of what type of weapon was used.  For 2016 homicides, the feds say that 15,000 people were murdered in 2016, of which 11,000 murders, or 73%, were caused by guns. They also say that 735,000 people were arrested for aggravated assault, in which 190,000 attackers or 25%,  used guns. All fine and well except for one little problem – three out of ten non-fatal gun assaults are never reported to the police.  So to our gun-violence totals, we should probably another 60,000 or so events.

The gun homicide numbers reported by the FBI are close to what we get from the CDC. On the other hand, the FBI numbers on intentional, non-fatal gun injuries bring the overall gun-violence toll close to 200,000, and that’s just a start.  Because if the GVP wants to rely on the medical profession to tell them how many people are gun-violence victims each year, they should use as their calculus the definition of violence that physicians have adopted which comes right out of the World Health Organization (WHO) and goes like this: “the intentional use of physical force, threatened or actual, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death [or] psychological harm….”

You think it’s not harmful to have a live gun pointed at you even if it doesn’t go off? Because that’s what happens to the 125,000 people who are robbed each year at gunpoint, a violent crime whose ‘clearance’ rate is around 30 percent. So let’s add another 150,000 gun-violence victims to the total above and we wind up with what I believe is a realistic number of people who suffer physical or psychological injury from guns of around 350,000 or more. Which happens to be about three times the number of gun-violence victims that is usually pushed out.

Why does GVP only count gun violence victims who are physically injured by guns? Perhaps because we don’t have a precise method to measure the psychological impact of looking down the barrel of a loaded gun.  I’m not sure we have a workable research methodology that can come up with an y kind of legitimate statistical result. So we end up falling back on vague generalizations about the ‘cost’ of violence in a community-wide or society-wide sense, and the specific number of people who suffer from the mental effects of being threatened by guns disappears.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) says that 284,000 Americans were ‘victimized’ but not killed by guns in 2015. Which isn’t far off from the calculation I made above and translates into more than 800 victims of gun violence every day. If the GVP community wants to keep saying that 315 people are killed or injured each day with guns, I only wish the real gun-violence number was that low.

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A New PSA From Sandy Hook Promise Which You Should Watch.

This week a PSA was released by Sandy Hook Promise which is a graphic and disturbing effort to draw attention to behavior which might indicate that someone is at-risk for engaging in violence with a gun.  The purpose is to build awareness about gun violence prevention through collaboration, training and group discussions in schools and other public venues.  The group claims to have trained more than 1 million educators, parents, community leaders and students in their “Know The Signs” program, and they must be doing something right because Gun-nut Nation has lost no time in warning their folks that the project is nothing more than another attempt to take away everyone’s guns.

sandy-logo           One part of their website which drew my attention is a downloadable factsheet on gun violence with data divided into daily and annual numbers based on an average for the years 2003 to 2013.  Thanks to our friends at the Gun Violence Archive, some of the gun violence numbers, which come from the CDC, have been shown to be pretty far off, particularly true for accidental shooting deaths and even moreso for the number of individuals shot by cops. But the number I found most interesting was the topmost category of the Gun Facts sheet, something called “Acts of Gun Violence” which is a category of gun violence that I have never seen before.  And the number, which is an average of 549,380 each year between 2003 and 2013, is so astonishingly large that I decided to look further and try to figure it out.

The number comes from a DOJ – Bureau of Justice Statistics publication, “Firearm Violence, 1993-2011,” used by the Sandy Hook people to come up with their half-million average gun violence figure by averaging yearly numbers from 2003 to 2011.  What pushes the overall average up to just slightly under 550,000 is a big jump in one year- 627,200 shootings in 2006 – moving the annual average to what otherwise would have been around 475,000 gun assaults each year. I’m not saying that 550,000 criminal gun assaults is something to sneeze at; I’m saying that the ‘annual average’ of just under 550,000 does not accurately represent these stats.

The number that DOJ calls ‘criminal firearm violence’ and Sandy Hook calls ‘acts of gun violence’ comes from the annual survey of criminal victimization known as the National Crime Victimization Survey or NCVS. This annual survey is mandated by Congress because the only other national crime data is generated by the FBI, and their numbers are based on how many people are arrested or crimes are reported, both of which, as we know, are far below the actual number of crimes.  The NCVS numbers are collected from interviews with more than 160,000 people each year and I can tell you from personal experience that the NCVS analysts know how to crunch numbers and crunch them very well.

There’s only one little problem with the NCVS numbers on gun violence. They are based on nothing more than a good guess. Because if you take the trouble to drill down to the actual survey questions from which this data is derived, you discover that respondents are asked whether they were attacked with a knife or a gun but they are not asked to specify which was which.  And since the FBI tells us that for every ten reported assaults, six involve a gun and four involve a knife, I guess this is how the NCVS come up with their number on gun crimes which then are used by BJS which then end up in the factsheet published by Sandy Hook.

Now you would think that for something as serious and costly as gun injuries that we would try to establish some numbers that are even reasonably accurate, never mind simply meeting the test of good, common sense.  But neither accuracy nor common sense will define how government will collect or use data over the next four years. If they bother with data at all.

What Does Gun Safety Really Mean?

It’s been a bit more than twenty years since the debate over guns really heated up.  Much of the noise was due to the 1994 Clinton gun bills which the NRA and other gun-owning organizations vigorously opposed, but it also reflected a genuine concern that gun crimes and gun violence were out of control.  And even though crime and gun violence rates then dropped by nearly 50% before the 21st Millennia and continue at historic lows, the argument over what I call the social utility of guns continues to grow.

The social utility of guns from a negative and a positive can be summarized as follows.  On the one hand, public health researchers and gun-control advocates believe that the risks of gun ownership outweigh the gains; i.e., if you own or carry a gun sooner or later someone will get shot and the victim won’t be that bad guy trying to break down your back door.  On the other hand we have the gun makers and gun-owning organizations like the NRA who just as firmly believe that virtually all gun violence is caused by bad guys with guns, and that the level of violent crime would be much higher if we didn’t have the 2nd Amendment right to own or carry a gun.

safe                I happen to believe that the public health research on gun risk is valid.  I also happen to believe that most people who keep a gun around to protect themselves would have absolutely no idea what to do if they found themselves in a position where their physical security depended on their ability to use a gun.  It also doesn’t matter what I happen to believe. We accept all kinds of risks in our lives – smoking, obesity, drinking – for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with our ability or willingness to deal with the risk itself.  So who am I to say that one person’s perception of risk shouldn’t be another person’s equally valid perception of gain?

The fact is that virtually every single gun that is used in an actual or threatened shooting of another human being started out as a legal gun.  And while the recent video about gun histories posted by States United was a clever way to link guns with their use in murders and assaults, the history of every single gun in that faux gun shop started off in the same, legal way. Now I can’t imagine that there’s one law-abiding gun owner out there who consciously would want one of his guns to be used to injure or kill someone else.  Thanks to the NICS, I also don’t think that anything but a small percentage of guns are initially sold to someone who doesn’t legally deserve to own a gun.  But if 11,000 guns are used in homicides, 140,000 in assaults and another 120,000 in robberies, then we can say with some degree of assurance that every year at least 270,000 guns fall into the wrong hands.

It’s all well and good to talk about extending background checks on the one hand, or telling kids to STOP – don’t touch – leave the area – tell an adult- on the other.  But I got news for you.  If 200,000 guns are stolen every year, and that’s a minimum figure, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out how easy it is for guns to get into the ‘wrong’ hands. And if anyone out there believes that the five-dollar cable locks you can pick up at your local police station courtesy of the NSSF is going to stop someone from  stealing your guns, think again.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, thefts of guns are nearly twice as likely to be reported than thefts of other household items of comparable value.  Which means that gun owners understand the consequences of losing their guns.  All the more reason why both sides should be talking about gun safety in terms of theft control, and not just arguing about the social risks versus the social benefits of owning guns.

How Many Victims Of Gun Violence? More Than You Think.

Over the last twenty years we have been bombarded with endless noise from the NRA about the value of guns because they protect us from crime.  This “social utility” argument is based on the mostly-discredited research of Gary Kleck and John Lott, of whom the latter’s work doesn’t really qualify as research since it basically panders to what he perceives to be the fears and prejudices of his audience.  But for the moment let’s assume that some people do use guns for self-defense, and try to compare those numbers to the numbers of people who are injured or killed by guns.

According to Brady, an average of 100,000 are killed or wounded each year by guns.  This seems to be the standard gun violence number bandied about by gun control groups. I think the number is way too low. The gun violence report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics puts the number of fatal and non-fatal gun victimizations at 478,000; add the suicides and you’re around one-half million. I think this figure is also way too low.  The number is based almost entirely on data from the National Criminal Victim Survey (NCVS) which is conducted twice each year with respondents from 90,000 households who are asked to describe any criminal incident in which they were victimized over the previous six months. The good news is that the respondents are asked to describe criminal events regardless of whether or not they were reported to the police.  The bad news is that some of the methodological problems attendant to this survey result in substantial underreporting of crime.

gvFor example, the survey only involves individuals who are permanent members of a household at the time that the interviews take place.  This means that the non-permanent population, which has been estimated to be as high as 12% of the entire population, is not captured in the NCVS results.  Another group that is underrepresented are the elderly, particularly those living alone who may or may not be able to respond to visits or calls from representatives of the NCVS. Both of these populations, particularly in inner-city environments, are susceptible to being victims of crime.

Note however, that the discussion above only concerns figuring out how many unreported gun crimes occur each year.  But that’s a very narrow definition of gun violence.  To understand the true dimensions of the problem, we also must try to figure out how many people are affected by either witnessing gun violence or by being exposed to the possibility of gun violence when someone brandished or otherwise made them feel vulnerable because they had a gun.  For all the talk by Kleck and Lott about how many people used guns to thwart what otherwise would have been a crime committed against them, what about all the people who were on the receiving end of an explicit or implicit threat of violence because someone showed them a gun?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not jumping on the anti-CCW bandwagon and accusing or even hinting at the possibility that law-abiding gun owners who carry around a concealed weapon ever use it to intimidate, scare or otherwise threaten family, strangers or friends.  The idea that an expansion of CCW leads to more gun violence on the part of licensees is an old canard that should be put to rest.  What I am saying, however, is that witnessing an actual or even possible act of violence is a traumatizing, and not-easily forgotten event.  And we can assume that most acts of gun violence are witnessed by ancillary, non-participants who are affected acutely and emotionally when they see an act of gun violence or gun threats take place.

If the gun lobby wants to buy the idea that several million crimes are prevented each year because someone protected themselves or others with a gun, I can say with the same logic and certainly more evidence that the real toll of gun violence is just as high. Let’s not kid ourselves into believing that something as lethal as a gun isn’t an object whose use can be considered in anything other than the most serious and consequential terms.

Do Good Guys With Guns Protect Us From Bad Guys With Guns?

The NRA and its academic acolytes like John Lott have been tirelessly promoting the idea that guns protect us from crime, which is another way of saying that everyone should carry a gun, which is another way of saying that we should all buy more guns.  And the proof that more guns equals less crime comes in the form of a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which shows that over the past twenty years, violent crime, particularly gun crimes, have fallen by more than 50 percent.  Since it’s over the same two decades that every state has adopted some form of concealed-carry law, the gun lobby argues that the reason we are a much safer country is because everyone’s walking around with a gun.  Now if we could get rid of those unhealthy gun-free zones, right?

Another, much more troublesome report was issued in January with data and conclusions that the NRA chooses to ignore.  The report was based on a study of 6,300 patients admitted to a Level 1 trauma center in Newark suffering from gunshot wounds between 2000 and 2011, a time when, according to the FBI-UCR data, overall violent crime in Newark dropped by 22%.  Actually, the murder rate during that period increased by nearly 60%, but since we’re only talking about less than 60 dead bodies lying around, we’ll leave that one alone.

crime2                Getting back to the gunshot wounds, the physicians who conducted the research found that the number of patients didn’t significantly change, notwithstanding the alleged drop in gun violence everywhere else, and the severity of the wounds substantially increased.  Despite the fact that Level 1 trauma centers utilize the most advanced life-saving skills imaginable, the mortality rate from gunshot wounds climbed from 9% to 14%, the number of spinal cord and brain injuries nearly doubled, and the incidence of multiple bullet wounds increased from 10% to nearly 25%.

The gun lobby could (and will) ignore these numbers were it not for the fact that the national picture for the trend gunshot wounds is roughly the same as what happened in Newark.  According to the CDC, the rate of intentional gun injuries per 100,000 was 17.25 in 2000 and 17.83 in 2011, holding steady nationally just like the researchers in the case of Newark’s University Hospital found over the same eleven years.   That being the case, how does one reconcile those numbers with the BJS report that the NRA uses to bolster its claim of such a dramatic decrease in the criminal use of guns?  The BJS report shows a decline in the gun homicide rate from 7 per 100,000 to less than 4 from 1993 to 2011, and a decline in nonfatal gun victimizations from above 7 per 1,000 persons to less than 2.  So who’s right?

They’re both correct except that virtually the entire decline in gun violence occurred between 1993 and 2002, while since the latter date the gun violence rate, including both fatalities and injuries, has stabilized or slightly increased.  This stabilization of the number of admissions for gun violence is exactly what was reported by the medical team at University Hospital in Newark, even while the severity and cost of injuries continues to climb.

Meanwhile, for all the talk about good guys with guns protecting us from bad guys with guns,  the “decrease” in gun violence ended in 2002, while the number of states that now issue CCW has roughly doubled since 2002. The NRA’s notion that we are a much safer country now that residents of every state can apply for CCW falls flat on its face, even when we look at the data that the NRA uses to prove its own case.