The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The way cities report gun violence is all wrong

AR-15 rifles at a gun show.
AR-15 rifles at a gun show. (Ilana Panich-Linsman/For The Washinton Post)

Natalie Kroovand Hipple is an assistant professor in the department of criminal justice at Indiana University.

There is no crime that grabs headlines quite like homicide. Mayors and police chiefs are beholden to it, and their careers perhaps live and die by homicide rates. Everyone — from the media to community members to potential business investors — examines these numbers.

Yet while the homicide rate in the United States has risen in recent years, homicides made up just 1.4 percent of all violent crime in the United States in 2016. They are, comparatively speaking, rare events.

Criminal nonfatal shootings are a better yardstick of a community’s safety. They are, in many ways, a superior indicator of violent crime, and determining their frequency would give a more precise snapshot of community safety and better inform police policy and practice.

Surviving a gunshot wound — specifically, surviving a homicide attempt — is far more common than dying from a gunshot wound. For the past several years, I have been working in partnership with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department to help the agency learn more about nonfatal shootings. Our work, going back to 2013, shows that nonfatal shootings occur roughly four times more often than homicides committed with a firearm. In Indianapolis, the 13th-largest city in the nation, someone is shot by another person and survives every day. Sometimes it happens more than once a day. Yet there is no system to nationally assess and compare these numbers with other cities.

Nonfatal shootings are basically homicides that weren’t completed. Just one centimeter movement to the left can make the difference between the two. Among law enforcement and researchers, there is little distinction between people involved in homicides and in nonfatal shootings. Research from Chicago shows that simply knowing or hanging out with someone who had been shot increases a person’s risk of becoming a shooting victim. Nonfatal shootings are minimally the “canary in the coal mine,” but they should be treated as the true indicator of a city’s violence problem as well as the best source of information for violence policy and police practice.

Counting nonfatal shootings sounds simple, yet most cities are unable to accurately report them. That’s partly because the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports and National Incident-Based Reporting System do not require jurisdictions to report such numbers. In fact, there is no standard definition of a criminal nonfatal shooting, as there is for a criminal homicide. Dead bodies are easy to count; nonfatal shootings, not so much.

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In both the UCR and NIBRS, nonfatal shootings are categorized as aggravated assaults, but neither system makes it easy to separate out nonfatal shootings from other aggravated assaults, such as firing a gun at someone and missing. If local governments want to reduce violent crime, law enforcement and state and federal government should make it a priority to collect and analyze data on nonfatal shootings, just as they do homicides.

To be sure, any person’s death at the hands of another is a tragic, irreversible event. But it makes no sense to base our policies for reducing violent crime on such rare incidents. Gathering data about the people, places and situations surrounding nonfatal shootings would better inform law enforcement and improve overall community safety. You cannot understand what you cannot count.

Read more on this topic:

Robert Gebelhoff: This is how we save lives from gun violence

Daniel Webster, Jon Vernick, Cassandra Crifasi and Beth McGinty: Five myths about gun violence

Leah Libresco: I used to think gun control was the answer. My research told me otherwise.

Philip M. Stinson: Crime stats should inform the public. Trump is misusing them to scare us instead.