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December 13, 2013

Gun deaths not easily tracked or tallied

(Continued)

WASHINGTON — The first, most important question to ask in looking at our year of data collection about guns is simple: Why is our tally of gun deaths in the year since Newtown so much lower than the likely actual number of gun deaths over a year's time? According to statistics slowly, painstakingly assembled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from death certificates, about 32,000 people are killed by guns in America each year. (In the most recent year for which preliminary data is available, 2011, the exact number was 32,163.) Our number, meanwhile, hovers in the 11,000s.

Our interactive was much more timely than the CDC's statistics - updated hourly, rather than two years later - and included significantly more information about each death. But as the gulf grew between our tally and the likely actual totals, I began to feel uneasy about our calculator. How could we solve the problem of missing people? How could we make it clear that our total - frequently cited in newspapers and magazines - reflected not the actual toll of guns but the level of reporting on guns in the American media? We added an update in June pointing out the discrepancy and urging readers to consider our number as a measure of reported gun deaths, with the real number much, much higher. But I still wondered: Who was missing from our list?

People like Jonette Harness Adams.

Jonette, a beautician, shot herself on Aug. 28 outside her Bakersfield, Calif., duplex. Adams suffered from spinocerebellar ataxia 2 (SCA2), a rare hereditary neurodegenerative disorder, which among other symptoms impairs motor skills and slurs speech. Her sister, Rebecca Ezell, who also suffers from SCA2, told me that since Jonette's diagnosis she often exhibited signs of depression. "I'd always try to pull her out," Rebecca told me.

Jonette owned the handgun, a .38-caliber revolver, a gift from her father years before, as well as other guns she'd inherited from her grandfather. "We were taught gun safety at a very early age," Rebecca said. Jonette's husband, Jeff, knew about the guns his wife owned, though he didn't know where they were in the house. "When she showed me those things," he remembered, "I told her in a joking way, 'Keep those away from me.' I'm not a gun guy. I've never shot one. I've never been around them. I wasn't opposed to having them around for protection. I always thought to myself, Man, I should go to a range and learn how to shoot them. But I never did."

Both Jonette's sister and husband talked about Jonette's sly wit and good humor, which eroded into depression as the disorder took away her mobility. Jeff told me he would beg anyone who is considering suicide to please talk to someone. "Talk to a loved one. Tell 'em what's going on in your head, what you're thinking, what's bothering you." (Another place to find people to talk to is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255.) "She kept that inside," he said. "I wish she had talked to me."

I asked Jeff if he still had Jonette's guns. "No," he said. "The guns are gone."

Jonette Harness Adams doesn't appear in our interactive feature because she died by suicide. Her obituary makes no mention of the cause of death, and there was no reason for news organizations to report on it.

Suicides, it turns out, are this project's enormous blind spot. Most every homicide makes the local paper, even if in large cities these stories are sometimes relegated to a mere news brief. Accidental shootings are usually reported upon, as are shootings by law enforcement and incidents in which civilians kill in self-defense. But suicides are mostly invisible. And the fact is that suicides make up 60 percent or more of all deaths by gun in America. In our interactive, misleadingly, only about 10 percent of recorded deaths were deemed suicides by our crowdsourced categorizers.

Any solution to this problem would require governments in thousands of jurisdictions to upgrade and systematize their death-reporting system or for an organization to patiently contact those jurisdictions over and over throughout the year. But there's a larger question: Is real-time reporting on suicides necessary? Could it in fact be harmful?

It sure could, says Cathy Barber, director of the Means Matter campaign at the Harvard School of Public Health's Injury Control Research Center. "Covering the suicide issue is important and helpful," she told me, "insofar as it helps people to understand that the largest numbers of gun deaths in America are suicides. But there's a bad side to bringing attention to the data. It may have a demoralizing effect on people who are suicidal." Studies show that reporting on suicides can prove harmful, especially if the reporting is sensationalistic; it can encourage copycat suicides or simply reinforce and darken the already dark view of the world that a suicidal person sees. References to "waves" of suicides or "surges" in suicides also can lead readers at risk for suicide to view, falsely, suicide as inexorable. I've tried to follow the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's guidelines for reporting on suicide in this piece. But Barber notes that recent research suggests that even "good" reporting is associated with an uptick in suicides.

So a project like our gun-deaths interactive - and, even more, some future version that utilizes real-time police or medical-examiner data - worries Barber. "I see that as not helping, really, but possibly adding to the damage. It seems more like the kind of thing that would be triggering than in any way protective."

Now, there's a counterargument to Barber's viewpoint: That if such a project contributes to raising awareness about the danger that guns pose for the potentially suicidal, to the point that fewer American households possess guns, the resulting decrease in suicides is well worth the increased risk such a project might create. As guns decrease, after all, suicides decrease. But reporting on the deaths won't necessarily get guns out of homes-at least not immediately.

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