Should The CDC Sponsor Gun Research?

It has been more than 30 years since the CDC eliminated gun violence from its research budget, but the hiatus may be coming to an end. The Democrats have stuck $50 million into the CDC budget, whether the line item will survive the usual horse-trading between the House and the Senate remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the fact that the funding of gun research is even being discussed by all the Democratic Presidential candidates is a development which many of us believed we would never live to see.

That being the case, I find myself in something of a dilemma because I am not sure that any of this research will necessarily yield positive results. Why do I say this? How can I afford to disagree so radically from a time-honored narrative supported by virtually everyone who wants gun violence to come to an end? After all, public policies should always be based on valid research, and who can provide such research about gun violence except my friends in public health?

 There’s only one little problem. Which is that the research activity on gun violence done by public health scholars to date lacks one, fundamental element that should be present in all evidence-based research, namely, a self-imposed requirement that the point of publishing research is to invite, indeed demand public critiques from other researchers in the same field.

Unfortunately, public health gun research is the only field of academic research which can’t seem to ever produce public debate of any kind. If I had a nickel for every gallon of ink spilled by public health researchers on the so-called mistakes made by John Lott, I could stop working for a living, go down to Delray Beach and buy a condo at King’s Point. On the other hand, if I had a nickel for every ounce of ink that public health researchers have spilled criticizing the work of themselves or their peers, maybe I should go down to Lake Okeechobee and rent an unfurnished trailer at Canal Point.

And by the way, I’m not so sure that Lott’s thesis about more legally-owned guns resulting in less crime is necessarily all that wrong. If you eliminate the words ‘legally-owned’ from his argument, what he says may be more correct than not. The problem with John’s work is that he assumes something about the spread of concealed-carry laws (CCW) which probably isn’t true; namely, that criminals intent on attacking someone else usually commit violent crimes against law-abiding folks.

In fact, most victims of violent crimes happen to be the same kinds of people who commit those crimes; younger, minority males living in inner-city neighborhoods being the most typical types of people treated in the ER for gun injuries, fatal or not. These young men don’t have CCW but probably more of them are now walking around with illegal guns. For all we know, Lott’s thesis that armed, self-defense may be an effective deterrent to violent crime might be correct, even if this deterrence factor is most frequently found within the criminal-prone population itself.

I began thinking about the ‘more guns = less crime’ argument from this perspective after reading research on gun violence published by criminologists, scholars for example like Marvin Wolfgang, whose studies on both teen-age delinquency and homicide have never been surpassed. Of course Wolfgang, considered by some to be the ‘most influential criminologist in the English-speaking world,’ is persona non-grata in the public health field since he had the audacity to suggest that maybe Gary Kleck’s research on armed, self-defense should not be simply dismissed.

I simply do not understand how anyone can claim to be conducting ‘evidence-based research’ when the evidence is never subject to public, critical review. Of course I hope the CDC restores funding for gun research, but I would also hope that the resumption of such funding be tied to some degree of critical, self-analysis by the public health research community itself.

I may be the smartest person I ever met, but there are plenty of folks who would disagree. Which is why anyone is free to post a comment on what I write.

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There Really Is A Way To End Gun Violence.

              One of the favorite games played by members of Gun-Control Nation (myself included) over the last couple of years was to look at the monthly background check report issued by FBI-NICS and announce with glee that the number of checks for gun transfers each month was going down. We all figured that if the slide continued through four years of Trump (and God forbid eight years if he won again) that the problem of gun violence would take care of itself because as a consumer item, the guns would simply go away.

              Guess what? We forgot that gun sales have always been pushed or pulled by the fear that guns might disappear. And now that virtually every 2020 Democratic candidate has promised to do ‘something’ about gun violence, the fear has returned within the ranks of Gun-nut Nation and the virus is beginning to spread.

              When it comes to gun retailing, August is always the slowest month of the year. Guns can’t compete with the beach. By the time you pay for that beach house rental, buy some sand toys for the kids and eat at the Clam Shack every night, the five hundred bucks you stashed away because you just have to have that little walkaround Glock, is money that has been spent.

              It turns out that not only did the August NICS numbers show a 15% increase over the August numbers for 2018, they were the highest numbers for any August going all the way back through the years of the hated Obama regime. The increase was strongest in the ‘other’ category, which happens to be the category which usually designates ‘black’ guns, a.k.a., AR-15’s. In Florida, where our friends are trying to get a Constitutional ban on assault rifles on the 2020 ballot, the increase in ‘other’ background checks was 48.7 percent.

              The good news for gun nuts is that this spike in sales has not yet generated any upward movement in prices for either ammunition or guns. One of the big online resellers, Cheaper Than Dirt, is listing quality 22LR ammunition for five cents a round, which is a price in adjusted dollars out of 1975. Another outfit has fully-assembled AR’s for less than $500 bucks. When Obama was turning America into a Muslim state, you couldn’t find a black gun anywhere for under a thou.

              My friends in Gun-control Nation who are busily promoting an expansion of background checks or Red Flag laws or some other type of ‘reasonable’ restriction that will keep guns out of the ‘wrong’ hands, need to remember that every, single one of the more than one million NICS checks done in August represents a gun being transferred into the ‘right’ hands. How do any of those new additions to the civilian gun arsenal wind up being used by someone to blow someone else away, which happens to be most of the gun injuries which happen every day?  We have absolutely no idea.

              Back in 1993 and 1994, Art Kellerman and Fred Rivara published research which definitively found that access to guns increased homicide and suicide risk. And by the way, these studies didn’t differentiate between guns that were, or were not safely stored. These studies got the gun industry to push their friends in Congress to delete gun research from the budget of the CDC, a budget item that my friends in public health are now clamoring to restore.

              If there had been a grass-roots movement for gun control in the 1990’s, the findings by Kellerman and Rivara might have been translated into a law to strictly regulate the ownership of assault rifles and semi-automatic pistols. This kind of law exists in every other advanced nation-state, which is why they don’t suffer from gun violence and we do.

With all due respect to my liberal friends who remain enthralled by the 2nd Amendment, we don’t need no stinkin’ research,  we don’t need no stinkin’ reasonable laws.  We just need to get rid of certain guns which were never designed for hunting or sport.

Gee, that was a tough one to figure out.

Do We Need CDC Funding To Understand Gun Violence?

              To paraphrase Jonathan Swift who was paraphrasing either a Greek or Persian proverb, so the mountain shook and out came a mouse. Which is the only way I can describe the Congressional hearing in DC yesterday covering gun-research funding for the CDC. The House Appropriations Committee (actually its subcommittee) heard testimony from four witnesses – Andrew Morral from RAND; Ronald Stewart from the Trauma Committee of the American College of Surgeons; Daniel Webster, who runs the gun research program at Johns Hopkins; and the hated John Lott who, on occasion, is allowed to show up at public-policy meetings to represent the ‘other side.’

               After some rather long-winded remarks by Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) who chaired the hearing and some less-winded remarks by the Ranking Member Tom Cole (R-OK) each of the panelists were given 5 minutes to make an initial statement. I listened very closely to these comments, but by end of the 15 minutes taken by Morral, Stewart and Webster, I found myself having difficulty staying awake. It wasn’t only that they didn’t really explain the connection between the lack of CDC funding and the persistence of gun violence over the past twenty years (although to Webster’s credit, I think he was about to offer such an explanation when his time expired and he was cut off) but they delivered their remarks in a manner which made them all sound somewhat bored and almost reluctant to have shown up.

              On the other hand, when John Lott delivered his opening remarks, whether or not you would agree with anything he said, at least he was animated and sounded excited about the issues that were going to be discussed. You would think that the panelists who were testifying in favor of resuming the CDC funding would have gone out of their way to make the Committee feel that this hearing marked a very important day. Frankly, I’m surprised I didn’t see Webster, Morral or Stewart stifling yawns.

              Near the end of the hearing, the mouse truly emerged from the mountain when the panelists were asked to list priorities for gun-violence research. Morral wanted more research to determine who was right and who was wrong about such hot-button issues as open carry, gun-free zones and stand your ground. That’s a biggie. Stewart knew that gun violence was caused by ‘hopelessness’ and wanted more research on how to change hopelessness into hope. A very clear agenda, I must say. Webster believed that more work needed to be done to identify ‘bad’ gun dealers although he failed to mention that most felons get their guns from sources other than retail stores.

              Lott then actually stated a fact. It was the only fact mentioned by any of the ‘experts’ on the panel. He said that 50% of all homicides occurred in 2% of American counties and were connected to the drug-selling gangs which operate in those high-violence zones. He suggested that more research was needed on ways to de-incentivize people who commit gun crimes while selling drugs – the one, specific strategy for reducing gun violence that was mentioned during the entire event.

              At one point, things actually got interesting when Andy Harris (R-MD) asked the three proponents of more research dollars whether or not they supported  a national registry of guns. Morral shlumped around in his chair and tried to beg off entirely, stating that he was just a ‘social scientist;’ Stewart said he was against it even though he heads a medical organization which has come out explicitly for just such an idea; Webster dithered a bit and then decided that he also should respond with a ‘no,’ although he has been gung-ho for comprehensive background checks which would eventually create a national list of everyone who owns a gun.

              Why do gun-control researchers and advocates like Morral, Stewart and Webster kid themselves into believing that anyone on the pro-gun side would ever think they have any interest in protecting gun ‘rights?’ If those guys are really interested in finding ‘non-partisan’ solutions to gun violence, it’s time to man up and admit that they don’t like guns. 

Gun Violence Isn’t Our Biggest Epidemic By A Long Shot.

              Every morning on my way to work I stop off at a mini-mart for coffee, maybe a doughnut, and sometimes I also fill up the car. I have no idea how many other Americans do the same thing every morning on their way to work, but it must number somewhere in the millions. Between gasoline,coffee and junk food, I probably put fifty bucks into the cash register of this mini-mart every week. Multiply fifty bucks by, let’s say 30 million commuters,that’s around $1.2 billion every week, okay? The real number is probably much higher than that.

              When I get on line to pay for my coffee, I notice that probably one out of every two customers in front of me buys at least one, five-dollar lottery ticket, one out of every three buys a pack of nine-dollar smokes, and usually two out of three buys some kind of junk food as well. And when I say ‘junk’ food, I’m talking about every ingestible product in the mini-mart with the exception of a few oranges which I have never seen anyone actually buy.

              For all the talk about healthy eating, fresh foods, low-carb diets and so forth and so on, Americans are captives of the processed food industry.  There is no other advanced country whose population consumes so much crap.  How do I know this?  Because the United States ranks at the top of the heap of all advanced countries when it comes to being fat.  The current obesity rate in the United States is nearly 40%, which is twice the rate for the OECD as a whole. The U.S. obesity rate is four times as high as Switzerland, ten(!) times as high as Japan. And since our poverty rate is somewhere around 12%, this means that most of our obese population consists of the same men and women who stand in front of me on the mini-mart line.

              Now if you follow the discussion about gun violence,you have certainly heard that our gun-violence rate is the highest in the OECD. Our friend David Hemenway has published comparisons between the U.S. gun-violence rate and other ‘advanced’ countries,finding that gun violence in the United States is 7 times higher than anywhere else. To put it in dollars and cents, we suffer from 35,000 gun deaths and rack up at least $8 billion in direct medical expenses every year.

              Let me break it to you gently, okay?  The numbers on the cost of U.S. gun violence are peanuts compared to what it costs us to walk around with so much fat. In 2008, the CDC estimated the medical costs incurred for treating conditions directly caused by obesity to be $147 billion, almost 20 times more than what we spend on injuries caused by guns.And while Gun-control Nation has recently sent out an alarm that deaths from guns in 2018 will exceed deaths which occur when we smack up our cars, deaths from obesity have been exceeding automobile deaths for years.

              Anyone who believes that gun violence is a worse ‘epidemic’than obesity either needs to have their head examined, or their waistline measured, or both. On the other hand, both obesity and gun violence share one,common thread; namely, both are caused by the ability of consumers to purchase legal products whose threats to health are barely controlled. There isn’t a single kid in the United States whose school doesn’t have a ‘healthy eating’course in the curriculum. Know how much difference this has made to obesity? No difference.  Now we have a group of dedicated, gun-violence researchers who have been given money to develop online courses on gun safety that can be used in public schools. Good luck, guys.

              Want to get rid of obesity?  Get rid of processed foods.  Want to get rid of gun violence? Get rid of – guess what?

Where Research On Gun Violence Needs To Start.

Last month our friends at the RAND Corp. unveiled a new initiative on gun violence, the National Collaboration on Gun Violence Research (NCGVR) which will soon begin allocating $20 million in research funds to promote gun-violence research.  The purpose of this effort, according to the NCGVR, is to support “rigorous research designed to broaden agreement on the facts associated with gun policy, and support development of fair and effective policies.”  RAND’s plan is to eventually grow their funding to $50 million. This ain’t chopped liver, even in my book.

              This new project grows out of a 400-page study, The Science of Gun Policy, which RAND published last year and can be downloaded here. The study identified eight major gun-violence categories (referred to in the report as ‘outcomes’), linked these outcomes to thirteen public policies that were believed to reduce violence levels in each category, and then analyzed the degree to which research conducted since 2004 supported the mitigating effects of each policy or not. The outcomes were what you would expect: homicide, suicide, unintentional injury and so forth.  The policies were the usual grab-bag of what has long served as the ‘wish list’ of gun-control advocates – comprehensive background checks, red flag laws, more intensive licensing, etc.

The researchers evaluated the ‘science’ of gun-violence research by scoring the research based on the degree to which it showed that each policy actually made a difference in the level of gun violence which the particular policy was designed to affect. The ratings ranged from inconclusive to limited to moderate to supportive, and not a single category of research received a supportive rating, not one. Two outcomes, gun suicide and gun homicide, were found to be moderately impacted by background checks and CAP laws; a spread sheet detailing the value of gun research for determining the value of every other public policy for all the other outcomes was basically blank. To put it bluntly, the RAND report found scant evidence that research conducted since 2004 has been of any real value at all. Wow.

This report no doubt reflects a decision of RAND to try and fill the gap. And while the lack of government funding for such research efforts has definitely played a significant role in restricting the degree to which the science of gun policy has remained far behind where it might otherwise be, I would like to suggest that perhaps there is another reason why the team that produced the RAND report found little, if any research that could be used to support gun-control policies from an objective, evidence-based point of view.

Every year somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million Americans attempt or succeed in inflicting serious injury on someone else. It’s called ‘aggravated assault,’ but for all kinds of reasons, we don’t have any hard data on how often it occurs. For that reason, gun-violence researchers rarely focus on gun assaults unless the victim winds up dead. Most of these deaths started as arguments, escalated to assaults, then out comes the gun.  But in most cases, actually in at least 80% or more of these events, the shooter doesn’t know how to aim the gun and the person with the bullet inside them lives.

Let’s put this into context. The context is that less than 10% of the arguments that wind up as aggravated assaults involve the use of a gun. So how come 10% use a gun and 90% don’t?  It can’t be explained by saying that there aren’t enough guns to go around. The guns are all over the place!

As long as gun-violence researchers rely on medically-based data about victims to understand gun violence, we won’t get very far. And if we don’t understand what’s going on in the head of the shooter, as opposed to the body of the victim, how can we develop public policies to reduce gun violence that will really work?

I just hope my friends at RAND will take this issues into account when deciding how to distribute their generous and much-needed research funds.

 

So What If The CDC Gun-Violence Numbers Are Wrong?

Our friends at The Trace dropped a real bombshell last week by exposing the fact that the gun-injury data published by the CDC may or may not be correct. And if the data which we use to understand gun violence isn’t any good, then how can we figure out what to do about the problem that kills and injures more than 125,000 Americans every year? Or maybe the real number is as high as 160,000, or maybe it’s around 90,000; according to the intrepid Trace reporting team, the CDC estimate could be off either way by as much as 30 percent.

cdc             To arrive at this shocking state of affairs, the reporters from The Trace enlisted the help of another organization whose expertise, when it comes to figuring out data, is above reproach.  I am talking about the help they received from a team that works for Nate Silver’s Five Thirty Eight website – remember how accurate they were in predicting the outcome of the Presidential election in 2016?

With all due respect to this earthshaking news about the possible lack of precision in CDC gun-violence numbers, I published not one, but two columns on exactly this problem back in June. I also was unable to get a list of the hospitals that provide the data for the injury estimates, but I did find a national map which indicates the location of each medical center whose injury numbers are gathered by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and then forwarded to the CDC.  The Trace quotes the editor of a major medical journal as stating that if the hospital sample includes sites which treat lots of gun injuries, this will influence the overall estimate in significant ways. This is nothing more than someone saying something because he’s been asked to say something; if you look at the map of participating hospital sites, you discover that, au contraire, some of them are located in places where gun violence rarely occurs.

Of course no article on anything having to do with public health gun research can be published by The Trace unless they get some quotes from some usual suspects such as major public health researchers like David Hemenway and Philip Cook. The former says he doesn’t trust the numbers, the latter was actually trying to figure out how many gun injuries end up resulting in deaths (the ‘case-fatality’ rate) which is a somewhat different issue than just trying to validate the non-fatal injury rate itself.

This report is grist for the mill of groups and organizations who are trying to re-start gun-research funding from the CDC. And I would certainly never (read: never) state or insinuate that there should be any kind of prohibition on such funding in any way. But this article raises two concerns that The Trace team does not appear to acknowledge or understand, nor are these issues found on the radar screen of their friends at 538.

With the exception of live births and deaths, both of which must be reported as accurately as possible to the U.S. Census so that we know how many people are actually living in the United States, virtually all of the data produced by the CDC on illness and health issues are estimates, and while the CDC does a much more comprehensive tracking of heart attacks than gun-shot wounds, take a look at the data on heart disease and you’ll notice that the reported numbers always are preceded by the word ‘about.’

More important the fact is that while everyone keeps barking up the tree about how we need more funding, I see little attention paid to another branch, namely, research not on the victims of gun violence, but on the perpetrators of this dread disease. If 75,000+ individuals didn’t pick up a gun every year and use the weapon to try and kill someone else, we wouldn’t experience a gun-violence rate that is many times higher than the rest of the OECD. Any chance The Trace might try to figure that one out?

 

Further Comment On What We Don’t Know About Gun Violence Numbers.

If I didn’t have anything better to do, I would have spent an hour this past Thursday at the Hammer Health Sciences Center, part of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, listening to a panel of experts talk about public health solutions to gun violence. The lead panelist, Professor Sonali Rajan, has published several articles on gun violence, one of which, “Firearms in K­12 Schools: What is the Responsibility of the Education Community?” notes that schools tend to be very safe environments , but “even one instance of gunfire in a school should be considered one too many.”

cdc             Is Dr. Rajan serious?  I thought the science of what happens when a bullet collides with a human body had long been settled, at least since somewhere around the 15th Century when Bartolomeo Beretta manufactured a pile of gun barrels at his little factory in Gardone in 1526.  But evidently Professor Rajan and her colleagues still believe that all kinds of gaps exist in public health research gun research; in fact, she concludes by saying, “There is an urgent need for coordinated efforts by the education community to effectively address the implications of firearms inside and surrounding K‐12 schools.”

And why is there such an ‘urgent’ need for more gun research? Because those meanies at the NRA and their sycophantic followers in Congress have blocked research money for more than twenty years. In her article, Dr. Rajan joins a long and distinguished list of scholars who have been pointing out, with good reason, that the lack of funding stymies any real effort to figure out strategies that will lead to less violence caused by guns.

Far be it from me to try and cast the boys in Fairfax as being anything other than totally opposed to gun-violence research.  But while it’s convenient to cast the NRA as the villain in this piece, the story doesn’t end there. I can’t imagine that someone doing research on any virulent disease would accept not knowing where the data came from on which the study was based. But guess what? The data on gun violence published by the CDC comes from a ‘representative sample’ of 100 U.S. hospitals who send data on all ER visits for injuries to an agency called the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) run by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the outfit that DD Trump is trying to shut down.

Hey, wait a minute.  I thought that thanks to those NRA meanies, the Consumer Product Safety Commission can regulate the design of baby carriages, vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers and other lethal products, but they can’t regulate guns. But they can send data on gun injuries to the CDC.  And while the folks at NEISS declined to send me the ‘nationally representative’ list of hospitals which supply the data on gun injuries, they do publish a map showing the location of these participating hospitals, so please download it here.

Take a look at Louisiana, the Number One state for gun injuries of both the fatal and non-fatal kind.  The NEISS hospital appears to be located at least 50 miles away from New Orleans, which happens to be the state’s chief killing ground. In Virginia, the participating hospital is probably near the small town of Danville, more than 100 miles from Richmond. There’s no hospital at all in New Mexico, which is only ranked 4th-highest among all states for gun suicides involving victims under the age of 29.

This is the source for the data which scholars use for the research which then informs the GVP community about which strategies they should follow and promote?  This is the data which the GVP claims is evidence-based, as opposed to the gun-rights gang who don’t care about evidence at all? I wrote about this issue last week but I’m writing about it again because I simply cannot accept the idea that gun-violence research is flying along so blind.

I only wish that some organization with more authority than me can find a way to set this straight. We owe it to the 125,000 people shot each year by guns, even if we really don’t know what that number means.

How Many People Get Shot By Guns? Nobody Knows.

As soon as the NRA show rumbles to an end, our friends in the gun-control world can get back to business and celebrate the latest news about gun violence from the CDC.  Because the CDC has just published the numbers for how many Americans were wounded but not killed by guns in 2016, and the number is the highest it has ever been – 116,114 – an increase from the 2015 of nearly 40 percent!

cdc            The only problem with the numbers reported by the CDC is that they probably aren’t correct.  How can I say something like that?  I mean, we’re not talking about numbers from this survey outfit or that; we’re not talking about Pew, or Gallup, or even the vaunted gun researchers at Rand.  We’re talking about the U.S. Government and even more to the point, about the agencies responsible for medical research, which we all know is science- based.  This data is also instintingly used by gun-violence researchers at major academic institutions like Harvard and Johns Hopkins, so it has to be correct, right?

If by using the word ‘correct’ we are saying that the numbers on gun injuries collected and published by the CDC are accurate to the point that they withstand serious scrutiny either in terms of how the numbers are gathered or how they are used, then when I characterize these numbers as correct, I am wrong. And I’m not saying that I’m a little bit wrong. I’m saying that I am wrong to the degree that anyone who uses these numbers to support any argument about gun violence is making an argument out of whole cloth.  Which happens to be a polite way of saying that the numbers are nichtsnutzig, pas bien, non buono, zilch – whatever works, okay?

The CDC numbers on non-fatal gun injuries come from an agency known as the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), an outfit run by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC.) The data collected by NEISS “is based on a nationally representative probability sample of hospitals in the U.S.” Those happen to be my italics, and if you can show me a single place where these numbers are used by any gun-control organization with the caveat that they are a ‘sample’ rather than what the real numbers might be, I’ll send a hundred bucks to the charity of your choice. Don’t waste your time looking, I already did.

Hey! Wait a minute! I thought the gun industry was exempt from any consumer regulation by the CPSC or anyone else.  That happens to be true, thanks to an exemption written into the first Consumer Product Safety Act of 1972. But this law doesn’t prevent the CPSC from collecting information about consumer injuries from guns, an activity for which they use the same NEISS reporting system and then send the numbers to the CDC.  The NEISS numbers for gun injuries also come from the same ‘nationally representative’ hospitals which furnish the injury data for every other product group: toys, kitchen appliances, ATVs, amusement-park rides and just about everything else.

I don’t know about injuries from hair dryers or chain saws, but when it comes to gun injuries, the ‘nationally representative’ list of hospitals isn’t representative at all.  How do you compute a national estimate of gun violence when the hospital you use in Virginia is located in the little town of Danville, whereas Richmond is left out? How do you have any idea about gun violence in Florida without including at least one hospital from Dade County?

The CDC says that the margin for error they employ for gun injuries means that the actual number might be 30% higher or lower than the specific number they publish each year. Which means that the real 2016 gun-injury number might have been as low as 85,000 or as high as 150,000 – take a pick.

Whether they know it or not, when gun-control advocates talk about the number of gun injuries, it’s nothing but a guess. You would think that the gun-violence researchers, on whose work the gun-control movement depends, would at least try to point this out.

 

 

 

Do We Really Know The Numbers On Gun Violence?

When our friends at the Gun Violence Archive (GVA) first started up, they were immediately attacked by Gun-nut Nation for all sorts of misdeeds, including the usual nonsense about undercounting all those instances when red-blooded Americans use a gun to stop a crime. But I notice increasingly that mainstream media sources now routinely reference the GVA and a pat on the back from Newsweek and The Washington Post, usually means you must be doing something right.

GVA             The problem that GVA has to deal with, of course, is that they generate all their data from what we refer to as ‘open sources,’ namely media and related coverage which appears online. The good news about such coverage is that it’s easy to do a search for online content, I have been using Google Alerts with keywords like ‘shootings’ and ‘gun violence’ for years. The bad news is that these sources can’t possibly cover all relevant events that would let us know the number of people who get shot every day

What we usually rely on for gun-violence numbers is the data produced by the CDC. After all, we assume that since medicine is a scientific exercise, at least since Louis Pasteur figured out that something called a microbe spreads disease, we also assume that medical science develops its practices using evidence-based facts. And what could be more of a fact than a dead body lying in the street?

Except there’s only one little problem.  When we take a look at the data on gun violence collected and published by the CDC, particularly when we go below the summary data which tells us how many people are shot and killed in the United States every year, all of a sudden we discover that the numbers not only aren’t so exact, but don’t even add up. Now you would think that something like gun violence, which allegedly costs us more than $200 billion a year in medical costs, lost wages and other various and sundry sums, would at least provoke some degree of concern about whether we actually are using valid numbers or not. Let me break it to you gently – we’re not.

In 2015 the CDC says that 35,476 people lost their lives because a gun went off and they didn’t duck; of this number, which is routinely reported by every gun violence prevention (GVP) group, homicides accounted for 12,979, suicides amounted to 22,018, another 484 were shot either by cops or armed citizens legal defending themselves, and 282 died but nobody’s sure how those deaths actually came about.

We know that the number of gun deaths that were ostensibly justified is probably undercounted by at least half. And let’s not forget the 489 unlucky folks who accidentally killed themselves or someone else with a gun, a number which is also probably well below the annual toll. But neither of those categories, even if doubled, would change the overall gun-death number by much. Let’s face it, gun violence in America is overwhelmingly a function of intentional injuries committed by the shooter against himself or someone else.

I have spent the last week comparing gun-death homicides furnished by the CDC to the numbers found in the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) which also happens to be an agency within the CDC, but draws its data from a wider pool of sources and is considered by scholars to be more reliable when it comes to counting bodies that wind up in the morgue. When we compare numbers, however, we discover that the numbers being used by the GVP community are perhaps 20% higher than the number published by the NVDRS.

The next time someone says that you can’t trust an online, open-source aggregator like the Gun Violence Archive, you might want to reply that the numbers we get from all those medical scientists might not be any more reliable, and in terms of accuracy, might even be worse. I’m as enamored of science as anyone else, but sometimes I wonder whether the science of gun-violence research actually exists.

Does Public Health Research Explain Gun Violence?

Now that the gun-grabbing, liberal elite has decided that the way to reduce gun violence is through a ‘public health’ approach, I thought I would summarize what we know:

  • 74% of all victims of intentional fatal gun injuries committed by one person against another are men and women ages 14 – 30, of whom 40% are African-Americans who account for less than 15% of all Americans within that age group.

public healthThat is what public health research can definitively tell us about gun violence.  The research does state many other things, such as the link between gun laws and gun violence rates; such as the connection between lack of safe gun storage and gun injuries; such as gun homicides increasing when permit-to-purchase procedures are replaced by instant background checks. None of those findings, however, are definitive, and when public health scholars refer to gun violence as embracing an epidemiological approach to the problem, they are surrounding their research with an aura of scientific nomenclature which it doesn’t yet deserve.

Not to worry, I’m not turning into a pro-gun curmudgeon who all of a sudden believes that gun violence prevention (GVP) goals and objectives need to be thrown aside.  To the contrary, thanks to the Parkland kids and the overwhelming revulsion of D.D.D. Trump, his pimp attorney Cohen and the rest of the merry band, there may actually be a chance for some effective and much-needed gun-control strategies to become law of the land. All the more reason why we need to scrutinize what we know and still need to know about gun violence with a fine-tooth comb.

And here is where taking a ‘public health approach’ to gun violence can make things fuzzy rather than clear. The first time an illness appears, it may be due to nothing other than some spontaneous, physiological event. But the moment it appears in more than one person, we need to figure out how it got from Victim A to Victim B – the transmission mechanism – which often requires us to figure out the identity of the carrier, even if that individual never exhibits the symptoms of the germ himself.  It didn’t take long to figure out that AIDS was found overwhelmingly in the gay community and amongst individuals who were addicted to injected drugs. But what was the exact manner in which it spread?

We face exactly the same problem with understanding gun violence because, as opposed to most injuries (cars, falls, etc.) in the case of guns it takes two to tango; the injured party and the person whose behavior resulted in the injury aren’t one and the same. So, while public health research tells us an awful lot about the victim of this medical event, we know next to nothing about why someone else transmits this medical condition by shooting off a gun.

Our friends at the UC-Davis Violence Prevention Research Program have put up a very comprehensive resource to can be used by health-care providers who want to identify gun risk amongst their patients and counsel about same. The website contains a basic checklist of symptoms which indicate risk (violent behavior, abusive parents, substance abuse, et. al.,) behavior which has been validated by endless public health research over the past 25 years.

There’s only one little problem – these symptoms are exhibited by people who commit violence whether or not they use a gun. And less than 5% of the individuals who try to physically injure someone else each year use a gun. How come the other 95% don’t? With 300 million guns floating around, it can’t be because there’s any great difficulty getting their hands on a gun.

Until and unless we focus on the shooters and not just on the victims, I am afraid that the ‘public health approach’ to gun violence will not necessarily provide the answers we seek. And if we don’t fully understand how and why people use guns in inappropriate or illegal ways, how do we craft effective public policies to make those behaviors change?