Emotions run high in many debates about gun control, but what do the facts really say? One major problem facing citizens and legislators advocating for or against laws meant to prevent gun violence is that nobody actually knows how many people get shot each year.
According to a report by Pro Publica, not only is the picture painted by available government data inconclusive, it's often downright contradictory:
The government's own numbers seem to conflict. One source of data on shooting victims suggests that gun-related violence has been declining for years, while another government estimate actually shows an increase in the number of people who have been shot. Each estimate is based on limited, incomplete data.
Part of the problem? Nobody - not even the FBI - is tracking non-lethal gunshot wounds nationally. So we know how many people in the US are killed by guns every year, but we have no idea how many are shot but live because of medical intervention.
So while there has been a documented decrease in gun-related homicides in recent years, it's unclear if that is attributable to a decrease in gun violence or technological advancements in emergency medicine. And without data on non-fatal gun violence, there's really no way to tell.
Dr. David Livingston, director of the New Jersey Trauma Center at University Hospital in Newark, said the absence of vital data undermines the debate, allowing both sides to fill the vacuum with ideology:
In the absence of real data, politicians and policymakers do what the hell they want. They do what the hell they want anyway, but in the absence of data, they have nobody to call them on it.
US gun homicides peaked in the mid 90s and, by Department of Justice estimates, dropped nearly 50% since then. That same report also notes a decline in non-fatal shootings, but it is starkly contradicted by Center for Disease Control figures that show a spike in hospital visits stemming from non-fatal gun injuries:
CDC estimates show that the number of Americans coming to hospitals with nonfatal, violent gun injuries has actually gone up: from an estimated 37,321 nonfatal gunshot injuries in 2002 to 55,544 in 2011. (These numbers include only injuries caused by violent assault, not accidents, self-inflicted injuries, or shootings by police.)
Another flaw in the DOJ numbers, according to Duke University gun violence expert, Philip Cook, is that the survey the come from likely overlooks the people most affected by gun violence:
[Shooting victims are] disproportionately young men of color who are living unstable lives and often involved in underground markets or criminal activity, and this is a group that is incredibly difficult to survey. A lot of them are in jail at any point in time, or if they're not in jail, they have no stable address.
But the CDC numbers are also deeply flawed, with a giant margin of error. They closest guess the group can pin down for intentional, non-lethal shootings in 2012 is "somewhere between 27,000 and 91,000."
It's this inadequacy of the collective data currently available that has many pushing for a national reporting system.
Congress voted to create a National Violent Death Reporting System in 2002, but funding limitations only allowed for data collection in 18 states until last year. In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre Congress approved an additional $8 million for the database, but that is still not enough to gather information in all 50 states.
President Obama has called for a $23.5 million increase in funding for the database, which would be enough to implement the program nationwide.
Via Pro Publica