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WSJ: In Medical Triumph, Homicides Fall Despite Soaring Gun Violence

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As we have noted numerous times on this blog, crime has been dropping overall in this country over the past two decades.  The reasons why are the subject of hot debate.  Among the problems of determining causation are that there are multiple causes and the data that would help us sort them out are often sketchy.

Gary Fields and Cameron McWhirter have an article in the WSJ with the above title.  One of the factors in the drop in homicide rates is improved medical care, in large part using methods developed in the battlefield.

[Note:  Steve and I were independently posting at the same time on the same article.]

After a steady decline through the 1990s, the annual number of homicides zigzagged before resuming a decline in 2007, falling from 16,929 that year to an estimated 14,722 in 2010, according to FBI crime data.

At the same time, medical data and other surveys in the U.S. show a rising number of serious injuries from assaults with guns and knives. The estimated number of people wounded seriously enough by gunshots to require a hospital stay, rather than treatment and release, rose 47% to 30,759 in 2011 from 20,844 in 2001, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Electronic Injury Surveillance System-All Injury Program. The CDC estimates showed the number of people injured in serious stabbings rose to 23,550 from 22,047 over the same period.

Mortality rates of gunshot victims, meanwhile, have fallen, according to research performed for The Wall Street Journal by the Howard-Hopkins Surgical Outcomes Research Center, a joint venture between Howard University and Johns Hopkins University. In 2010, 13.96% of U.S. shooting victims died, almost two percentage points lower than in 2007. (Earlier data used different standards, making comparisons useless.)

The Howard-Hopkins analysis of the National Trauma databank, which collects information from more than 900 trauma centers in the U.S., also found a decrease in the death rate for victims admitted for stab wounds.

Criminologists say they are cautious about using such medical statistics to draw conclusions because of year-to-year inconsistencies in the number of medical institutions reporting data. The FBI collects annual homicide and aggravated assault statistics but doesn't have reliable numbers for gun and knife attacks.

Jens Ludwig, a law professor and the director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, said he was leery of any number beyond reported homicides.

"Homicide is the one thing we're measuring well," he said. "Everything else is subject to much more uncertainty," including varying numbers of emergency departments contributing data, as well as differences in how injuries are classified.

It is certainly a very good thing that doctors are able to save more shooting victims, but take the "soaring gun violence" part with a grain of salt.  Aggravated assaults per capita are down 16% from 2007 to 2011, according to the FBI's UCR, and down 24% from 2001 to 2011.  Did assaults with guns really soar while aggravated assaults overall were dropping?  I'll join Prof. Ludwig in the leery section.

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