Shots in the Dark

What do we really know about gun crime? Almost nothing.


When I arrived at the inaugural meeting of the National Research Council's Committee to Improve Research and Data on Firearms this Thursday, I was the only media representative on hand. No CNN. No New York Times. Not even the Washington Post. Too bad. The committee's report, due in two years, could shape the gun debate for decades to come. More important, a few stunning admissions at the meeting reveal an important fact about the body of information on which America's existing gun control laws are built –there isn't any body of information.

The National Research Council is an arm of the National Academies. In conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Justice, and three private foundations, the NRC has called on 16 academics and other notables from around the country to study gun violence. They are mainly doctors and social science researchers, and their charge is four-fold: Assess the existing research and data on firearm violence; evaluate prevention, intervention and control strategies; describe and develop models of illegal firearms markets; and examine how firearms become embedded in the community. If you think someone might have done those things before passing the thousands of gun control laws already on the books, you're wrong.

James Mercy, associate director of research at the CDC's Division of Violence Prevention, detailed for the panel the woeful lack of information that policy makers face, especially on the national level:

"We can't answer very basic questions with existing data sources about this problem. We can't tell you in almost all jurisdictions in the country what portion of homicides are committed with assault rifles, however you choose to define that term. We can't tell you the number of permanently disabling injuries to the spinal cord and the brain caused by firearms. That's unknown. We can't even tell you the number of violent deaths that occur in schools. … There are many questions like these, very basic questions, that we simply can't answer because of the poverty of data that exists in this field. This poverty of data has particularly bad consequences for the evaluation of public policy related to violence. Many of our public policies are targeted at specific types of violence, but we cannot link very specific types of firearms to suicides and homicides with existing data sources."

Officials don't know where crimes occur, how criminals get guns, what kind of guns they use, or how other risk factors such as poverty or drug use affect gun crimes. I asked if it was then true that all existing laws were created in absence of this critical information. Patti Culross, associate program officer of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, brought down the house with, "I don't think it's surprising to anyone here that sometimes laws are not based on information." Douglas Weil, research director at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, seemed to think that was just fine. "One reason for trigger locks, even if you don't think trigger locks are going to be that effective, is because it is a good way to get people to think about [gun safety]… Maybe it won't be that effective, maybe it will. It doesn't mean there is no logic behind it."

Lois Mock, an analyst at the National Institute for Justice, was discussing how difficult it was to turn good local data into reliable national numbers when she cast doubt on the very idea of national gun laws. "Firearm problems are local," she said. "They differ from one city to another, from one state to another, from rural and suburban areas to cities, even from one neighborhood in a city to another… So there is no one-size-fits-all in terms of a program to intervene in firearms violence."

And even when there is data, the feds don't always use it, according to Dr. Stephen Hargarten, director of the Firearm Injury Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin, one of the few organizations with reliable statewide data. He said the CDC and The Johns Hopkins University couldn't find numbers on assault rifle deaths for the Clinton administration's campaign against the guns, so the administration turned to the FIC. Hargarten said he told the feds that short-barreled pistols were a much bigger problem, at least in Wisconsin. "Did that inform the subsequent political discussion? No. … The assault weapon ban was so much hot air," he told the panel.

So what now? The committee will try to pull together all the best data from around the country and devise ways to put the data together. A National Review Online article by Dave Kopel and Glen Reynolds argues that the scholars selected for the committee and the private foundations partially bankrolling it all but guarantee an anti-gun report. On the other hand, the committee did hear from an NRA spokesman, and there was some talk of trying to calculate the benefits of gun ownership along with the costs. Let's hope the numbers they cook are fair—two years from now they will be the only numbers anyone has. Remember, we got thousands of laws when there weren't any numbers at all.