With the recent news of the Santa Barbara shooting and yesterday’s Seattle Pacific University shooting and all the others before them, it’s easy to feel like gun violence is at an all time high.
But is there really a way to know if we’re doing any worse or better now than twenty years ago? Unfortunately, it looks like the answer is no.
While it seems crucial to know all we can about gun violence, statistics are still pushed through massive red tape. Part of the problem, according to Pro Publica, is that the government’s own numbers seem to conflict. “One source of data on shooting victims suggests that gun-related violence has been declining for years, while another government estimate actually shows an increase in the number of people who have been shot,” they write. “Each estimate is based on limited, incomplete data. Not even the FBI tracks the total number of nonfatal gunshot wounds.”
The good news, and what does seem tangible, is that murder numbers have gone down over recent years. But since that number only tracks survivors, it’s hard to know if less people have actually been shot, or if there’s just been a larger amount of survivals among them. Because of the uncertainty, doctors have been pushing for better injury data.
There was, at one time, a push to create a national database of firearm injuries in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but it fizzled out as the political fight over funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention peaked. To cut costs, researchers decided to focus only on fatal injuries. Unfortunately, even with a more limited effort in place, the research “has languished without full congressional funding — the database currently covers fewer than half of all states” reports Propublica.
So what’s the good news? When we look back 20 years, to 1993, violent crime of all kinds was at its peak. When we compare 1993 to today, we can see that the number of murders is down nearly 50 percent, with other violent crime having dropped even further. The Department of Justice backs this up: Its National Crime Victimization Survey shows a decline, from an average of about 22,000 nonfatal shootings in 2002, to roughly 12,000 a year from 2007 to 2011, Propublica reports. During this same time period, CDC estimates show that the number of Americans coming to hospitals with nonfatal, violent gun injuries has actually gone up: from an estimated 37,321 nonfatal gunshot injuries in 2002 to 55,544 in 2011.
Gun violence expert at Duke University Philip Cook tells Propublica that shooting victims are “disproportionately young men of color who are living unstable lives and often involved in underground markets or criminal activity, and this is a group that is incredibly difficult to survey,” due to jail time and inconsistent living situations.
A Wall Street Journal article that looked at CDC shooting estimates stated that “America has become no less violent” in the past twenty years. Researches have also noted that the increase of gunshot injuries have cost some hospitals around $115 million. To help figure out some of these issues, President Obama (in 2012) asked for $23.5 million in funding to allow the CDC to collect data on violent death nationwide. There was also a push to get better data on how many guns currently exist throughout the country. As of yet, there have been no real updates on the progress of these initiatives.