A Fatal Lack of Data

I’ve been looking into violent deaths lately. And now I understand a few things.  Mostly, I understand what we don’t know about violent death in the United States. For instance, consider one of the most horrific kinds of violent death — mass shootings in public places like malls and offices and schools.

How often does this happen somewhere in the United States?

Nobody knows.

What kind of people wield the guns involved? How old are they? Do they have a criminal record or a history of mental illness?

Nobody knows.

How many murders involve assault weapons? How many are drug-related?

CrimeNobody knows.

How many teens are drunk or stoned when they commit suicide? How often does a child die from abuse somewhere in this country? How many women who die from domestic violence have a restraining order against their attacker?

Nobody knows.

I thought the answers to these questions would be easy to find. How wrong I was.

What I found was some information from a few states, but nothing systematic. Nothing that reports national-level data on violent death, which includes murder, suicide, domestic violence, and child abuse.

And I found a system that could provide this information. The National Violent Death Reporting System gathers data for every violent death from a variety of sources. By getting records from the police, medical examiners, crime labs, hospitals, and public health officials, the NVDRS can paint a picture of how and why people die the kind of deaths that spawn nightmares and media storms.

The NVDRS currently operates in 17 states. That’s all the funding there is. Housed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it depends on federal funding. It’s relatively inexpensive, too. Another $4 million for FY2009 would expand participation to more than half the states, so email your Congressional delegates.

Why should you bother? This isn’t just about having numbers. It’s about keeping people from becoming victims. Trying to prevent violent deaths without data about the how and why of it is like trying to treat cancer based on a biopsy report that’s missing most of the words. You might guess right, but the odds are against you.

And if you’re wrong, somebody dies.

  • Well, I disagree with a few points.

    I will not ask Congress to get involved, since their idea of involvement is to pretend they’re experts, then when they can’t “solve” it, throwing money at an issue.

    I also disagree that the most horrific types of violent deaths are mall/school/whatever shootings. More horrific, to me, are auto accidents, poisonings, stabbings, and other deaths that are either prolonged or against which one has no real recourse. You see, I carry a gun. Should a mass shooting start, I have a reasonable chance of stopping it (accounting for proximity, angle, line of sight, distance, and crowd conditions, for example). I don’t carry a gun to shoot someone, but I do carry a gun to keep someone from shooting me — or someone else, if possible.

    But back to your point. The statistics you seek seem to be one set of data, in one way. To meet NVDRS’ goal of correlating disparate facts would require massive amounts of analysis, with a set of conclusions that has at least an equal chance of describing only symptoms as it does pointing to any causes.

    I’m not convinced, either, of the impartiality of this system. Bringing the Joyce Foundation in, given that foundation’s strong anti-gun stance, lessens credibility. A quick skim through the coding manual shows many instances of prejudicial language, lessening credibility.

    Finally, a federal system to measure the instances, separate from the FBI’s NIBRS, simply to get more (not necessarily more relevant, just more) data, seems too close to a nanny state for my tastes.

  • Pingback: Are Guns in the Hands of the Mentally Ill Really the Problem? | Brain Blogger()

Jennifer Green, MS

Jennifer Green, MS, is a freelance health care writer. A former nurse and college professor, she now writes about health care for clients around the world. She’s particularly interested in research into the mind-body connection.

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