Want To Understand Gun Violence? It’s The Details That Count.

Every day our friends at the Gun Violence Archive (GVA) put up the list of people who were killed or injured by guns the day before, something they have been doing since 2014. Their data comes from more than 2,500 open sources, and while it’s not a complete listing of everyone whose life ends because they got hit with a bullet, their efforts give us a remarkable opportunity to understand when, how, where and why shootings take place.

GVA              Mark Bryant and his merry band have come in for their lumps from both camps in the gun debate, gun-control scholars seemingly never satisfied unless every bit of data can be linked to a legitimate, government source; Gun-nut Nation trolls refusing to accept the idea that there’s something called gun violence at all. But the GVA gives us details of each incident, read enough of them and you begin to realize that analyzing gun violence just by using numbers obscures as much as it explains.

Let’s take every gun killing listed in GVA for March 25. There were 18 separate incidents in 10 different states resulting in 22 deaths.  In other words, more than one out of 5 fatal shootings resulted in more than one death. What does this mean? Neither the FBI nor the CDC, the two agencies which gather data on gun violence, publish the actual number of fatal shooting events; they just give us an overall body count, which is not the same thing.

March 25th was a Monday. Are 22 fatal gun shootings what normally occur on the first ‘business’ day of the week?  Again, we have no idea because the studies that look at day-to-day variations in gun killings tend to be localized within a particular city or particular state. Another problem from a quantitative perspective is that the GVA can’t rely on open sources to generate any kind of comprehensive data on gun suicides. If that were the case, generally speaking, a day which registered 22 gun homicides would count only 40 gun suicides, when the actual number is 55 or more. with guns. But one incident described by GVA did stand out in this respect. A man in Harris County, TX caused an accident by driving the wrong way down a one-way street. He came out of his car, observed the incident (nobody was badly hurt) and then went back to his car and shot himself dead. We always think of suicide as a planned, isolated event. Really?

Another interesting bit of information which came out of the listing was that five of the 22 casualties were women, which happens to be roughly twice the usual proportion of female gun homicide victims to victims overall. Two of the women were shot inside their homes alongside a male victim; another woman was pregnant, she survived but the unborn baby did not, another woman sitting in the car was also gunned down.

Finally, two of the shootings took place in situations where liquor was involved, a strip club and a bar. Maybe the shooters were under the influence, maybe not. Alcohol is certainly an extenuating factor in all kinds of violence; that 10% of the March 25 shootings were in or near places serving booze shouldn’t surprise.

I saw the first photographic show mounted at the Museum of Modern Art in 1958 or 1959.  It featured the photos of Arthur Zellig, aka Weegee, whose pictures of New York homicides were graphic enough to be considered works of art. Taking a Weegee-like approach to gun homicide brings us face-to-face with a type of behavior that no amount of data can necessarily explain. Americans commit more than 2 million serious acts of personal violence each year, so how come only 75,000 are committed with guns? It’s not like the other 1,925,000 people who really try to hurt someone else can’t get their hands on a gun.

Everyone in the gun violence prevention (GVP) community should read some of the descriptions of the shooting events listed in the GVA.  It’s a sobering exercise, to say the least, but I guarantee that after you finish, you’ll never think the same way about gun violence again.

Advertisements

Want To Understand Gun Violence? Get Down To The Street.

I have been saying for a long time that looking at gun-violence numbers at the state or even the county and city level doesn’t really tell us much about gun violence and certainly doesn’t give us much of a roadmap for figuring out what to do about gun violence. This is because while anyone in America is ‘free’ to live wherever they want to live, the truth is that our residential neighborhoods tend to be very segregated by race and by income even down to the square-block level, or what the U.S. Census refers to as a ‘tract.’

tract             Now a tract, according to the Census, is actually an area which holds somewhere between 2,500 and 8,000 people which is roughly 900 to 3,000 households per tract.  Census tracts often cross town or city borders and the space they cover tends to reflect the degree to which residents in that particular tract share basic social and civic amenities such as schools, shopping and parks or open space.

Given the granularity of mapping tracts, using this information to identify levels of gun violence opens up all kinds of new perspectives that otherwise would remain lost from analysis and view. For example, this year the national gun violence rate (computed by taking the number of gun homicides and dividing per 100,000 persons) will end up somewhere between 3 and 4.  The city of Springfield, MA, will have a gun-violence rate of 11 or 12, but a neighborhood like Indian Orchard (which covers two census tracts) may not have a single gun homicide at all.

And this is an important distinction, knowing the difference between city gun-violence rates and tract gun-violence rates, because people tend to live and stay around their own neighborhoods, and thus the quality of life in their neighborhood is a much different issue than the quality of life in the city as a whole.  It also happens to be the case, according to the BJS, that most homicides take place in, in front of or down the street from the victim’s home. So, for example, if you live in Census tract 67000 of Springfield, there were 5 murders committed in that neighborhood in 2015, which gives the neighborhood a homicide rate of 61(!), but if you walk a half-mile into the adjacent census tract of Longmeadow, that place hasn’t had a homicide in years. Obviously, the strategies we might develop to reduce gun violence in Springfield would have no relevance to Longmeadow even though the two tracts lie side by side.

Using census tracts to better understand gun violence has produced a remarkable collaboration between our friends at the Gun Violence Archive (GVA) and the folks who write about gun violence issues for The Guardian, whose work in this area is really superb.  What the Guardian has done is to take the 13,039 instances (actually victims) of gun violence found by the GVA for 2015 and plotted each one against the census tract in which it occurred.  And guess what? It turns out that more than one-fourth of all gun homicides took place in census tracts containing 1.5% of the total population living in the United States.

That’s an extraordinary concentration of violence in what totals a fairly small amount of space. But even more interesting is the fact that the homicide rate in all the tracts where homicides occurred was 32.9.  In other words, where gun violence actually takes place the result is a gun homicide rate which is ten times higher than the national gun violence rate as a whole.

What this tells us is that yes, we have a national gun violence problem if only because thousands of Americans are gunned down every year. But while the problem is national in scope and size, it is local in terms of where it actually occurs. Thank you GVA for giving us this data, thank you Guardian for giving this data a new and important look.

If We Really Want To Understand Gun Violence, Maybe We Should Use The GVA Instead Of The CDC.

Our good friends at the inestimable Gun Violence Archive (GVA) have added a new enhancement to their website which allows users to search the real-time gun violence numbers in every state and every Congressional district within every state.  This is not only a very important search tool, but it also gives the digital (email and twitter) contact information for each Member of Congress so that someone’s concerns about gun violence in their own neighborhood can be sent directly to the federal representatives who might, God willing, get to vote on a gun bill next year. Because if the unthinkable happens and he becomes Number 45, he will immediately call for a national concealed-carry law, but if HRC moves into 1660 Pennsylvania Avenue, she’ll no doubt want to extend background checks on private gun transfers to all 50 states. Hard to figure that one out, isn’t it?

GVA           So being able to check gun violence stats on a daily basis and then being able to send the stats or a comment about the stats, or both, to your elected reps in DC is a very valuable tool for driving the GVP message forward loud and clear.  Good job – well done!

But of course being something of a data-head myself, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a look at the year-to-date stats because I have mentioned on multiple occasions that the numbers generated by GVA seem to be at variance with what we get from the CDC. The CDC numbers cover every type of gun injury, and even though the data often contains coding errors or just plain gaps, if the government pays the CDC to report all injuries in order to evaluate the health of the American population, then either we depend on their numbers or we don’t. But when I looked at the state-level data in this new GVA search engine, I’m not so sure that what we get from the CDC gives us even a rough idea of the real level of gun violence that we suffer every day.

Before comparing GVA and CDC numbers, let’s understand the limitations under which GVA operates no matter how exact they try to be.  GVA is an open-source aggregator, which means that the data comes whichever public sources post information on the web. So GVA is dependent on the various media venues that generate web-based information, which eliminates suicides as well as most unintentional injuries caused by guns or anything else.

In 2014, the most recent year for CDC data, the five states with the highest rates of gun homicides (AL, AR, LA, MS, SC) totaled 1,423 gun deaths; the five states with the lowest rates (CT, MA, NY, RI, VA) recorded 772 gun homicide deaths, together this gets us to 2,195. The GVA count for those same 10 states in 2014 was 2,420, a differential of 10%.  Apply this to the country as a whole and gun homicides would go from 11,409 to 12,500 or so.  Of the 50 state-level totals, the CDC admits that gun homicide numbers from 12 states are exceedingly rough estimates and might not be real.  But of the 10 states whose numbers I counted, only one state’s data – Rhode Island – was too ‘unstable’ to be used.

As I said earlier, we have to assume that the GVA data is probably well below the actual level of gun violence, given the sources on which it is based. I’m not saying the sources are wrong, I’m saying that, by definition, they can’t catch every shooting event. But what we do learn from the GVA’s new search engine is that the number that most of us use to quantify the terrible toll from gun violence is probably much less, at least 10% percent less than it really is. If it were up to me, when it comes to understanding the true degree of gun violence, perhaps we should try to get HRC (assuming there’s good news on November 8th) to substitute the GVA for the CDC.

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.

ABC-News Talks About Gun Violence And Gets It Right.

Earlier this week ABC-News ran a long story, complete with videos, interviews and a national map showing the location of recent shootings about gun violence.  As far as I am concerned, this was the most detailed, comprehensive, honest and fairly-reported major media story on gun violence which I have ever seen. And in case you don’t know, I have been closely following the gun violence debate, argument, discussion, whatever you want to call it, for more than fifty years.   That’s right.  I first started paying attention this to issue when went to North Carolina and helped my great-Uncle Ben manufacture a small 22-caliber revolver in 1955.  So when I say that I have been involved in guns for more than fifty years, I mean what I say.

conference-program-pic           The ABC story is remarkable in many ways. First is the choice of title, using the words ‘gun violence’ in a straight and unvarnished way.  Know what?  You’ll never see or hear the words ‘gun’ and ‘violence’ linked together by Gun-nut Nation or its loudspeakers such as the NRA.  Because to that bunch, guns aren’t violent; people are violent, and the real value of gun ownership is that people with guns can protect themselves from violent crime, violent terrorists, even perhaps violent law enforcement, although Gun-nut Nation isn’t exactly sure how to handle all those shootings of unarmed inner-city residents by cops, even though every law-abiding, God-fearing American should be, indeed must be walking around with a gun.

Once you get past the title of the story, you are presented with a map of the United States showing the location of shootings throughout the United States, with more than 350 gun deaths and more than 1,200 shooting incidents occurring between June 24th and July 4th, which is about average for any 11-day period during the current year.  This data is drawn from the remarkable website and aggregating engine known as the Gun Violence Archive, and it’s about time that major media outlets began to recognize and promote the work of Mark Bryant and his energetic and talented GVA staff.

The story not only gives the GVA project its due, but also is built on discussions with other important Gun Violence Prevention experts, like Harvard’s Cathy Barber, who has built an impressive program to deal with gun suicide, another type of gun violence that claims more than 20,000 lives every year.  When it comes to the use of guns in suicides, Gun-nut Nation of course will tell you there’s no connection between suicide rates and gun ownership, citing the fact that there are other countries without gun access that register similar or higher suicide rates than ours.  Meanwhile, this link will take you to a listing of a dozen studies which clearly indicate that guns increase suicide risk, but since when did Gun-nut Nation base any of their arguments on science or facts?

In 1986, less than 40% of Americans stated that they had read or heard anything about what was called the ‘greenhouse effect.’  Know what the percentage was in 2007?  91%.  Does this mean that 91% of Americans believe that global warming is a threat?  No, but what it does demonstrate is that an awareness about global warming has become part of the general culture, it was now an accepted world view.

I believe that the key to building a society that no longer suffers from gun violence must first begin and ultimately rest on a cultural shift which makes a phrase like ‘gun violence’ as normal and as much a part of the everyday lexicon as the phrase ‘global warming’ has become. And the fact that a national media outlet like ABC-News would run a major story on gun violence based largely on the work of the Gun Violence Archive tells me that this fundamental cultural change may be starting to take place.  And it’s a change which I have never previously witnessed and I have been involved with guns for a very, very long time.

How Many People Get Shot By Cops? A Lot More Than You Think.

If you want to get a handle on the numbers involved in gun violence, you can go to two sources: the CDC or the FBI.  The numbers aggregated by the CDC come from coroner’s reports received by state health departments and then forwarded, analyzed and presented on the CDC website WISQARS, which tracks fatal and non-fatal injuries since 1999 and 2001, respectively. The other method is to use the crime data from the FBI, whose numbers begin in 1960 but become state-based beginning in 1985.

The data in these two reports is, to put it politely, somewhat diffuse.  Take one year for example, in this case 2005.  According to the FBI, 16,740 people were victims of murder or manslaughter, the CDC listed the total number of homicides as 18,124.  This 10% difference between the two numbers is more or less the same for every year in which both agencies report their numbers, and it reflects both different definitions (one is reporting medical events, the other reporting crimes) and both numbers are estimates reflecting the fact that state and local agencies which report the raw totals are not necessarily required to report anything at all.

Where things really get crazy is when we look at CDC and FBI numbers for what is referred to as homicide by ‘legal intervention,’ which is a polite way of saying that someone got shot by a cop.  In 2010, to choose a different year for comparison, the FBI put this number at 397; for the CDC it was 412.  For the years 2010 – 2014, the FBI says that 2,142 people were killed by law enforcement, the CDC number is 2,485.  So now we have a gap between the two estimates of nearly 15%, but that’s not even scratching the veritable surface when it comes to figuring out what’s what.

I was tipped off to this problem by a story in MedScape that focused on the research of a group at the Harvard School of Public Health who have been looking at the data on cop killings since 1960. They recently published an op-ed on this problem citing an enormous discrepancy between the ‘official’ numbers on legal intervention deaths and what is now being reported by, of all media outlets, The Guardian, which happens to be a newspaper published in the U.K. The reason I find this interesting is because cop killings in England are so rare that in 2013, police in the U.K. only shot off their duty weapons three times and, by the way, didn’t kill anyone at all.

The Guardian has created a website, The Counted, which has been collecting and publishing stories about legal interventions since 2015, and I have to tell you that the numbers are frighteningly higher than anything posted by the CDC or the FBI. In 2015 the site lists 1,140 persons killed by the police, so far in 2016 the number has reached 136.  At this rate the total for 2016 will only be 1,013, a 10% decrease from last year, but still more than twice as high as what we get from our usual sources at the FBI or the CDC. Actually, my friends at the Gun Violence Archive also post a daily count on what they call “officer involved shootings,’ and so far this year their death toll stands at 145.

I’ll leave the two aggregators to figure out whose number is more exact, but the bottom line is that cop killings are much higher than what is usually assumed to be the case, and they occur most frequently in African-American ghetto neighborhoods – gee, what a surprise! The problem with the data found in the Guardian’s website, however, is that it is very incomplete. Try filtering for any attribute – race, age, gender, weapon – the numbers fall way short. Deriving stories from media notices is one thing, aggregating objective data is something else. If public health researchers want to get their hands on real data they better be prepared to wait, and wait, and wait.

 

Want To End Gun Violence? Just Keep Showing The Numbers.

I participated in my first anti-war demonstration in 1964.  Johnson had just announced the first, major troop commitment to Southeast Asia, I thought he was going to drag us into an unwinnable war, so about twenty of us walked around Times Square one day after school handing out leaflets, shouting some slogans and having a good time.  Everyone who walked past us was polite, a few actually took a leaflet, most said they had never heard of Viet Nam.  What happened over the following nine years was that public opinion shifted from not knowing, to not caring, to being concerned and finally, to being against the War.

Know when public opinion really began to shift?  When the television networks ended their nightly news broadcasts with a graphic that showed how many U.S. soldiers had been killed in Nam.  The networks did the same thing again in 1980 when each night’s news broadcast ended with a graphic showing how many days the hostages had been in captivity in Iran.  Remember who won the 1980 election?  It wasn’t the guy who couldn’t get the hostages out of jail.

war dead                The same thing now seems to be happening when it comes to mobilizing people against the violence caused by guns.  And while the major media outlets haven’t yet caught on, the ‘daily count’ has spread throughout the internet, and sooner or later it will be picked up by the networks as well.  Or it won’t matter whether the numbers make CNN or MSNBC because increasingly we depend on ‘alternate’ internet media for our information anyhow.

The granddaddy of in-your-face gun violence calculators is the Gun Violence Archive, which was first mounted in 2013. Mother Jones has presented data and graphics over the years, ditto the Center for American Progress.  Joe Nocera and Jennifer Mascia kept up a running count for The New York Times.  But the Gun Violence Archive was the first attempt to go beyond media anecdotes and try to assemble a comprehensive, real-time analysis of all violence committed with guns.  And this is an important point, because the data from government agencies like the CDC and the FBI is either several years behind, or skewed in ways that don’t give a true picture of the damage caused by guns, or both. What you get from the GVA is a comprehensive picture of the toll of gun violence; no ifs, ands or buts.

The GVA has been joined by a crowd sourced website, the Mass Shooting Tracker, which counts all shootings in which four people are hit by bullets, whether any of them are killed or not.  This is an important element in the gun violence debate, because the FBI only counts mass shootings if four or more people are killed at the same time.  Not only does the FBI definition seriously underestimate the carnage and costs of gun violence, but it also doesn’t count shootings in which one of the victims is the shooter himself.  But this is an absurd and arbitrary way to analyze gun violence, and the MST sets it straight. You can read a good story about GVA and MST by Jennifer Mascia in the current issue of Trace.

Leave it to the pro-gun gang, of course, to try and come up with reasons why the gun-violence calculators are nothing more than “pure propaganda,” as one red-meat story claimed.  It turns out that the MST mistakenly listed 2 shootings out of 498 in 2013 involving pellet guns.  If this is the best example of the MST “padding” its numbers, the pro-gun crowd better look somewhere else.

The biggest problem facing the GVP community is enlisting and mobilizing the ‘average’ person in the debate about guns.  These websites will help turn the tide because numbers really do tell a story that goes beyond words.  When I handed out anti-war leaflets in 1964 I didn’t imagine that CBS would ever run a daily tally on how many U.S. troops had died.  But they did.  And the war came to an end.

 

 

 

The Bad News For The NRA Is There Are Lots Of People Who Believe ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill.’

                 Yesterday I found myself in the company of 150 people from all over the United States who came to Washington, DC because they want to do something about gun violence.  What they don’t want to do is entertain the stupid idea that more guns will protect us from violence and crime. That crap used to be promoted only by connivers like John Lott who used this insultingly unfounded nonsense to build a following on the red-meat lecture tour.  But now it’s been taken up by lackluster, red-striped Presidential wannabes who will stoop no matter how low to try and spear a few votes. The group that convened in DC was decidedly of a different sort.

It was an eclectic assemblage, representing national and state-level advocacy groups, political and policy experts from within the Beltway and without, researchers, activists from all over the place, in every respect a serious-minded and, more important, an energetic  group of folks.  I have been following the gun debate going back to the 1960s; in other words, before there was a real debate.  And I don’t remember a time when so many different types of people from so many different backgrounds were as committed to serious and continuous efforts to reduce or eliminate the violence caused by guns.  And just in case any NRA sycophant or 2nd-Amendment devotee wants to argue the case, let me make one thing completely and perfectly clear: it’s the gun stupid, it’s the gun.

peacenow                So I sat, watched and listened to speakers at the National Gun Violence Prevention Coalition Annual Meeting and I came away with the following thoughts.  First, the level of gun violence, both mass shootings and individual events, can no longer be justified or excused just because the 2nd Amendment protects individual gun rights. Since August, for example, there’s been a guy or maybe guys who have been shooting at motorists riding through Phoenix on Interstate 10. To date there have been at least eleven confirmed shootings, and the only good news is that’s it not that easy to hit someone in a moving car.

Now if you can explain to me how a lawfully-armed citizen walking around with his or her gun should be considered as a bulwark against this kind of crime, I’ll meet you tomorrow at the Morton’s Steakhouse of your choice and pick up the tab. According to the Gun Violence Archive, by year’s end the death toll from shootings may exceed last year’s number by 20 percent. The day in, day out reports of what appears to be an endless spiral of gun violence has clearly aroused more than its usual share of concern, and this concern was clearly evident at the DC conference this past week.

The NRA’s response to this situation is to have Chris Cox find an instance where an individual, in this case Vester Flanagan, used a legally-purchased gun to commit mayhem, the “proof’ that more laws won’t do anything to stop violence caused by guns.  This argument is so dumb I’m surprised that even a twit like Cox would try to foist it on the members of the NRA.  To follow his logic, the next time that there’s a pile-up on the Interstate we’ll understand why speed limits don’t help to save lives.

I spent a few minutes at the conference speaking quietly and emotionally to the parents of a young man who was among the 12 audience members killed in Aurora by James Holmes.  They told me they needed to help prevent more tragedies like the tragedy that resulted in the loss of their son.  I told them I don’t think it’s possible to understand what happened in Aurora in rational terms, but what they are doing will have a rational and objective end.  And the end will be that gun violence will disappear because ways will be found to respond to their courage and their strength.  There is, after all, a moral imperative called Thou Shalt Not Kill.