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Why Nonprofits Can’t Research Gun Violence As Well As The Feds

How many Americans are shot but not killed each year? I can’t really tell you exactly. You’d think gunshot injuries would be easy to count, but as we’ve reported in the past, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls its own estimates “unstable and potentially unreliable.” The range of uncertainty has gotten so large that the agency removed the most recent two years’ worth of firearm injury data from its website.

But other people are counting. On Monday, the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety released its own non-fatal shooting estimates. Pulling from existing data that shows 73,330 Americans are shot and injured every year, Everytown applied its own analysis to turn that big number into more detailed demographic lessons — like the fact that rural and urban counties have about the same rate of gun injuries per 100,000 people. Overall, the estimated number of people shot and not killed in this country is twice as many are estimated to be killed by guns each year in the U.S.

But Everytown for Gun Safety is an advocacy organization — one that is explicitly in favor of gun control laws. Can it effectively pick up the federal government’s slack in the field of gun violence research?

To understand the void Everytown is trying to fill, we need to revisit what created the void. These conversations inevitably drift towards the Dickey Amendment, a rider to a 1996 spending bill that banned the use of federal money to “advocate or promote gun control.” The language was vague. The effects were far-reaching — politicians, gun control advocates and scientists have all said the amendment had a chilling effect on gun-related research at the CDC and the National Institutes of Health. Even when Congress officially clarified that the Dickey Amendment didn’t mean the CDC couldn’t study gun violence, they didn’t provide funding to make that research happen. In 2012, for example, the CDC had $100,000 to spend on gun violence. That can’t even buy you a house in D.C.

But the Dickey Amendment didn’t cut off funding of gun violence research everywhere. Several other federal agencies fund this science, said James Densley, a professor of criminal justice at Minnesota’s Metropolitan State University. His research includes developing a database of mass shootings funded by the National Institute of Justice, the research and development agency serving the Department of Justice.

Federal funding definitely makes a difference, Densley told me. On his own, he doesn’t have the authority to ask for certain types of information and resources. But with the “full faith and credit” of his federal grant number, he can convince law enforcement and other official agencies to let him have access to crucial data. Private foundations also fund gun violence research, though Densley said those grants are often one-time payouts made by an organization before it moves on to other do-gooding.

In fact, the numbers Everytown released Monday came from (or, rather, were produced through analysis of) data collected by the Department of Health and Human Services. This database is basically a collection of hospital emergency room intake and discharge forms sampled from 20 percent of the hospitals in the country. It’s not specifically aimed at studying gun violence, but it can be used that way. And it typifies the kind of large-scale, multi-state data collection that basically requires the federal government’s involvement to get done.

Instead of attempting to do better data collection on its own, with fewer resources and less social capital, groups like Everytown often find themselves adding analytical value to federal data. The HHS database, for instance, has a public portal (we’ve used it), but it’s not great for producing the kind of detailed demographics Everytown thought were missing from public knowledge. So while the overall number of gun injuries comes directly from HHS, Everytown (like other researchers) had to buy the data and do the analysis themselves to pull out things like income and ages of people getting shot, said Sarah Burd-Sharps, Everytown’s research director. Everyone would be better off, she told me, if the CDC just had the funding to improve their injury survey and make detailed gun violence data reliable and accessible to begin with.

What’s more, other experts said, we’d be better off if the analysis wasn’t coming from Everytown. Statistics released by the CDC are considered the gold standard, said Deb Azrael, who works at the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center, because of that whole “full faith and credit” thing. “Not that federal data would be perfect,” Azrael said. “But when I see data from Everytown or The Trace,1 I don’t know what they’re missing. Maybe nothing. But if I put it in a paper, I can guarantee that a reviewer would push back and say, ‘How do you know this is any good?’” And that’s even before you get to the political pushback. If you’re worried about bias in favor of gun control at the CDC, you’re really gonna hate the priors at Everytown.

So no, nonprofits can’t replace the federal government on gun violence research. But, surprisingly, experts also told me that the Dickey Amendment is a bad bogeyman to fear. Remember, it didn’t end all federal funding of gun research. Nor, said Azrael and Densley, is that particular amendment the main thing holding back funding.

It’s definitely true that some in Washington are worried about what will happen if the government funds gun violence research, Azrael told me. And she thinks that’s a huge problem. She and Densley both think federal funding is as necessary to their field of research as it is to the scientists trying to cure cancer. “But the specter of, ‘Oh, if only we could get rid of Dickey the world would change drastically.’ That’s overplayed,” she said.

Footnotes

  1. We at FiveThirtyEight have previously worked with The Trace, a nonprofit news organization covering gun violence in America, on analyzing some of this same data.

Maggie Koerth is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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