Editor’s note: The Mirror this week is looking at Connecticut through the lens of the Sandy Hook massacre.
Seven days — that’s how long it took after the Sandy Hook shootings for the next person to die of a gunshot in Connecticut.
On Dec. 21, 2012, Kyle Seidel of Waterford — a 34-year-old father of three — was shot and killed in a bowling alley parking lot.
But that’s only according to the best data available. In fact, between Dec. 14 and Dec. 21, it’s possible other gun deaths occurred, including suicides, which generally comprise about 60 percent of gun fatalities. But it’s not easy to obtain reliable data on gun deaths, which means it is hard to know definitively how many people are being killed in Connecticut with guns.
“That’d be an important thing to know at any given point in time,” said Michael Lawlor, the state’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning.
Among many other issues, the Sandy Hook massacre a year ago restarted the conversation about the lack of reliable, comprehensive data on gun violence, nationally and in Connecticut, which makes it hard for government officials who are trying to develop policies based on facts.
Lawlor recalled a recent conversation he had with a police officer who said New Haven is “out of control” in terms of violence. But from 2011 to 2012, New Haven cut its murder rate in half, and is on pace for a similar number this year. They aren’t hard numbers to find, but there is no system for telling police what the trends are.
“So much of what goes on in criminal justice is about individual horror stories,” Lawlor said. “You would be surprised how many people — from police, prosecutors, judges — have a completely inaccurate perception of what’s happening, day-to-day.”
On a federal level, reliable gun fatality data has been largely unavailable because of a 1996 law that prohibits spending federal money on research that could be used to “advocate or promote gun control.” (Shortly after the Newtown shooting, President Obama outlined a plan to resume gun research.) But on a state level, it’s almost as difficult to get accurate, timely data.
One creative Twitter user, @GunDeaths, tried to aggregate national gun-death data using news reports. Slate.com took over the project with a small team of volunteer researchers which, to date, has recorded more than 11,000 deaths nationwide since Newtown — a number they admit is flawed. The tally includes 99 in Connecticut, since and including Newtown, as of Nov. 25.
“It seems silly that I had to put together this team of volunteers,” said Chris Kirk, a co-creator of the Slate project. “And it’s still the best we’ve got,” he said, referring to the information collected.
And the challenge remains in Connecticut. “We’re trying to figure out a way to have it always available in real-time,” Lawlor said. He’s not only talking about gun-death data but about many other facets of criminal justice information as well.
The Connecticut Criminal Justice Information System is an ongoing project that aims to connect every criminal justice database in the state so a wide spectrum of agencies can get access to the information. This means that, at the very basic level, there could be an up-to-date count of homicides; it also means there would be data for researchers and analysts, enabling the state to make smarter policy decisions.
But the project, which began in 2008, has had problems recently, and it is unlikely to be completed within the year.
One challenge has been finding a way to get the data from local departments and agencies. But a much more difficult issue is making sure the crime definitions the local agencies use are consistent, so that “we’re comparing apples to apples,” said Lawlor, who co-chairs the project’s governing board.
Once the system is available, it would provide quick, accurate data that’s easily accessible, at least in terms of homicides.
Currently, all the available methods of finding out have serious downsides.
The FBI has a Uniform Crime Reporting program, which asks law enforcement agencies to submit their data. But this is on a voluntary basis, and local agencies classify crimes differently. In addition, the data is only released annually.
Connecticut is unique in that it has its own Uniform Crime data. But this database also relies on local reporting agencies — which may classify incidents differently — and that means it’s also potentially inaccurate and slow.
The most accurate information is from the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which keeps a record of death certificates, including causes of deaths. This data includes suicides.
That’s where the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks the data — but that’s slow and not easily accessible to the public.
In the Slate.com database, only six of the 99 gun deaths in Connecticut are classified as suicides (as of Nov. 25), which is not surprising since suicides are rarely reported by the media, and that’s where this data is coming from. Kirk, the co-creator, said part of the rationale behind the project is to highlight this gap in the data.
When counting only homicides, Connecticut’s Uniform Crime data show that, in 2012, 110 people were killed with guns.