Weekly post: Gun violence
What the data tells us about the state of gun violence in America
In addition to the Charts of the Week roundup, this newsletter features a weekly deep dive data storytelling post on a specific topic from a member of the community. This edition of the weekly post comes from our Data Journalist Intern, Emily Irion, a graduate student at UCSD’s School of Global Policy & Strategy. You can follow her on OpenAxis and Twitter. As always, each visualization has a backlink to share or remix the chart and explore the dataset with tools for collaboration and crowdsourcing insights. Join the conversation!
Misinformation in a Crisis
I decided to research gun violence after the recent Buffalo mass shooting, where a gunman killed 10 people at a supermarket in a racially motivated attack. After Tuesday’s mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas where 19 children and 2 adults were killed at their elementary school, I hesitated posting anything at all. Partly because the prevalence of misinformation is a major challenge in the aftermath of a crisis.
As University of Washington Associate Professor and Researcher Kate Starbird says, “misinformation is a byproduct of the natural response that people have to a disaster event.” Even Twitter recognizes this problem, and last week announced their new crisis misinformation policy to prevent the amplification of false information from spreading during a crisis. Yet, false narratives began circulating on Twitter immediately after Tuesday’s mass shooting in Uvalde; some spread by the police, politicians, and of course, users on social media sites like 4chan. Common narratives are shown in the chart below, with an example of how one politician promoted a false dangerous, transphobic, and xenophobic narrative.
According to the American Psychologist Association, key strategies to combat misinformation include “debunking, preemptive inoculation, and nudges to assess the accuracy of material.” Furthermore, it’s important to identify misinformation to protect people like Sam, who had her image used to spread false narratives about the shooter being transgender. Read her story here.
Combating gun violence misinformation using data
The greater gun violence debate is not devoid of misinformation when the news cycle ends, because the crisis doesn’t end. Gun Violence is a public health crisis. This is not simply a sound bite, just look at the data.
The CDC reports that firearm-related injuries have become the leading cause of death in children and teens, ages one to nineteen, as of 2020, for the first time ever (4,368). It has now surpassed motor vehicle crashes, formerly the leading cause of death for kids one and older (~4,000). And between 2016 and 2020, 58% of child and teen gun deaths were homicides.
This week, prior to the Uvalde shooting, the FBI released their 2021 Active Shooter Incidents report. They identified 61 active shooter incidents in 2021, making this a 52.5% increase since 2020, and a total 96.8% increase from 2017.
Of the 61 total active shooter incidents in 2021, California had a high of 6, followed by 5 incidents in Texas and Georgia. Naturally, if you are aware of California’s strict gun laws, this might raise some questions about the effectiveness of gun restrictions. Helpful context to think about why this might be the case is that California has the largest population of any other state, it also has lower rates of overall gun homicide and suicide in comparison with states with less restrictive gun laws. It’s important to engage with these questions rather than shy away from them to avoid misconceptions, however data is required to make an accurate assessment.
Barriers to Change
An additional barrier compounding the current misinformation problem can be found in politics— specifically the Dickey Amendment. This amendment was passed in 1996, via heavy lobbying by the National Rifle Association and has impeded gun violence research for 20 years. The amendment effectively prohibited the use of federal funds to advocate or promote gun control, which included doing research on the topic itself. In 2018, language in the Dickey Amendment was softened to allow some funding to be allocated toward gun violence research. However, the consequence remains that we are trailing years behind in data.
According to a recent Pew Research analysis, total gun deaths in 2020 “represent a 14% increase from the year before, a 25% increase from five years earlier and a 43% increase from a decade prior.” As gun violence becomes more prevalent, the need for research has intensified and thankfully, is occurring.
A 2019 Columbia University study found evidence to support stricter gun laws. Namely, “a 10 unit increase in state gun law permissiveness was associated with a significant 11.5 higher rate of mass shootings.” Another recent study found that the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 (September 13, 1994-September 12, 2004) which banned specific weapons with large-capacity magazines, including military-style weapons like the semi-automatic AR-15, resulted in a 37 percent decrease in high-fatality mass shooting incidents and a 43% decrease in high-fatality mass shooting deaths (common misconception: “AR” does not stand for “Automatic Rifle”).
Despite these findings, the effect of the Assault Weapons Ban has been debated for years, as has its inherent shortcomings demonstrating the need for more research. One common measurement researchers used to analyze the prevalence of gun violence is by looking at total firearm sales— however, they use background checks to do so. Although background checks and gun sales are not perfect replacements, they are closely correlated.
What can be done
Overall, it’s clear that America’s current trajectory without intervention will lead to more guns, more violence, and more deaths. In addition, mis- and disinformation will further delay action from addressing this crisis as people continue to propose ideas, like arming teachers, without any evidence to support it. Currently, there are research-backed policies stalled in Congress like a new assault-rifle ban, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021 (HR 8), and a policy to close background check loopholes (HR 1446). And polls show public support for these types of measures, with 52% of Americans wanting stricter laws.
However, these policies are unlikely to pass through the gridlock in Congress, even though there have been 213 mass shootings in a matter of only 21 weeks since 2022 began. The filibuster is a huge barrier and getting rid of it could help for a time, but what happens when the pendulum of power eventually switches back to a party opposed to gun reform? As a public policy graduate student, I’ve found the answer is often to change the incentive structure. A good place to start is with campaign finance laws, but that will have to be a blog for another day.
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