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Anti-gun violence activists say they’ll no longer use dubious CDC statistics

The leading gun violence prevention nonprofit will get its data from the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project instead.

CREDIT: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
CREDIT: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Brady Campaign, a leading gun violence prevention group, announced Monday that it will no longer be using gun injury estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), calling the federal agency’s reports too unreliable.

Instead, it will use data from the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project (HCUP), a database under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).  

The CDC provides an annual estimate of the number of people injured (not killed) by guns. But even the CDC will tell you that its data should be taken with a massive grain of salt: It appended a note to its 2016 and 2017 findings that warned its figures were “unstable and potentially unreliable.”

An analysis by the Trace, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to covering gun violence in the United States, and FiveThirtyEight found the CDC’s recent 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.

Dr. Kyleanne Hunter, Brady’s vice president of programs, wrote in a statement on Medium Monday that Brady previously acquired its data by averaging the five most recent years of gun violence data from the CDC. Those averages were in turn used within Brady and for “external sources when quoting statistics on the gun violence epidemic in this country.” But no more:

While we continue to average the five most recent years of gun fatality data from the CDC, Brady now averages the three most recent years of gun injury data from emergency department visits (2013, ’14, and ’16) available via the HCUP’s online query system. We now have greater confidence in our nonfatal gun violence statistics and better data for our organization, for the rest of the gun violence prevention movement, and for the American public to use to more accurately understand gun violence in America.

What makes HCUP’s numbers more trustworthy than the CDC’s? In 2017, the CDC obtained its data on nonfatal gun injuries from only 60 hospitals — a small enough sample size that just one hospital with an atypically high number of gun injuries could throw off the results. HCUP’s data is culled from more than 950 hospitals — nearly 16 times as many as the CDC’s.  

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The CDC’s ability to track gun violence has long been hamstrung by an amendment to a 1996 bill that forbade them from using money to “advocate or promote gun control.”

The Dickey Amendment — which, unsurprisingly, was urged into existence by the National Rifle Association — “did not explicitly forbid research into gun-related deaths,” as The Atlantic reported; it only forbade advocacy:

But the Congress also lowered the CDC’s budget by the exact amount it spent on such research. Message received. It’s had a chilling effect on the entire field for decades.

As the New York Times put it, the bill “effectively ended the CDC’s study of gun violence as a public health issue.”

Since that bill was passed, more than 600,000 people have been shot in the United States.

 

In February last year, there were renewed efforts to ramp up the CDC’s gun violence research.

One day after a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida — which left 17 people dead — HHS Secretary Alex Azar addressed lawmakers on Capitol Hill about the Dickey Amendment, saying it “does not in any way impede our ability to conduct our research mission.”

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Asked if he would tell agencies under his purview to do gun research in the wake of that shooting, Azar said, “We certainly will.”

“Our Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — we’re in the science business and the evidence-generating business, and so I will have our agency certainly be working in this field,” he added.

A few weeks later, President Donald Trump signed a spending bill that included a line about the CDC’s authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence. Experts disagree on whether or not the language in the bill will empower the CDC to do substantial research on the causes of gun violence; NPR characterized researchers’ response to the bill as “skeptical.”