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Why So Little Research on Gun Deaths Exists. And What Big Data Intends to Do About It

Why So Little Research on Gun Deaths Exists. And What Big Data Intends to Do About It

Last August, PolitiFact reported the number of gun-related deaths in the United States since 1968:

1,516,863.

That was before San Bernardino and many other mass shootings in the fall and winter, so you can add several dozen more to the total.

PolitiFact is a fact-checking site, and it was updating previous research it had done to vet a claim by the pundit Mark Shields that more Americans have died from gunfire in the past 45 years than have died in every war the U.S. has been involved in since the founding of the republic.

After crunching the numbers, PolitiFact rated Shields' contention:

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"True."

So does that mean firearm-related violence constitutes a public health crisis?

Guns in The Age of Big Data

Lots of people think so.  But no matter what your recommended remedy -- gun control or its opposite -- you might assume, living in the Age of Big Data as we do, that such a vast cohort of gun victims has  yielded giga-reams of information to help analyze and eventually mitigate the problem.

That is not the case, say researchers and gun control advocates. Scant research on gun violence has been conducted in America since Congress cut funding for it at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the mid-1990s. (See the section below for more on this.)

But now, data researchers at Boston Children's Hospital aim to harness the analytical power of Big Data in hopes they can uncover patterns that shed light on gun-related incidents and even predict when certain  conditions put people at risk.

The Digital Gun Violence Surveillance Platform will pull data from official sources such as government background checks and nontraditional streams like tweets, Google searches, news articles and obituary keywords.

GunTweets
From the upcoming Digital Gun Violence Surveillance Platform.

“Anything that reveals something that’s happening on the ground level,” John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s, said in a  presentation at South by Southwest last month.

He said the project had collected 700,000 tweets related to guns over a nine-month period.

The team will post the data online in the form of charts, maps and graphs in an attempt to coalesce the various strands into a coherent picture.

A beta release is planned for the first week of June, with an official launch in early October.

A “massive amount of information is coming through these channels,” Brownstein said. “A whole new stream of intelligence we can begin to collect.”

Watch the team's presentation at South by Southwest

The team has already observed some correlations emerging from the “digital exhaust" being sucked in. For example: a correlation in each state between gun deaths and the number of people searching for the word "ammunition."

There are correlations with Twitter data, too.

"If you get a lot of tweets in a particular area about gunshots and we also see a spike in Google Trends of gun-related sales or where you can purchase ammunition for your gun, we can say that this is happening at the same time means something,” Gaurav Tuli told me last week. He runs machine learning on the project .

The project team has also seen geographical and time-based relationships between Google searches for the word “gun” and the number of background checks per 100,000 residents, as reported by the FBI.

Tuli said some of the team's analytical models will even be able to raise alarms as to the likelihood of a violent incident.

Ben Reis, director of the Predictive Medicine Group at the Children's Hospital Informatics Program, told the South by Southwest audience that mapping emerging trends will turn  on "red lights."

"You can say, 'OK, this is an unusual phenomenon, maybe this should be addressed,'” he said.

Policymakers will also be able to track public sentiment about gun issues, as posted on the Internet, Tuli said.

“If a lot of people are not happy about gun policy and are tweeting about it, then you have a thermometer that can gauge those feelings."

Tuli said the primary impact of the website would be to get people more engaged in gun research by providing them with real data. Hopefully, he said, researchers will be drawn to the project to collaborate.

One of the challenges researchers face, Reis said, is that different data streams have varying levels of reliability. Twitter is “an open jungle of information," he said. "Taming that beast and trying to get something useful out of it is  a really big challenge. “

Advance look at the data used in the project

View this document on Scribd

A Lack of Data

One speaker at South by Southwest who could barely keep the incredulity out of his voice when talking about the lack of gun data currently available was Evan DeFilippis, the co-founder of Armed With Reason, a pro-gun-control website.

“In the United States, when a car kills a person, virtually every detail that you can possibly care about goes into a government database called the Fatality Analysis Reporting System," he said.  "It records weather conditions,  driver behavior, vehicle characteristics, seatbelt use, drug use -- everything. The data is so granular, you can ask such specific questions, like, what is the risk of an automobile fatality for a woman stopped at a stoplight in the fog. "

This data has directly informed automobile safety standards and legislation, which have helped substantially reduce car-related fatalities and injuries from their highs in the 1970s, Garen Wintemute, an ER doctor at UC Davis Medical Center, told KQED's April Dembosky last year.

“(W)e mobilized. We recognized the problem, we put smart people in charge, and we gave them money to do research,” he said. “Policymakers asked for recommendations, and turned them into new policy and regulation.”

With firearm violence, he said, the opposite has occurred.  “We have repeatedly, consciously, deliberately turned our back on the problem.”

CDC Funding Cut

Most people who follow this issue trace the lack  of gun data and research back to 1996, when Congress, urged on by the NRA, eliminated $2.6 million in Centers for Disease Control  and Prevention funding for research related to firearm injuries. The NRA argued the research amounted to anti-gun advocacy, and this language was inserted into a CDC appropriations bill: "None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

That had a chilling effect on further research into gun injuries as a public health concern. Last October, the Associated Press, recounting the history of the conflict over gun research, said such research had "implicitly questioned the wisdom of having a gun," including one study that found  keeping firearms in the home dramatically increased the risk of homicide.

The NRA Responds

Amy Hunter, a spokeswoman for the NRA, says the organization does not think the number of gun-related deaths in the U.S. constitutes  a public health crisis, and points to data showing the rate of gun deaths per capita declining substantially since its 1993 peak. (Tuli  notes the rate has actually ticked upward since 2010.) In any case, Hunter said, the CDC can do legitimate studies any time it wants -- there's no ban on research, just on advocacy.

“We're not opposed to research," she said. "We’re opposed to research that is already determined from the outset to advance the gun control agenda."

Meanwhile, as calls have mounted for more government funding of research into gun violence, the CDC is "quietly" doing some research on the topic, as AP put it.

Jay Dickey, the former U.S. representative from Arkansas who authored the amendment that stipulates the CDC cannot "advocate or promote gun control," has said he regrets that his legislation led to such a big drop in gun research.

Last December, he co-wrote an op-ed with the former director of the CDC center that conducted gun-injury research. Though the former adversaries recommended for political reasons that the Dickey Amendment's prohibition of gun-control advocacy be kept intact, they also jointly called for research into gun-violence prevention to be "dramatically increased." They wrote:

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"Our nation does not have to choose between reducing gun-violence injuries and safeguarding gun ownership.”

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