Missing Info

09.18.13

Why Don’t We Have a Database on Gun Deaths?

In the wake of the Washington Navy Yard shooting, gun-control advocates are asking a difficult question: how we can begin to address the problem even if we can’t even quantify it? Brandy Zadrozny reports.

Deirdre Smith, 47, of Austell, Georgia, was shot and killed Monday while trying to break up a neighborhood fight. A few local news outlets reported Smith’s death; many of them called her a “good Samaritan.”

But Smith’s name won’t appear in any government report, and the details of her death aren’t required to be collected by anyone, government or private.

In two or three years, Smith’s race, age, sex, and the location of her shooting, together with that of several thousand other victims of gun violence, will be published in Table 18 of the National Vital Statistics Reports on death.

As this week’s massacre at the Washington Navy Yard once again ignites the gun-control debate—a conversation that typically flows with media coverage of a new mass shooting and ebbs in the lull before the next—it also highlights the alarming difficulty of even beginning to quantify the epidemic of gun violence.

Twelve people were killed at the Navy yard by ex–Navy reservist Aaron Alexis. Outside D.C. on the same day, at least 14 other people were killed by guns. But because reliably collecting these statistics is virtually impossible, it’s likely that more than that were shot to death. 

“If you ever want to solve these problems, then you’ve got to really understand what the problem looks like.”

Mass shootings, defined by the FBI as those in which at least four people are killed, account for a tiny percentage of all gun deaths. In April the Congressional Research Service found 78 instances of mass shootings since 1983 that claimed a total of 547 lives. Over the same amount of time, according to CDC data, 380,000 have been killed in firearm-related homicides, meaning that mass shootings add up to less than 1 percent of gun deaths. (These figures do not include suicides.) Roughly 30 people are killed by guns every day, according to the preliminary CDC data from 2011.

“The mass shooting is what we see and what we remember, but unfortunately people die in ones and twos and threes in cities and towns all across America every single day,” said Josh Horwitz, the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a nonprofit founded in 1974.

Government statistics counting gun murders exist, of course, in data gathered by the CDC from death certificates completed by funeral directors, doctors, medical examiners, and coroners. The FBI also collects data on murders by firearms, but these numbers come with limitations, including their reliance on voluntary reporting from law-enforcement agencies.  

While these data are invaluable, there is a problem with statistics (in general and in this instance specifically): they are years out of date, difficult for a nonstatistician to find and navigate, and often do a poor job of adequately explaining the threat gun violence poses to public safety and the pain it inflicts on victims and families.

The enormity of gun deaths in the United States (the U.S. has a rate of firearm homicides 19.5 times higher than that of other high-income countries) is what makes it so difficult to track in real time and with any meaningful level of detail—and is exactly what makes its documentation so important. Yet no one until very recently thought it was important to do.

In this absence of adequate tracking, several local news organizations, including Homicide Watch D.C. and the Chicago Tribune, have taken up the cause, meticulously keeping crime statistics themselves and giving their readers real-time information on murders in their cities—as much as their resources allow. “As DC residents,” Homicide Watch’s about section states, “we believe that how people live and die here, and how those deaths are recognized, matters to every one of us.”

Nationally, the only real attempt to document every gun-violence victim started a little over a year ago when an anonymous Twitter user moved by the theater killing in Aurora, Colorado, created the @GunDeaths feed to crowdsource instances of gun-related fatalities, offered “regardless of cause and without comment” from media reports. After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December, the website Slate used the data and later overtook the feed to create an interactive in which readers can see where people are dying, what kinds of people are being killed by guns, their names, and the details of their deaths with linked media reports.

“It seems shocking that when guns are in the headlines every day, there’s no one attempting to create a real-time chronicle of the deaths attributable to guns in the United States,” Slate editors said, explaining the rationale for keeping track.

Of course, the difficulty of relying on media reports and the public to collect information is that as national attention wanes, so too will people interested in contributing to the tally. Slate attempts to collect every death, including suicides, which typically go unreported. 

Slate acknowledges the limitations to its method. "Our number is by design not accurate and represents only the number of gun deaths that the media can find out about contemporaneously,” the site’s introduction to the data reads. “Part of the purpose of this interactive is to point out how difficult it is to get accurate real-time numbers on this issue.”

Slate’s tally of gun deaths since the Newtown massacre is up to 8,250 as of this writing. Using last year’s CDC numbers, this count is only about 100 away from the number of gun-related homicides we’d expect to see. So, flawed as the collection may be, the interactive might be the closest we get to a full account of the lives irreversibly impacted by gun violence in this country. The Daily Beast reached out to gun-advocacy groups as well as other news organizations in the hope of getting at these numbers and the stories behind them. No one had any better idea than Slate’s crowdsourcing.

“If you ever want to solve these problems, then you’ve got to really understand what the problem looks like,” Horwitz said. “Statistics are important, but at some point, they’re only numbers.  And telling individual stories and putting faces to these survivors is super important.”