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.

 

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When It Comes To Assault Rifles, The Gun Industry Has A New Friend: The New York Times.

There’s a video floating around that shows Rupert Neate, a reporter from The Guardian, being heaved out of the Shot Show because he walked up to the Smith & Wesson display and began asking a company employee about an assault rifle ban.  This conversation took place as a member of Smith & Wesson’s marketing team happily placed an assault rifle in Neate’s hands and kept referring to it as a “modern sporting rifle,” although to be fair the gun, known as the AR-15 Sporter, fires only an itty-bitty 22-caliber cartridge, as opposed to the more lethal 5.56 or .223 military calibers that most so-called modern sporting rifles use.

ar              This nonsense about how a remarkably-lethal weapon used by our armed forces has been transmogrified into a ‘sporting’ gun by the gun industry for the last twenty years has been going on since the imposition of the 10-year assault weapons ban back in 1994.  The gun industry first reacted to the ban by claiming that ‘assault’ weapons were fully-automatic guns used only by the military; hence, any semi-automatic rifle deserved to be sold in the civilian market regardless of its design. And when the ban was not renewed in 2004, the industry went whole hog in trying to convince everyone that an AR-15 gun, as long as it didn’t fire more than one shot with each pull of the trigger, was no different from Grandpa’s old Remington or Winchester hunting rifle except it had a more modern look.

In arguing against any new attempt to impose a new assault weapons ban, the gun industry has cited again and again the Koper study, published as the ban was expiring, which could not, according to the author, definitively determine the effects of the ban on rates of gun crime.  But this study, commissioned by the Department of Justice, has also been cited by proponents of a ban as showing that changing the design of assault rifles and limiting the capacity of all semi-automatic gun magazines did, in fact, result in a reduction of gun crime. So once again it’s the old story in the gun debate: pro-gun advocates saying that government regulation doesn’t work, gun-control advocates saying it does.

Out of the woodwork we now have a major gun-control voice joining up with Gun Nation to proclaim that the assault weapons ban was a dud. And the voice belongs to none other than The New York Times, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning editorialist, Nicholas Kristof, has decided to share this “inconvenient truth” with his liberal colleagues in an evident attempt to get the GVP community to be  more realistic and honest in its approach to guns.  To quote Kristof, the gun debate should be driven by “evidence of what works,” and what didn’t work, was the assault weapons ban. To quote Kristof again, the law was “poorly drafted” and didn’t reduce gun crimes during the ten years it was in effect.

Far be it from me to challenge the ability of a Harvard and Oxford-educated journalist to read his sources clearly, but I have read the Koper report several times and Kristof’s attempt to align its contents with the views of the pro-gun mob just doesn’t work. First and foremost, the report compared only a few years of data before and after the ban when nearly all of the pre-ban guns were still in circulation and a majority of pistols were equipped with hi-cap mags. Furthermore, very few police jurisdictions collected data on magazine capacity of guns picked up at crime scenes, and the vaunted tracing data of the vaunted ATF turned out to be useless at best.

If Koper’s report says anything, it says that attempting to evaluate the impact of a weapons ban which expired before sufficient data even existed was an exercise that simply could not succeed.  Which is much different from concluding that the ban didn’t work. Kristof is correct in asking for evidence, not opinions, to shape the gun debate. He might show the way by doing it himself.