As Congress convulsed last week over a threatened—and now thwarted—filibuster to block gun-control legislation, President Barack Obama made a separate, easy-to-miss move of his own on the issue when he released his budget for 2014. There, in the section devoted to the Department of Health and Human Services, Obama called on Congress to start funding research aimed at preventing gun violence. All together, he asked for $30 million dollars, with a third of it going to support unspecified efforts to be carried out by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. But the other $20 million he set aside for one project in particular: a massive national database designed to catalogue, in great detail, every murder and every suicide that takes place in the United States.
The National Violent Death Reporting System, as the database is called, was piloted by a group of public health experts at Harvard University in 1999, several years after the National Rifle Association successfully lobbied to all but stop the flow of federal funding to gun research on the grounds that it was “political opinion masquerading as medical science.” The purpose of the database was to bring together information culled from death certificates, police records, medical examinations, and coroners’ reports in order to generate precise, anonymized thumbnails of the more than 50,000 violent deaths that occur in America each year.
Despite the de facto funding freeze on gun violence research—which has been in place at this point for almost two decades, resulting in a stunning lack of empirical data on gun ownership and crime—the CDC was able to pick up where the Harvard group left off in 2002, and set up NVDRS data-gathering operations in Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon, South Carolina and Virginia. The database expanded gradually from there, and is now up and running in 18 of the 50 states.
The descriptions contained in the database, which is expensive to maintain because it is so detailed, are textured and grisly. With suicides, files include not just the victims’ demographic profile and the method they used to kill themselves, but the amount of alcohol in their bloodstream, what drugs they were on, the last time they saw a physician or therapist, whether they left a note, and whether they were known to have suffered some acute crisis before deciding to end their life. In the case of a murder, there are details about when and where the killing happened, what kind of relationship the victim had with the killer, the weapon that was used, and how the weapon was acquired.
This kind of information is collected whenever someone commits suicide or is killed, said Cathy Barber, a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health and a driving force behind the pilot program that spawned NVDRS. But only when all the details are put in one place and standardized, she explained, can researchers use them to identify risk factors and figure out how to craft policy interventions. “If you want to prevent suicide,” Barber said, “you can look at the data and say, OK, are these people in treatment?” If they are, maybe that means doctors aren’t asking their patients the right questions. But if it turns out they’re not, then maybe the priority should be figuring out how to get them through the front door in the first place. “It lets you know where to start,” Barber said.
NVDRS has already helped researchers generate a range of insights about how and why people die. In Oregon, where the suicide rates among the elderly is one of the highest in the nation, a study found that among older adults who died by suicide, “44 percent of men and 56 percent of women lived alone; nearly 50 percent of males were married; 43 percent of females were widowed.” In Colorado, meanwhile, it was determined that of the 776 adults who committed suicide in 2004, 14 percent were construction workers. A multi-state analysis of homicide cases involving children under four showed that most took place in the home at the hands of parents or caregivers using common household objects and other “weapons of opportunity.”
If Obama gets $20 million he’s asking for, the CDC will be able to expand the data-gathering operation to all 50 states. Public health experts who study gun violence—and there aren’t many out there, due to the lack of available funding—say this would give them unprecedented insight into the circumstances under which people are killed around the country, allow them to compare the effectiveness of gun laws that differ from state to state, and reveal patterns that have never been noticed before.
David Hemenway, a Harvard professor who worked with Barber on the NVDRS pilot and the author of While We Were Sleeping: Success Stories in Injury and Violence Prevention, likens the potential payoff of the violence database to that of another ambitious information-gathering effort—one that was introduced by the Department of Transportation in 1975 to track fatal car accidents. That database, Hemenway said, accounts for “80 to 90 percent of what we know” about driving-related fatalities—for instance, that teenagers are at the highest risk for crashing when driving at night, and when driving with other teens. According to Hemenway, it’s based in large part on that insight that policymakers passed graduated licensing laws, which are now in place in all 50 states and are credited with reducing the crash risk of young drivers by 20 to 40 percent.
Hemenway and Barber are cautious about making predictions on whether or not the funding to expand NVDRS will end up coming through. But for Obama to have even included it in his budget makes them optimistic. “It’s exciting to see it there in black and white,” Barber said. “It certainly clarifies the message that [the CDC] doesn’t need to avoid the topic of guns anymore.”
On that note, it’s worth remembering that NVDRS is concerned with all kinds of violence, not just gun violence, and that its aim is only to gather information, not draw conclusions about it. According to Barber, its status as a neutral tool for researchers is what has made it possible for NVDRS to get any federal funding during the past decade, despite the efforts of the gun lobby. That essential neutrality could mean that Obama’s call to expand the database into all 50 states will be less of a controversial issue in Congress than, say, his call to set aside $10 million for research on gun violence specifically. After all, even the most fervent defenders of gun rights would have a hard time finding fault in an effort to better understand how and why Americans lose their lives to violence. As for the CDC’s finding that more than half of the 54,623 people who died as a result of murder or suicide in 2010 were killed by a bullet—well, that’s not controversial either. It’s just a fact.
Leon Neyfakh is the Ideas reporter for The Boston Globe.