The sound of violence

If an article by Todd C. Frankel in The Washington Post is to be believed, the official numbers on deaths and injuries due to gunfire is missing a lot of violence.  In “This may be the best way to measure gun violence in America,” he cites public policy researchers, including Jennifer Doleac, assistant professor at the University of Virginia, as saying that a better measure would be to count total shots fired.

According to the view being offered here, gun violence must also include shots being fired that do not hit a human being, but simply the number of rounds expelled.  This may sound impossible to measure, but these researchers claim to have a technology that can answer the question, a set of gunfire locating sensors operated by ShotSpotter.  The company distributes microphones around a city that in theory are activated by a sound characteristic of gunfire and verified by employees.

Several problems arise from this system.  For one thing, it’s expensive—running $264,000 a year for Oakland, CA, for example.  That city’s police department finds the equipment redundant, and it’s understandable why they would reach that conclusion, since the annual cost could cover the salaries of some five officers.

But new technology is often expensive in its early days, and perhaps the costs will be brought down in the future, either through economies of scale or through automated detection.  But the question will remain as to how reliable those detections can be.  The experience of Newark, NJ makes this dubious.  Newark spent $80,000 per annum on the system, and in the years since 2010, they were rewarded with a seventy-five percent false alarm rate.  But genuine or not, alarms often result in officers being sent to the location to check things out.

Again, this may be a purely technological matter, one that will be solved by improvements in the gadgets.  Let’s suppose that some day in the future, the system will be flawless.  Do we want that?  If you’ve read George Orwell’s 1984, you’ll understand my reservations about having microphones that are able to pick up conversations without the inconvenience of giving Miranda warnings or warrants.  This sounds a good deal like New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy, differing only in the greater subtlety of the probing.

These are things that should make us question the value and validity of the system.  But what about the assertion made by the researchers that the technology tells us that our current understanding of gun violence?  As Frankel writes,

It does not account for all the times when a gun is fired in anger, fear or by accident and the bullet simply misses its mark. Yet whether a bullet kills or injures someone is an almost random outcome from a violent act. It is influenced by the shooter’s aim, if the bullet happens to strike vital organs and even how far a victim must travel to reach a hospital trauma center.

This is flawed through and through.  Events are random or they are not.  Randomness is like pregnancy—it’s all or nothing.  What “almost random” might mean isn’t clear, but perhaps he means uncontrolled or unintended.  Firing a bullet is an act that results from a specific act.  That act might be accidental, a muscle twitch, but it still isn’t random, and the behavior of the bullet is predictable within a tiny margin of error with Newton’s laws.

But is every gunshot a violent act?  Take these microphones out into the countryside, and the answer certainly would be no.  We rednecks fire a lot of rounds legally, whether hunting or target shooting.  In a city, typically, firing off rounds—unless in self-defense—is illegal, and rightly so, given the population density.  But how do we know the nature of the 165,000 shots that ShotSpotter detected, presuming that each sound was actually a gunshot?  Was it self-defense, whether fired as a warning shot, a missed attempt to hit an attacker who was then frightened away, or force used against an aggressive animal?  Was the shot an accident?  We regard accidents as unfortunate, perhaps even negligent, depending on the circumstances, but also recognize a difference between those events and intentional acts.

What we see here is yet another attempt of people who are opposed to gun rights to inflate the numbers to build an emotional case for their side.  As always, we have to sift through the hand-waving to see the flaws and risks at the heart of the thinking.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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