How Come The Gun Violence Numbers are Wrong, Wrong and Wrong?

              I know full well the pressures of finding enough content to publish a daily blog, but sometimes bloggers create stories which aren’t necessarily ready for prime time just yet. And an example of this, and I’m not besmirching the motives or talents of the blogger involved, is a story put out by our friends at The Trace about the downward drop in gun violence this past year.

              According to Jennifer Mascia, it looks like overall gun deaths in 2018 will be roughly 7% lower than the previous year, in this case deaths count fatal injuries other than suicides, which may in fact end up being higher in 2018 than in 2017. The data comes from our friends at the Gun Violence Archive (GVA), which posts a daily listing of shootings based on whatever comes over the digital transom, a.k.a. open-source feeds from all over the World Wide Web.

              The GVA readily admits that its data does not include gun suicides, because rarely, if ever, do these events get any digital mention at all. I am just as happy that the GVA doesn’t include gun suicides in its daily report, because I have all kinds of problems with considering suicides as ‘gun violence,’ even though the World Health Organization defines violence as an attempt to injure either yourself or someone else. Everything connected to suicidal behavior is so different from any other type of violent behavior (most of all our continued reluctance to deal with suicide) that it may make gun violence appear to be a more serious threat, but it shouldn’t be used to justify any changes to the system we use to regulate guns.

              Getting back to intentional injuries committed by one person against someone else, the good news is that the GVA number for gun homicides is close to the number published by the CDC, but the number for non-fatal assaults is so far off from the annual CDC count as to have no real meaning whatsoever. The head of GVA, our friend Mark Bryant, is quoted in The Trace article as putting this discrepancy down to “issues with the CDC’s methodology.”

              C’mon Mark and Jennifer, you can both do better than that. In 2016, the most recent year for numbers on non-fatal injuries for the CDC, the agency said that 95,195 people were the victims of non-fatal gun violence. That same year, according to GVA, there were 30,645 non-fatal gun assaults. So we’re not talking about a discrepancy that can simply be put down to an issue of methodology, we’re talking about a discrepancy which is so great as to render any discussion based on either number null and void.

              In her article, Jennifer says that “we don’t know what has caused the apparent drop in gun violence,” noting that fatal shootings have gone up in Philadelphia and D.C. With all due respect, I don’t think there’s the slightest chance that we will ever know why gun homicides go up or go down as long as we continue to think of fatal shootings as somehow different from the non-fatal ones.

              They’re not. They are exactly the same. The only difference between the guys who end up dead and the guys who get stitched up is that the guy who shot the latter types didn’t shoot straight. I just re-read Jimmy Breslin’s classic book, The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight, and if there’s one thing that Jimmy captures better than anyone else who has ever written anything about guns, it’s the idea that banging away at someone other than yourself creates the overwhelming possibility that you’ll miss.

              But if we are ever going to reduce gun violence, we have to understand why less than 10% of the people who really want to hurt someone else, try hurting them with a gun. And you simply can’t understand this, or figure out what to do about it, if you don’t have the faintest idea where, when or how this kind of violence really occurs. Sorry, but fatal gun violence isn’t the whole story by any means at all.

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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.

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.

Once Again The ATF Celebrates Much Ado About Nothing.

It’s been a quiet few days in the gun violence world.  According to our friends at the Gun Violence Archive, since Friday there have only been 200+ shootings resulting in 59 deaths and 144 injuries, what Ralph on The Honeymooners would call a “mere bag of shells.”  But I was rescued by the ATF which issued a press release touting the work of its National Tracing Center (NTC) in tracing guns picked up overseas in the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada and several Central American countries.  To quote the ATF: “Firearm trace data provides valuable investigative leads and specific trend data for our international partners.” Maybe some Mexican police agency will ask the ATF to trace one of the AK-47’s that the ATF shipped to Mexico between 2006 and 2011, of which at least one thousand are still floating around.

atf           The truth is that the ATF does very little to fight illegal guns except pat itself on the back.  And one of its most common back-patting activities involves the tracing of so-called ‘crime’ guns.  The ATF has been promoting its prowess in gun tracing since the licensing of commercial firearms sales was placed under its jurisdiction by the Gun Control Act of 1968.  And over the years, this tracing activity has yielded, according to the ATF, “critically important information” about the origins of millions of ‘crime’ guns.  In 2014, the ATF was able to identify the origin of 174,000 guns – do the arithmetic as Bill Clinton would say, and that adds up to at least a couple of million guns over the last forty-seven years.

The ATF has used this miasma of data to promote to build a basic argument about the commerce in crime guns.  I am referring to the notion, repeated ad nauseum by every GVP activist group and GVP-leaning politician, that gun ‘trafficking,’ (i.e., the illegal movement of guns from one location to another) is a major factor in gun violence and needs to be curbed. So I looked at the ATF report which, based on the data generated by the NTC, details the origin of all the traced guns in Massachusetts, which is where I happen to live.  In 2014, the NTC was asked to run 1,538 traces of which they could only identify the origin of 979 guns. Of those 979 guns, it turns out that 676 were initially purchased in MA and the surrounding, contiguous states.  And all those guns that get trafficked up the I-95 ‘pipeline?’  They accounted for roughly 15% of guns traced in MA. Gee, what a surprise that most of the crime guns in my state came from places which are. at most, a half-hour’s car ride away.

Of course the ATF says they are hamstrung in their efforts to do even more in their unrelenting battle against gun trafficking because they can’t look at how guns move from hand to hand since they can only check a dealer’s gun log which records the very first sale. And this lie is then innocently repeated by GVP advocates who really do want to see an end to the traffic in illegal guns. And why is it a lie? Because the ATF just issued a ruling defining how dealers can keep their records of acquisitions and sales electronically, which means the ATF can easily find out not just the first time that a gun was sold, but every time it was sold in a gun shop. And guess what? In my shop upwards of 40% of my guns were used, and these used guns had previously been sold by me or by some other dealer down the road.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how to search an Excel spreadsheet by any unique identifier and thus gain a much clearer picture on the history of a gun picked up at the scene if a crime. The boys in Fairfax must get a good laugh when they consider the behavior of the agency that regulates guns.

Do More Guns Equal Less Crime? Not Any More.

If I had a nickel for every time the NRA reminds us that gun violence is down while gun ownership is up, I wouldn’t have to work for a living.  Not that writing is such hard work, mind you, but my previous comment still stands.  And the latest ‘more guns = less crimes’ was just posted by the NRA, which linked to a comment by Charles Cooke in National Review, who compares current crime data to the numbers from 1993 and concludes that “national rates of gun violence are strikingly lower now than during their peak in the mid-1990s,” although he admits that the rate has “declined less dramatically since 2000.” The source cited by Cooke shows that 94% of the decline from 1993 occurred by 2000 and he refers to a 6% drop over the last 14 years as “less dramatic?”

This celebration of the drop in gun homicides coincident with the increase in gun sales has been spun again and again by the NRA and its helpmate, the NSSF.  And while nobody has ever been able to determine whether there’s any causal relationship between gun purchases and crime rates, the coincidence of the latter going down while the former continues to go up is a major argument in the pro-gun playbook for promoting gun rights.

conference program pic                There’s only one little problem, however.  We won’t know for sure until early next year, but preliminary data appears to indicate that the two-decade drop in gun homicides has come to an end.  The best numbers I can find do not come from the FBI, but from the CDC.  And the reason why CDC numbers are more reliable is they are based on comprehensive state public health data which is based on coroner’s reports, whereas FBI numbers are based on local law enforcement agency data which is notoriously incomplete and, in fact, is not required to be reported at all.

The CDC data clearly indicates that the raw number of gun homicides stopped dropping by 2000, and the gun homicide rate has dropped minimally since 2000 as well.  In 1993 gun homicides and rates were 18,253 and 6.75; in 1999 they were 10,828 and 3.83; in 2013 they were 11,208 and 3.55. Cooke’s statement that post-2000 gun violence has declined “less dramatically” is, to be polite, not consistent with the facts.  And further, it should be noted that gun homicides stopped dropping exactly at the time when gun sales started rising; i.e., since 2009.  Annual gun sales, as estimated by NICS background checks, have nearly doubled under Obama; gun homicides have remained stable or moved slightly up.  So much for the nonsense about how guns and/or concealed weapons permits protect us from violent crime.

The news may get worse for 2015.  The best real-time data I can find is captured by the Gun Violence Archive, which tracks gun violence through a combination of agency and media reports.  This methodology has severe limitations, if only because media reports on gun violence by definition are woefully incomplete, and agency reporting is never done on a real-time basis.  Which means that the 8,616 gun deaths counted by GVA so far this year must be an understatement, but it would still work out to nearly 13,000 gun deaths this year.  And this increase is borne out by data from specific cities like Chicago, whose gun homicide rate is up over last year, ditto New York, ditto Milwaukee, St. Louis and Detroit.

It will be interesting to watch pro-gun zealots spin the news about how guns protect us from crime when gun sales continue to soar but so does violent crime.  Who knows?  Maybe they’ll decide  that all those armed citizens walking around need to spend more time outside their homes making sure the streets are safe.  Or maybe everyone should carry both a Glock and  Bushmaster in plain sight. There’s really no limit to the fantasies you can concoct when the entire argument about how guns protect us from crime is based on facts that don’t exist.  No limit at all.