Why the U.S. struggles to count violent gun crime

·4 min read

America's crime statistics, especially around guns, are a mess — and they could soon be worse.

Why it matters: Without dependable, uniform numbers about the state of violent crime in the U.S., it's difficult to know what to do about it.

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What's happening: Earlier this week the Department of Justice released the annual National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which along with September's Uniform Crime Report (UCR) from the FBI, is one of the two main sources of national data about crime in the U.S.

  • But those two reports tell a different story — while the FBI found homicides increased by nearly 30% in 2020 and violent crime overall by 5%, the NCVS reported the total violent victimization level fell by 22%.

How it works: The UCR is a collection of crime statistics recorded by many — though not all — of the 18,000 police agencies scattered around the country, while the NCVS is a survey of crime victims.

  • The NCVS doesn't include homicides — as there are no surviving victims to survey — and the UCR only includes crimes recorded by the police, which leaves out an estimated 60% of violent victimizations that are not reported to authorities.

Yes, but: While it's not unusual for the two reports to provide different conclusions, the discrepancies for 2020 are particularly stark, and indicative of larger problems with the way the U.S. tracks shootings and violent crime.

  • Only about 85% of the nation's police agencies report data to the UCS, and many of those agencies still rely on antiquated paper recordkeeping.

  • The accuracy of the NCVS depends on its ability to find victims and get them to talk honestly about their experience with crime — a task that can be difficult enough in normal years, and even harder during a pandemic that curtailed in-person interviews for months.

  • Philip Cook, a criminologist at Duke University, has estimated the NCVS captures perhaps a third of all non-fatal shootings. "People who are shot non-fatally are often difficult to include, either to locate them or to actually get them to talk," he says.

While virtually no one doubts the homicide surge was real — bodies are hard to hide — the numbers are much murkier on non-fatal violent crime. But other sources indicate that shootings spiked sharply in 2020.

  • Most people with gunshot wounds will seek medical care even if they won't go to the police, notes Cook, and hospital data from the Epic Health Research Network shows documented firearm injuries began spiking in the late spring of 2020 and peaked last October at 73% higher than the monthly average in the previous two years.

The big picture: Federal law essentially barred the CDC for years from funding research into the problem, though a legislative deal in 2019 finally turned the spigots back on.

  • Federal law also requires officers in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to use a card catalog and a phone system to trace a gun used in a crime, rather than simply searching an electronic database of gun sales.

What's next: The FBI is in the midst of switching to a new crime data system called NIBRS that will allow police agencies to submit more detailed information about each incident.

  • Eventually NIBRS will allow the FBI to compile far more granular data about crimes, including information about relationships between offenders and victims.

  • But it's more difficult for police agencies to collect and report data with this detail, and fewer than 10,000 departments — representing just 53% of the U.S. population — have reported NIBRS data this year. Major cities like New York and Los Angeles are missing.

  • The transition will take time, and in the short term, the picture around crime could get murkier, says John Roman of NORC at the University of Chicago. "When we get to 2022 and we're trying to look back to see what happened in 2021, we're going to know a lot less about it than any year going back decades."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago is known as NORC at the University of Chicago.

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