September 28, 2000 Harvard
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Catherine Barber, Deborah Axrael, David Hemenway
Catherine Barber (left), Deborah Axrael, and David Hemenway stand before a map showing locations of pilot sites for the national firearm deaths reporting system they are developing. Staff photo by Kris Snibbe

System tracks gun deaths: Details are being collected on murders, suicides in the U.S.

By William J. Cromie
Gazette Staff

Recent accounts of young school students shooting each other has sent a shiver through the nation; journalists call the killings an "epidemic" and legislators have begun debates on new gun control laws. As tragic as these homicides are, however, they represent only the tip of an iceberg of gun deaths in the United States. Every year, more than 30,000 people are shot to death in murders, suicides, and accidents. Another 65,000 suffer from gun injuries.

"The total number of school shootings each year is typically far less than one day's toll attributable to firearms in the United States," notes David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Research and Control Center. "Defective Firestone tires may have killed 103 people over a number of years, but firearms kill about 85 people every day in this country."

Hemenway and his colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health have begun a pilot effort to develop the first national reporting system for firearm deaths. It would be similar to that used by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to track motor vehicle deaths.

"When a motor vehicle fatality occurs in the United States, more than 100 pieces of data are collected, everything from the make of the vehicle to details of the road conditions," Hemenway points out. Such statistics give lawmakers the information they need to design new safety regulations. The Harvard pilot effort, called the National Firearm Injury Statistics System (NFISS), is expected to lead to the same kind of information for gun deaths.

The goal of the system is to let university researchers, government agencies, and lawmakers know what they don't know now, and to use that information to design laws aimed at reducing firearm deaths. "The U.S. leads the industrial world in gun suicides, murders, and accidents," says Hemenway. "No other developed country comes close to our death rates, and that should not be."

As an example, no one knows how effective the recent ban on certain types of assault rifles has been because no record exists of how many individuals were shot by such weapons before or after the ban.

"You cannot design good laws governing firearms when you're shooting in the dark," says Hemenway. "And I don't mean that in a lighthearted way."

'Ah-Ha!' effect

There would also be an "ah-ha!" effect. "A national reporting system will show us things we don't expect," points out Catherine Barber, a NFISS co-director. "You feel secure about some 'fact,' then you look at the actual data and discover things aren't really that way."

Barber cites examples from motor vehicles. Inspections and drivers' education do not lower fatalities as much as expected. Motorcycle helmets really matter in accidents, and raising speed limits produces a predictable increase in highway deaths. Air bags offer less protection than first believed, and they can even kill people.

The first step in obtaining that kind of information about firearms involves getting each state to report the same information in the same way. That means getting coroners', medical examiners', police, crime lab, and vital statistics reports all in the same form.

In one state with 120 counties, the murders were carefully documented in each county, but the information was in different drawers, boxes, filing cabinets and computer systems. Multiply that by 50, and you get a feeling for the enormity of the problem.

NFISS will receive $3 million over four years, 1999 to 2002, to run a pilot program to overcome such disparities. In turn, it has given grants to six states and three metropolitan areas: Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Utah, Wisconsin, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Allegheny County (Pennsylvania). Four other entities are participating in NFISS without Harvard funding: Kentucky, Rhode Island, Miami-Dade County, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Gender choices

Barber admits that the problems in establishing uniform reporting were "amazing." They ran from lightning striking a computer holding homicide data in Kentucky to debates over making answers other than "male" or "female" available on standard-form questions about gender. Information on factors such as involvement of drugs and alcohol, relationships between shooters and their victims, and extent of depression in suicide cases all had to be standardized.

The NFISS directors chose the pilot sites to get a geographic mix. Also, some of the locations boast more murders than suicides and vice-versa. (About 18,000 out of 31,000 people who commit suicide in the U.S. every year do so by gun.) All the selected sites were already doing some type of firearm injury reporting. Some of them started in 1994 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) took the first step toward establishing a nationwide system. The agency provided money to seven states to begin developing data-collection programs. However, says Hemenway, in 1997 the gun lobby managed to cut $2.6 million from CDC's budget, the same amount slated for gun-injury reporting and research.

Private foundations then stepped in to fill the void. NFISS is supported by the Joyce, Packard, Soros, MacArthur, and Annie Casey Foundations, and the Irene Diamond Fund.

Meanwhile, smaller programs have provided intriguing information about local areas. The New York City Health Department tracked the distribution of gunshot wounds in neighborhoods and found gun violence spreads to bordering neighborhoods. No similar contagion occurred for knife assaults. Conclusion: reducing the number of guns in one area may have a beneficial spillover on contiguous neighborhoods.

Researchers based at Emory University in Atlanta learned that 40 percent of the unintentional gunshot deaths and injuries they analyzed could have been prevented if guns in the homes had been inaccessible and had such safety features as trigger locks.

The Medical College of Wisconsin, which works closely with NFISS, identified five specific gun makes that accounted for almost one-half the fatalities in the Milwaukee area. However, these makes accounted for only 6 percent of the guns turned in during a buyback program, raising questions about the effectiveness of buybacks in disposing of the most lethal guns.

Federal takeover

NFISS began making grants to its nine selected sites in 1999. By the end of last month, data from fatalities in 2000 began flowing from these locations.

In May, NFISS and its sponsors met in Washington, D.C., with representatives from various federal agencies including the Surgeon General's and Attorney General's offices, the FBI, Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the CDC. The agencies agreed that a system like the one NFISS is working to create should be adopted nationally and run by the federal government. It was also decided that the reporting should cover homicide and suicide deaths from stabbing, drug overdoses, and other means as well as by guns.

The CDC wants to run the national system, using reports from the 50 states. It hopes Congress will provide funds beginning in this fiscal year.

Hemenway believes that, under the most optimistic conditions a national system "could start running in a year or two."





Copyright 2000 President and Fellows of Harvard College