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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Violence Policy Center Expands An Important Report.

Our friends at the Violence Policy Center (VPC) have been tracking gun violence committed by gun owners with concealed-carry permits (CCW) and you can view the data on a website that breaks down the numbers on a state-by-state basis since 2007. The information is informative but not definitive, for the simple reason that there is no requirement in any state which makes cops or coroners list whether a shooter was in possession of CCW or not. So we can assume that the 1,082 people who have been killed by CCW-holders in the last 10 years represents a rough estimate, at best, of the actual number of individuals whose lives ended at the hands of someone legally allowed to walk around with a gun.

VPC logo             It should be noted that 37% of the victims (400 of 1,082) of CCW-holders happened to have shot themselves to death, i.e., these were legally-armed individuals who killed themselves with their gun. The VPC has come in for its share of criticism for bunching suicides and homicides together, but the critics might take the trouble to look at the definition of violence used by the WHO, namely, an intentional attempt to injure oneself or someone else. And of course the fact that someone keeps a legally-owned gun in their home only increases the possibility of suicide, but since when did Gun-nut Nation ever care about risk?

The VPC is now expanding their study of CCW-holders who commit gun violence by posting weekly updates on events that highlight the risks posed by walking around with a gun. The first incident occurred in a small town outside of Sheboygan, WI, when two cousins got into an argument over money, one of them pulled out a gun for which he had a concealed-carry permit, got off 13 shots and two men ended up dead. The second incident took place in Allegheny County, PA, where two co-workers got into it during their night-time shift, went out into the parking lot to continue the argument, one pulled out his 9mm banger and that was the end of that.

The NRA is so convinced that we all should be walking around armed that they even have trademarked the phrase, ‘The Armed Citizen,’ and run a website inviting people to send them reports of armed citizens who used their guns to protect themselves and everyone else. Until recently, this website never captured more than 100 such events in any given year, but I notice that the monthly number of defensive gun use (DGU) now seems to be running about 25 per month, a much more aggressive listing process which I suspect is directly tied to the new concealed-carry insurance which the NRA is trying to peddle here and there.

Let’s say for sake of argument that armed citizens protect themselves or others from serious crime 500 times a year, or even 50,000 times. Recent research pegs the annual DGU number at somewhere around 70,000, but this number includes all the times in which the gun was brandished but not actually used.

On the other hand, the 20,000+ people who kill themselves each year with a gun don’t end their lives by waving the gun around. They use the gun very effectively because more than 80% of all gun suicide attempts end with a life being lost; no other kind of suicide attempt is successful more than 60% of the time.

I don’t believe the Violence Policy Center should be at all defensive about drawing attention to the fact that any time a life ends because someone pulled the trigger of a gun, that such an episode should be considered anything other than gun violence event. The fact that we do not possess an effective screening process for determining gun access based on someone’s propensity to hurt themselves doesn’t alter in any way the basic reason for owning a gun. And if you believe that guns were designed to do anything other than cause injury, you might want to camp outside Area 51 and wait for the Martians to land.

 

Where Did The Term ‘Gun Violence’ Come From?

When we talk about the risk of guns, why do we use the term ‘gun violence’ and where did it come from?  In fact, this whole business started back in 1979 when the CDC decided that violence was a public health issue. Medicine had long since recognized that violent behavior was a threat to health simply because violence creates injuries, and an injury is usually a problem that brings the victim to the attention of the medical community, with more than 37 million people being treated for injuries each year in emergency rooms.

docs versus glocks              But what made violence not just a health issue but a public health issue was the awareness that certain forms of violence, in particular homicide and suicide, were consistently among the 15 leading causes of death in the United States. And in addition to overall numbers, these types of violent deaths were also concentrated in certain environments, as well as increasing dramatically in specific demographics; e.g., a 154% increase in homicide rates of 15 – 19 year-old males from 1985 to 1991. And once medicine decided that we needed to address violence the way we successfully addressed other public health threats such as polio, typhus and tuberculosis, then researchers began looking for causes which would the lead to pro-active measures to reverse and hopefully eliminate violence as a medical condition or disease.

When medicine began to focus on violence as a public health issue, it wasn’t difficult to make the connection between violence and guns, for the simple reason that roughly 60% of all homicides have been committed with guns every year since 1981. Since that date we have experienced 689,000 murders in this country, of which 460,000 have been deaths intentionally caused by guns. During that same 35-year period, England experienced somewhere less than 20,000 homicide deaths – talk about American exceptionalism!

By the way, the CDC didn’t come up with the definition of violence by pulling the veritable rabbit out of the veritable hat.  In fact, their definition comes right from the Magna Carta of medical definitions, a.k.a. the World Health Organization, which defines violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.” And this definition, copied by the CDC, also includes suicide, of which roughly half of all suicides in the U.S. are committed with guns.

Given the above, it’s clear that from a medical point of view, the gun violence prevention (GVP) community stands on pretty firm ground when they invoke the phrase ‘gun violence’ to argue about the risks and dangers represented by guns. The problem arises, however, when GVP goes beyond its own committed band of supporters and uses that kind of terminology when talking with non-advocates about the risks and dangers of guns. Because the NRA has done one heckuva job convincing not their own membership (who don’t need convincing, which is why they’re members of the NRA, duhhhh) but convincing Mr. and Ms. John Q. Public that even if guns are sometimes used in illegal or inappropriate ways, the positives of firearm ownership, in particular protection from crime, far outweigh the negatives in every respect. The idiot who represents the 27th C.D. in New York probably wouldn’t have been so quick to brag about how he’s going to ‘always’ carry a gun if public opinion polls didn’t show that a strong majority believed that having a gun makes you safe.

I’m not saying that GVP should drop the reference to ‘violence’ when they try to reach out beyond their own committed constituencies to discuss what to do about guns. What I am saying is that perhaps we need to make it clear that concerns about ‘gun violence’ aren’t based on value judgements about how people choose to live.  They are based on the same concerns that medicine has raised about violence as a health threat, an issue about which there is no disagreement at all.

A New Partnership To Reduce Gun Suicides Which Might Help.

How many people die annually from gun violence?  If you’re a gun-control advocate, you’ll usually say that it’s somewhere around 31,000.  On the other hand, if you’re pro-gun, you’ll say it’s 11,000, give or take a few. The difference is whether or not suicide is considered a type of gun violence, because every year more than 20,000 Americans end their own lives by using a gun.  And if you want to meet your Maker before He wants to meet you, there’s nothing as efficient as pulling out the ol’ firearm, aiming it at yourself and – bam! Gun suicide is effective 90% of the time, no other life-ending behavior is half as good.

gun-suicide            According to the World Health Organization (WHO), violence is defined as someone who attempts to injure themselves or someone else.  So from a medical point of view, gun suicide is certainly a type of gun violence.  But the disagreement between pro-gun and anti-gun forces isn’t about medicine, it’s about politics, messaging and whether we need guns around or not.  Which is why until recently, the gun industry has preferred to keep discussions about gun suicide on the back burner, but that’s about to change.

Last year the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the industry’s lobbying and trade organization began talking to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) in an effort to find some common ground.  And what has emerged from these talks is a four-state, pilot program that will put suicide prevention messaging in gun shops and shooting ranges, a program that will then be widened with the goal of reducing gun suicides 20% nationally by 2025.  The project was officially kicked off with a press conference at this week’s SHOT show, and is publicly displayed on the websites of the AFSP and NSSF.

Predictably, the fringe elements in Gun-nut World were reluctant to jump on board unless this initiative and other similar programs would steer clear of any explicit or implicit attempt to use this activity to regulate guns.  Alan Gottleib, whose 2nd Amendment Foundation is really a cover for his very-profitable mail solicitation business, helped craft a bill before the Washington State legislature that establishes a ‘safe homes’ task force that will create messaging and training materials for ‘voluntary’ use by gun dealers. The Task Force membership includes Gottleib and a rep from the NRA. I don’t notice any representation from the groups in Washington State that pushed through an extension of background checks over the vigorous opposition of the NRA and the Gottleib gang.

This is the problem with the new suicide initiative announced by the NSSF and the AFSP, namely, that it’s a voluntary effort, which when it comes to educating about gun violence is where the gun industry always draws the line.  Gun-nut Nation’s phobia about government mandates is about as extreme as the phobia that some people have about immunizing their kids against disease.  And frankly, both phobias come from the same place; i.e., mistrust of government and a total misrepresentation of the facts. Fact: There is absolutely no connection between NICS-background checks and national registration of guns.  Fact: There is absolutely no connection between immunizations and autism, despite what Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. says.

If you walk into a gun shop today, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll see a ‘Don’t Lie For The Other Guy’ poster on the wall.  This is a long-standing partnership between the ATF and the NSSF to discourage straw sales at the counter-top, a project that is dear to the hearts of everyone in the GVP community as well.  In fact, displaying this message is mandatory, although ATF agents don’t check to see if the poster is hanging on the wall or not.

Of course we would like gun-suicide prevention programs to have some teeth. Of course we would like Gun-nut Nation to stop opposing sensible laws that would enable family members of at-risk individuals to remove their guns.  Of course, of course, of course.  But the NSSF-AFSP partnership is a good start.

A New Gun PSA And A New Gun Website: You Should See Them Both.

Let’s begin with the PSA – both funny then shocking at the very end.  It shows a young boy running into the kitchen, trying to grab a box of cereal and grabs a box of rat poison instead; then a baby lurches towards the stairs and the gate has barbed wire on top; a young infant crawls towards a fearsome-looking animal trap, and as a young girl is almost attacked by a crazed dog the voice-over says, “You wouldn’t allow any of these other risks in your home,” while a young boy opens up a drawer and yanks out a pistol, “why allow an unlocked gun?”

truths           The artfully-produced PSA is featured on a new website from the Brady Campaign which is built around the idea that a gun that isn’t safely stored in the home is a serious risk.  And the risks of letting kids get their hands on guns are explained in a series of basic statements – 15 Truths About Kids and Guns – each of which can be easily tweeted or pushed onto your Facebook page. The statements cover such topics as the link between lack of safe storage and gun injuries, high rates of gun ownership and high rates of child gun deaths, none of these or other statements being new news.  But what is new is that at the bottom of this page you can download a very detailed discussion of each of these issues, a document that is comprehensive and detailed both in content and scope.  Well done, Brady, well done.

The website is robust, full of content, works exceptionally well and can be shared to your personal social media platform for friends and a wider digital audience.  There’s also a section of Fast Facts of which I want to mention one in particular, and that’s the pages devoted to the most difficult of all subjects to discuss, namely, the issue of suicide and how to create a suicide-proof home. This page links to another web initiative from Brady that is a partnership with the Rhode Island Department of Health.

If I had a nickel for every time that a pro-gun advocate objected to the idea that using a gun to commit suicide is an act of gun violence, I’d be out on the first tee every day instead of only once or twice a week.  So let’s end this stupid argument right here and now by quoting a pretty good authority on the definition of violence, which happens to be the WHO.  The World Health Organization defines violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community,” which pretty much sums it up for me.  And in 2014 the intentional use of force against oneself in which the type of force was a gun claimed 21,334 lives, of whom nearly 1,000 were kids under the age of 18.

I can understand why Brady would want to launch a gun safety initiative that focuses on kids, and this site brings together just about all the credible data on gun injuries involving children and teens.  The site is aimed at parents, giving them specific information on safe storage devices, counseling options, communicating with other parents and the like.  The tone and content is also very even-handed, seeking not to preach but to inform, raising awareness by assigning responsibility free from guilt.

I do have one hope for this initiative which is in no way a criticism of what has been accomplished so far, namely, that Brady will consider expanding this effort to cover gun safety issues as they apply to adults as well.  Because all of the shocking numbers on child/teen mortality and morbidity are much more shocking when we look at the data on gun deaths and injuries for people who are no longer kids.

This site is an important step forward for Gun Violence Prevention.  Use it – link it – tweet it – get it out to as many people as fast as you can.