WASHINGTON (Circa) — In the gun control debate, it is hard enough to agree on solutions but often getting the facts straight can be a problem, whether it's underestimating the problem, or in this case, overestimating.
This week, two reports were published that found previously reported statistics on U.S. gun violence and school shootings were substantially overestimated.
In one case, NPR found the Department of Education may have overestimated school shootings by more than 200 incidents. In the other, a pro-gun researcher at the Crime Prevention Research Center reported that a 2016 study may have overestimated the U.S. share of world mass shootings nearly twentyfold.
Given the amount of emotion and the politicization of firearms and gun violence, getting it right matters. Inaccurate facts can shape how policymakers and citizens make decisions on safety, education and gun ownership.
"People say, they're shootings, it should be easier to define a shooting, to get the data," said Dr. Harry Wilson, chair of the Roanoke College Institute for Policy and Opinion Research and gun control researcher.
"But it can be very difficult to get those numbers," he continued. "Then it's even more difficult, frankly, to get objective analysis of those numbers, because in this field, even among researchers, it's often politically charged."
SCHOOL SHOOTINGS: 235 REPORTED, LESS THAN A DOZEN CONFIRMED
In the case of school shootings, NPR and Child Trends, a nonpartisan research organization, looked into a Department of Education report that found there were 235 school shootings in the 2015-2016 school year.
After reviewing the data and following up with the schools, the researchers were able to confirm only 11 of the incidents.
"When we're talking about such an important and rare event, [this] amount of data error could be very meaningful," Deborah Temkin, a researcher and program director at Child Trends, told NPR.
There are many reasons for the overestimate by the Department of Education. For one, the April report was based on an annual Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) study that, for the first time, required public schools to report on school-related shootings and homicides. Some administrators were confused by the question or accidentally entered the wrong values.
These kinds of errors have real-world consequences, explained Lacey Wallace, a criminal justice professor at Penn State University in Altoona. Anecdotally, there were reports of parents who decided to homeschool their children after the study was released. "That's a life-changing decision for a family," she said.
The CRDC survey stated that "nearly 240 schools (0.2 percent of all schools) reported at least 1 incident involving a school-related shooting, and over 100 schools (0.1 percent of all schools) reported a school-related homicide involving a student, faculty member, or staff member." Those numbers suggest one out of every 100,000 students was enrolled in a school with a shooting or homicide.
"People hear these statistics, especially the higher ones, that can change their behavior," Wallace noted, whether it causes them to change schools, buy a firearm or to become more fearful.
"It can affect policy, yes, but it can also affect the average person who hears this and starts worrying about their own safety," she said.
The Department of Education, an agency leader in the Federal Commission on School Safety, said it does not intend to revise its report.
MASS SHOOTINGS: US MAY NOT LEAD THE WORLD IN INCIDENTS
Another study released this week called into question an often-cited statistic that the United States leads the world in mass shooting incidents, accounting for nearly one-third of mass shootings globally.
Dr. John Lott, the founder of the Crime Prevention Research Center and author of the controversial book, "More Guns, Less Crime," claimed the United States, on average, had fewer mass shootings and less deadly incidents than previously reported.
Lott argued that a 2016 paper, published by Adam Lankford, now a professor of criminology at the University of Alabama, "botched" the figures. Lott reduced the previous estimate by more than 95 percent, saying the United States accounted for less than 3 percent of global mass shooting incidents.
Lankford's study looked at data from 171 countries over the period of 1966 to 2012 and found the United States accounted for 31 percent of worldwide mass shootings despite having 5 percent of the world population. The study concluded there was a correlation between the high rate of gun ownership in a country and the odds it would experience a mass shooting.
Accurate gun violence data is notoriously difficult to come by in the United States. It is even more difficult to gather from developing and underdeveloped nations as well as countries that have the incentive to underreport violence. Lankford's critics have questioned the accuracy of his foreign mass shooting statistics and the researcher has not made those datasets available for cross-checking.
Lott's study relied on firearm incidents reported in an international terrorism database and foreign media reports. He charged the 2016 report "grossly undercount foreign attacks" and the findings were used to advance a political agenda.
"The whole episode should provide a cautionary tale of academic malpractice and how evidence is often cherry-picked and not questioned when it fits preconceived ideas," Lott wrote with gun control advocate Michael Weisser in an editorial in the New York Post.
Lankford dismissed the criticism, writing in a statement to Circa that he is "not interested in giving any serious thought to John Lott or his claims." Academics and gun control advocates have expressed deep skepticism about Lott's research credentials, arguing his work is informed by his pro-gun stance.
CONFOUNDED BY BIASES AND DEFINITIONS
In an issue as contentious as firearms policy, facts are not only stubborn things, they can vary wildly depending on who finds them, who funds them and who cites them.
"We need data grounded in science to understand the causes of gun violence, where it's happening, and how we can best stop it," said Jason Phelps press secretary at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "But American history is littered with people who have used serious issues to peddle their own ideology. The same is true when it comes to guns."
On both sides of the debate, massaged numbers have been used to prove a point or develop a policy, sometimes on factually shaky grounds.
When the figures are overestimated, either accidentally or not, it tends to further polarize an already divisive issue, Wallace explained.
"The bigger the number, of course, the angrier and more upset people get because the stakes are higher," she said, noting it can affect both sides of the debate. "For some, they'll say more guns are the answer. Others will see the same statistic and say no, we need more gun control."
Beyond bias, is the lack of agreement on basic facts and definitions including on matters that should be straightforward, like defining a mass shooting or school shooting.
When a 24-year-old contestant opened fire on a video game tournament in Jacksonville, Fla. last Sunday. He killed two people and 11 others were injured before the shooter took his own life. It was a tragedy that garnered national attention and raised important questions. It was not, however, a mass shooting.
By the Federal Bureau of Investigation's definition, a mass shooting has been defined generally as an incident in which four or more victims are murdered, not including the shooter, within one event or in one or more locations in close proximity.
After the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012, Congress issued a new definition of a mass shooting as "3 or more killings in a single incident."
Earlier this month, local police in Florida insisted an after-hours shooting in the parking lot of Palm Beach Central High School was not a school shooting but "an act of community violence that happened to spill onto a school campus." The incident took place during a football game left two injured.
In West Virginia last month, a man fired off a round to scare someone during an argument in a school parking lot. No one was hurt. It occurred in the evening and when school was out of session.
Against the events in Parkland, Fla. or Newtown, Conn., some people may or may not consider these to be school shootings. But without shared standards, organizations, like Everytown for Gun Safety, included them in their database which reports a total of 57 school shooting incidents this year.
"Sometimes this really is a problem of definitions," Wilson said, and solving these problems can help get to a more common understanding of gun violence.
"I'm happy to see that some people are investigating and looking at the numbers one way or the other," he added. "We ought to try to get these things right."