Is Gun Violence Soaring in America?

An article published in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday reported that while the number of homicides has decreased over the last decade (2001-2011) due to improvements in medical technology, the number of people treated for gunshot wounds increased by almost half.

Here is an excerpt from the WSJ article:

After a steady decline through the 1990s, the annual number of homicides zigzagged before resuming a decline in 2007, falling from 16,929 that year to an estimated 14,722 in 2010, according to FBI crime data.

At the same time, medical data and other surveys in the U.S. show a rising number of serious injuries from assaults with guns and knives. The estimated number of people wounded seriously enough by gunshots to require a hospital stay, rather than treatment and release, rose 47% to 30,759 in 2011 from 20,844 in 2001, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System-All Injury Program. The CDC estimates showed the number of people injured in serious stabbings rose to 23,550 from 22,047 over the same period.

The rather glaring implication here is that (as the authors of the article outright suggest in its title) gun violence is soaring in America (the actual title is, “In Medical Triumph, Homicides Fall Despite Soaring Gun Violence”).

But is this true?  Is gun violence really soaring in America?

arresting homicide infographic

Well, the article itself cast doubt about the claim in subsequent paragraphs:

Criminologists say they are cautious about using such medical statistics to draw conclusions because of year-to-year inconsistencies in the number of medical institutions reporting data. The FBI collects annual homicide and aggravated assault statistics but doesn’t have reliable numbers for gun and knife attacks.

Jens Ludwig, a law professor and the director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, said he was leery of any number beyond reported homicides.

“Homicide is the one thing we’re measuring well,” he said. “Everything else is subject to much more uncertainty,” including varying numbers of emergency departments contributing data, as well as differences in how injuries are classified.

So, can we trust those numbers?  The short answer is “no.”

In his own analysis of the data, Kent Scheidegger, the Legal Director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said the following about the WSJ article:

It is certainly a very good thing that doctors are able to save more shooting victims, but take the “soaring gun violence” part with a grain of salt.  Aggravated assaults per capita are down 16% from 2007 to 2011, according to the FBI’s UCR, and down 24% from 2001 to 2011.  Did assaults with guns really soar while aggravated assaults overall were dropping?  I’ll join Prof. Ludwig in the leery section.

To iterate Scheidegger point, one should be highly skeptical of those numbers.  In addition to the national drop in aggravated assaults over the past decade, there are regional studies like the one conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University professor Thomas R. Baker that indicate the exact opposite is true.

As has noted before, Baker examined crime data and gun sales in Virginia from 2006 to 2011 and what he found was a negative relationship between gun sales, which increased 73 percent over those five years and gun-related violent crimes, which fell by 24 percent over the same period (when adjusted for population growth, those numbers are a 63 percent increase in sales and a 27 percent reduction in crime).

So, again, there is significant reason to doubt those numbers.

Nevertheless, you can expect that gun control advocates will be referencing this WSJ article and spouting the CDC numbers in the weeks to come.  Just know that like many of the claims they often make, there is a lack of hard evidence behind it.

Also, shame on the WSJ for lazy journalism.  It goes without saying, but a publication shouldn’t draw a conclusion that has the semblance of being factual based on numbers that are inherently unreliable.

Your thoughts?

Photo Credit: WSJ

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