Where Does Congress Turn for Data on Mass Shootings?

Some lawmakers are trying to find a solution to the mass shooting problem in the United States, but the data for them to lean on is far from clear.

Demonstrators hold signs during a protest in favor of gun control reform in front of the White House, Monday, Feb. 19, 2018, in Washington.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Erin Durkin
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Erin Durkin
Feb. 21, 2018, 8 p.m.

The data around mass shootings in America is far from clear and concise due to a lack of a central location for such information and varying criteria among different groups that are tracking these tragedies. But lawmakers who want to make changes to gun laws say this will not hold back their efforts.

The devastating shooting at a Florida high school last week, which left 17 people dead, reignited the debate on Capitol Hill about what should be done to prevent more of these tragedies. In the days following the mass shooting, President Trump spoke with Sen. John Cornyn about his proposal to bolster the background check system and is supportive of the effort, according to the White House.

But do lawmakers have enough information to know what proposals will be effective?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has effectively been barred for several years from studying gun violence. And according to a 2015 Congressional Research Service report, “no federal agency has systematically analyzed multiple victim homicide incidents involving firearms in a comprehensive, authoritative manner.”

Other sources of data have come from researchers, advocacy groups and media outlets. For example, Mother Jones and Education Week are tracking different types of shootings with their own standards for inclusion.

“There hasn’t been a lot of good rigorous research around which to base any kind of public policy,” said criminologist Grant Duwe, the director of research and evaluation for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. Duwe noted that there is not a centralized data collection mechanism for mass murder or mass shootings.

House Democrats, in their call to lift the barriers blocking CDC research, cited numbers from Mother Jones and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “Gun violence must be addressed and handled for what it is: a public health crisis,” they wrote to House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden last week.

But definitions can vary among the different sources of data. The Congressional Research Service report noted that media outlets, statute, law enforcement agencies and researchers have different definitions of “mass killing,” “mass murder,” and “mass shooting.”

There has even been disagreement around the number of school shootings that have occurred this year. The Washington Post reported that a number cited by Sen. Bernie Sanders and several news outlets was circulated by advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, which claimed the Florida shooting was the 18th school shooting in the U.S. The Post analysis said this number was inflated, in part, by including a suicide at a closed school and a person that was shot at a sorority.

Education Week’s tracker says there have been six school shootings in 2018 with injuries or deaths that did not include the suspect.

“With improved data, policymakers would arguably have additional vantage points from which to assess the legislative proposals that are inevitably made in the wake of these tragedies,” said CRS. The report recommended Congress direct agencies, including the FBI, to improve collection of data on multiple-victim homicides.

The FBI did not offer a comment on whether it received such a directive from Congress in the time since the report was released.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar sent some signals last week at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing that he would be open to CDC-led research. “Our Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we’re in the science business and the evidence-generating business,” he said. “So I will certainly have our agencies working in this field.”

Despite existing holes in the data, Sen. Chris Murphy said this will not prevent him from taking action. “[T]here is enough private research and statistics out there to show what kinds of laws reduce gun crimes and gun deaths,” said Murphy’s spokesperson Chris Harris in an email to National Journal. “More information will always be better, but saying Congress cannot take action to stop gun violence because there isn’t enough publicly funded data is exactly what the gun lobby was hoping people would say when it pushed for the research ban in the first place.”

Stanford Law School professor John Donohue, meanwhile, said the United States can look outside its own borders to address mass shootings. “We could solve the mass shooting problem, Australia has shown that could be done,” said Donohue.

Australia’s response to the horrific massacre in 1996 that left 35 people dead included a ban on certain semiautomatic and automatic firearms with a government buy-back of the banned weapons. In the years that followed, firearm-related homicides dropped by 59 percent and firearm-related suicides dropped by 65 percent, according to a 2010 report in the American Law and Economics Review.

But the U.S. has a complexity that Australia lacks, said Donohue. “All of these are complicated by the fact that, unlike Australia, we have a domestic gun industry led by the [National Rifle Association],” he said.

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