FiveThirtyEight, the politics, opinion and sports analytics site, has looked at the numbers that Centers for Disease Control publishes regarding non-fatal gun injuries in the US. And what do you know…they’ve found that the CDC’s numbers are off. Way off.
For journalists, researchers and the general public, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention serves as an authoritative source of information about Americans’ health, including estimates of how many people are killed or injured by guns. The agency’s most recent figures include a worrying uptick: Between 2015 and 2016, the number of Americans nonfatally injured by a firearm jumped by 37 percent, rising from about 85,000 to more than 116,000. It was the largest single-year increase recorded in more than 15 years.
But the gun injury estimate is one of several categories of CDC data flagged with an asterisk indicating that, according to the agency’s own standards, it should be treated as “unstable and potentially unreliable.” In fact, the agency’s 2016 estimate of gun injuries is more uncertain than nearly every other type of injury it tracks. Even its estimates of BB gun injuries are more reliable than its calculations for the number of Americans wounded by actual guns.
An analysis performed by FiveThirtyEight and The Trace, a nonprofit news organization covering gun violence in America,1 found that the CDC’s report of a steady increase in nonfatal gun injuries is out of step with a downward trend we found using data from multiple independent public health and criminal justice databases. That casts doubt on the CDC’s figures and the narrative suggested by the way those numbers have changed over time.
Wait…The Trace participated in the study, too? Mayor Mike’s not going to be happy about his millions being used to affirm that gun injuries in the US have actually declined as both general gun ownership and the number of civilian firearms has drastically increased over the last decade.
That’s right. According to FiveThirtyEight, non-fatal firearms injuries aren’t increasing as the CDC would have you believe. In fact, they’re declining.
In response to a detailed list of questions and an analysis memo showing that there may be issues with its gun injury data, a CDC spokesperson said in an email that the scientists involved in gathering and analyzing the data “are confident that the sampling and estimation methods are appropriate.”
Good. At least they’re not trying to hang the discrepancy on the laughable “the gun lobby won’t let us study the data” horse hockey argument.
Among seven types of injury, the data sets reflected similar trends. Three types of injury — gunshots, drowning and cuts — showed statistically significant differences between the CDC and at least one of the other data sets, with the CDC diverging most dramatically from the other two when it came to gun injuries.
Huh. Wonder why that is. Maybe it has something to do with why Congress had the foresight to prohibit the CDC from using taxpayer dollars and their data to advocate for gun control laws in the first place.
After seeing the comparisons between the CDC’s data and other data sets, Linda DeGutis, a former director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC, questioned whether the agency’s model for estimating the number of gunshot injuries nationwide is reliable.
“I don’t know when the last time was when someone took a look at the methodology,” she said. “A federal agency should be able to compare the data sets that are available to say, ‘Wait a minute, why are we seeing these discrepancies?’”
Yes. Yes they should. But it’s close enough for government work. Especially if that work confirms the biases of researchers who tend to view civilian gun ownership as a public health crisis.
So while FiveThirtyEight implies that part of the reason for the CDC’s bogus numbers could be traced back to the Dickey Amendment, there’s actually nothing stopping the CDC from changing its protocols and doing all of the research into “gun violence” it wants. The law simply states that the CDC can’t use its federally appropriated funds and research to “advocate or promote gun control.”
Given the CDC’s oft-cited statistics – numbers that FiveThirtyEight has helpfully exposed as plainly wrong — let’s raise a Friday afternoon adult beverage to the Dickey Amendment and hope that it remains firmly in place for a very long time to come.