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December 13, 2013

Gun deaths not easily tracked or tallied

(Continued)

WASHINGTON — This experiment, like all experiments, produced its share of unanticipated results. Last month we posted a second crowdsourcing initiative, inspired by the GalaxyZoo project, inviting readers to categorize the gun deaths in our interactive as murders, suicides, accidental deaths, deaths by law enforcement, or self-defense. More than 52,000 individual classifications were made, with each death getting classified as many as 11 times, and the results were illuminating - both in what they showed about our data and what they showed about the limits of crowdsourcing. It's this effort that made it clear, for example, that suicides are drastically undercounted in our interactive. But the volume of contradictory responses - deaths labeled as both self-defense and murder, or murder and shooting by law enforcement - also makes it clear that the causes of many deaths are too complicated (or in question legally) to be classified by a crowd. And what expert could classify them? Do we wait to see how a jury answers the question of, say, murder versus self-defense? That could take years.

These are all questions that the organization taking over (and expanding) Slate's gun-deaths count will need to wrestle with.

The Gun Violence Archive is a not-for-profit corporation created and funded by Michael Klein. Klein - the founder of CoStar Group, a real-estate information company, and the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to government transparency - told me in an interview that he created the GVA because "policy requires information. And there's a dearth of information, particularly going beyond fatalities." He stresses the GVA's independence in the group's mission statement, which notes that Klein "has not been a member or financial supporter of any organization on any side of Second Amendment issues."

We'll freeze Slate's gun-death interactive on Dec. 31, and the GVA anticipates launching on Jan. 1. "The data we put online right away will be more robust than yours," Klein told me, "but nowhere near what it will be in six to 12 months." The GVA plans to track gun use not only in deaths but in nonfatal robberies, assaults, accidents, and cases of self-defense. Where Slate depended on news media reports, the GVA already uses information from police departments, mayors' offices, and coroners, with plans to expand those programs soon. "It takes a while to get a model working," Klein told me. "But once the integrity of what we're doing is evident, I hope we'll get buy-in from police departments and city governments to share their reports in a timely manner."

Do police departments systematically record the kind of data that a comprehensive program like the GVA is hoping to collect? Not always. Police departments in many large cities track gun crimes very specifically on a neighborhood-to-neighborhood basis. But other departments, especially in smaller jurisdictions, do not. Last winter, shortly after the Newtown shootings, the Austin, Texas, City Council passed a resolution directing the city manager to collect data about gun use in crimes in Austin. The resulting report was a significant challenge to assemble, according to Ron MacKay of the Austin Police Department's Crime Analysis Unit.

"We're a victim of our own information, so to speak," MacKay told me. "Data integrity is always a priority. We send out training bulletins to officers all the time. But if I'm an officer and this report is the last thing I'm doing for the day, and it's cold and wet and I'm trying to get home to my family - well. If there's a gun on the scene, I'll probably include that, but I won't always note if that handgun was a revolver or a semiautomatic." In preparing the report, Austin officials talked with police departments in 10 other cities of similar size. According to MacKay, most responded, "We don't track all that."

This lack of information filters down to researchers. Though most scientists I talked to said that they'd always found individual police departments forthcoming and helpful, I heard widespread frustration that data isn't systematically available in a more timely manner. "I don't know why we don't have rapid case accounts," said Harvard's Cathy Barber. "It's crazy that we are using 2010 data."

 It might help, of course, if the federal government issued directives to local police urging them to systematically record and report firearm data. But who would make such a request? The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which for years (as the National Network for Safe Communities' David Kennedy told me) made it difficult or impossible for local police departments to get basic information about guns used in murders? (This was thanks to the National Rifle Association-supported Tiahrt amendments, which, though weakened recently, still restrict the extent to which the ATF can share information on guns.) The FBI is a possibility; they already collect data on firearms used in murders, robberies, and aggravated assaults for their yearly Uniform Crime Reports.

And then there's the CDC. The agency assembles the death statistics that social scientists depend upon, accumulating them from death certificates collected nationwide. But that process takes a long time; right now, confirmed totals from 2010 are available, and the center has released preliminary figures for 2011. The center also runs the National Violent Death Reporting System, which was created to track deaths nationwide - but which due to funding shortfalls currently only covers 18 states. (Along with $10 million for firearms research, Obama's 2014 budget proposal includes $20 million to expand the NVDRS to 50 states. It remains to be seen whether those sums will make it through appropriations.)

The CDC has a complicated history when it comes to gun-related research. Since 1997, it has been prohibited by Congress from research that may "advocate or promote gun control." That vague language had a chilling effect on all gun-related research funded by the CDC. "Nothing was explicitly prohibited," said David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. "But CDC knew if they ever did anything about firearms they'd be brought before House oversight committees and berated. There were all these shots across the bow, saying, Do whatever you want, but if you do the wrong thing, we'll blow you up."

But last winter, in the wake of Newtown, Obama signed an executive order instructing the CDC to once again support research on firearms. "CDC seems willing to, you know, say the word firearms now, which they weren't willing to do before, even in private meetings," Hemenway said. Other researchers agreed that this is a significant, important change in the government's attitude toward gun research (though they cautioned it's only a first step). "It's not clear which catastrophic event triggered it, but it's a big change, and it's a good change," said Alan Leshner, who oversaw this spring's valuable Institute of Medicine/National Research Council report on future priorities for firearm research. And Matthew Miller of Harvard's School of Public Health told me, "It has dispelled the chilling effect that has been a pall over the firearm research community over the last 17 years. It sends a signal that it's not OK to shun this research for political reasons."

         

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