Urban Wire Getting creative to research gun violence
Samuel Bieler
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Explore the interactive feature, "Raising the Voices of Gun Violence". 

For such a hot-button issue, the amount we don’t know about gun violence in America is startling. People are often shocked to learn how basic the gaps in our information are: we’re hazy on how many guns are in any given area, we regularly underreport accidental firearm deaths among children, and we have only general ideas about how criminals get guns.

Part of this ignorance is a policy choice. The CDC was only recently allowed to conduct gun violence research again, and federal agencies are restricted from sharing crucial information about firearms with law enforcement, much less researchers.

Even without the political roadblocks, researching gun violence presents significant challenges. Official records of gun violence often have extensive holes, and linking data to do big studies requires a significant investment of resources.

But gun violence researchers are a determined, creative bunch. Devising strategies to protect communities from gun violence takes the best information possible, and researchers are constantly devising new ways to study gun violence.

Some of this research comes from cutting-edge technology like gunfire detection technology (GDT). Originally a law enforcement tool, GDT uses a network of sensors to identify the sound of gunfire and relay its position to police. Data from this technology lets researchers map gun violence with previously unimaginable precision. We can tell, for example, that in the 2011-12 school year, 22 percent of DC schools were within 1,000 feet of a gunshot between 8 am and 9 am or between 3 pm and 4 pm, precisely when large numbers of kids are going to or coming from school.

Moreover, since the technology is live in more than 60 cities, researchers can conduct cross-city studies on a scale that just recently would have been beyond the reach of all but the largest research efforts.

GDT isn’t the only advanced technological tool researchers are deploying to learn more about gun violence. Recent research on illegal gun sales using Internet scraping software was able to determine that on one firearm-trading website, 1 in 30 would-be buyers had felony or domestic violence records.

Medical data offers another window into the harms of gun violence. Hospital injury data can tell us not only who the victims of gun violence are, but how much their injuries cost and what percentage of the cost of gun violence injuries are paid by the public—and as it turns out, it’s most of it.

Of course, when it comes to figuring out how gun violence affects communities, few sources offer more powerful data than the residents themselves. People who live in communities affected by gun violence every day have unique insights into the psychological, physical, and financial impacts—consequences that might be difficult, if not impossible, for researchers to evaluate any other way.

Stories from community members also give vibrancy and context to statements of research findings that often feel detached. The community-research partnership that the Urban Institute and Virginia Commonwealth University developed with Richmond neighborhoods gives residents a way to share their stories and describe the impacts of gun violence in a way statements like “a 4 percent increase in violence” or “an average of six gunshots per school” cannot.

News and other media accounts can also provide valuable supplements or quality checks for official records. A New York Times review of accidental firearm deaths among children found that these incidents were being dramatically undercounted. DC’s Homicide Watch uses media accounts to provide crucial context that official records won’t show.

Researching gun violence has never been an easy task, but with new strategies that take advantage of technological improvements, and new sources of data, researchers are learning more about gun violence every day and building the information that will help us figure out how to stop it.

Photo courtesy of Virginia Commonwealth University's Engaging Richmond PhotoVoice project.

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Victims of crime Courts and sentencing Juvenile justice Policing and community safety Gun violence