Our friend Eric Fleegler and his colleagues at Harvard, Emory, Brown, and Montefiore have just published what may be the most comprehensive and detailed analysis of gun violence produced over the past 30 years. And as expected, the numbers have been growing at an alarming rate over the last several years.
The research is not only important in terms of the demographic details covering all the victims of this carnage, but even more important, the data has been connected and aggregated at the county level, the latter issue extremely significant since even within specific states, gun deaths can vary enormously between urban versus rural locales.
This article is getting plenty of notice in the media and digital outlets which promote and support more controls over civilian-owned guns. I consider myself a member of that group, but I also feel it is necessary to approach such research from a critical point of view, particularly when the researchers in this instance claim that what they have published “may inform interventions to decrease firearm fatalities by targeting populations in specific geographic areas who have higher rates of firearm fatalities from homicide or suicide.”
In that respect, I am drawn to the comments in this study where the authors list the ‘limitations’ which might influence or impact the value of their work. First and foremost, the paper makes no mention of the degree to which any study of gun violence is sadly incomplete because the data covering such events can only be recovered and analyzed for fatal shootings, which are probably less than 30 percent of all gun assaults.
If it were possible to collect, aggregate and analyze non-fatal shootings, would having access to such data change the profile of gun violence created only by using data covering gun deaths? We don’t know.
What we do know, or at least I know, is that the only difference between fatal and non-fatal gun violence events is that in the latter category, the guy who pulled the trigger didn’t shoot straight. As opposed to car accidents, where factors like speed, weather, time of day and chemical impairment of the driver will significantly determine the number of fatal versus non-fatal accidents, whereas no such environmental differentiations can or should be made when it comes to analyzing intentional injuries caused by guns.
The second limitation in this article which is not mentioned by the authors but is generic to all public health gun research, is the degree to which we learn an awful lot about the victims of intentional gun assaults, but nothing at all about the perpetrators. And since the goal of these researchers, as mentioned above, is to help develop more effective ‘interventions’ to deal with gun violence, how do you develop any interventions, legal or otherwise, when you have such limited information about the people whose behavior requires the development of more effective interventional strategies in the first place?
The good news is that, at least for the next two years, we will continue to have an Administration in place which is committed to seeking and implementing better controls over guns, particularly the types of guns which are used to commit the more than 100,000 intentional fatal and non-fatal gun injuries which occur every year.
Would it be asking too much for my friends in the public health-medical research community to sit down and try to figure out how to access data which would allow them to conduct the same kind of analysis about the shooting population which this article so productively presents about the population which is shot?
I would hope not.