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Editorial: Armed With Good Data

Startling Statistic Highlights the Need

If America’s long-running debate about guns typically generates more heat than light, that’s not only because the subject arouses passionate intensity on both sides. As an article from Slate published in Saturday’s Valley News demonstrated, the basic facts on which sensible analysis depends are hard to come by.

Slate discovered this when, in the wake of the Newtown school shooting last December, it created an interactive feature called “How Many People Have Been Killed By Guns Since Newtown ?,” using news reports to create, in nearly real time, a log of gun deaths occurring in the United States.

The year of data collection since then created at least one puzzling result . About 11,500 gun deaths were recorded. This is certainly a heavy toll, but one that almost certainly does not reflect reality. That reality, based on statistics compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is that about 32,000 Americans die each year by gun.

What accounts for the difference? The CDC compiles the authoritative numbers from death certificates nationwide, a painstaking process that results in numbers being several years out of date when they are published. Slate’s mining of news reports gleaned homicides, killings in self-defense, lethal force employed by law enforcement agencies, and accidental shootings, all of which are reported on to a greater or lesser extent by news organizations.

What’s missing? Suicides, which account for 60 percent or more of all deaths by gun in America but which are only rarely the subject of news articles. That many readers would find this statistic startling is testimony to how little we know as a nation about gun deaths, and raises many questions worth further exploration. These include the extent to which gun owners fail to store their weapons securely, and whether ready access to firearms abets turning an impulse to suicide into tragic reality.

The point is there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to firearms, and as the Slate article pointed out, that’s not entirely unintentional. For many years, the federal government has been inhibited by Congress from collecting data or supporting research on the subject. One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to detect the handiwork of the gun lobby in these restrictions.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, for instance, has been restricted for years from sharing with local police departments information on firearms used in murders. Since 1997, the CDC has been under congressional injunction to refrain from research that may “advocate or promote gun control.” Given that any research it supports might be viewed in Congress as violating that stricture, it is entirely understandable why the CDC has refrained.

Despite these barriers, there is some reason for optimism that more information may be available soon. Slate is shutting down its feature on Dec. 31, and it will be succeeded by a privately funded, nonprofit venture without ties to either side in the Second Amendment debate. It promises vigorous efforts to compile on an ongoing basis more complete data on gun deaths and crimes involving guns. And President Obama has issued an executive order getting the CDC back in the gun research business.

The point of good research, of course, is not to promote or advocate, but rather to find out. Perhaps those who simply don’t want to know are those who have good reason to fear the power of the facts.