Maybe big data can quell gun violence — but not in the way you think

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Updated: If the United States really wants to solve its problem with gun deaths, it might want to look at the data. But the process won’t be easy and almost certainly won’t provide a magic model by which to predict mass murders before they happen. The issue appears might be more about the American psyche than about guns themselves, so the solution might require broad thinking and long-term solutions to fundamental problems far removed from gun control.

On Thursday, Barnes & Noble VP Marc Parrish wrote a provocative guest post for The Atlantic explaining how big data technologies could help identify mass murderers such as James Holmes and Adam Lanza before they actually commit their heinous acts. As much I like to prescribe big data as the solution to various problems — and as much I wish Parrish’s solution was the right answer — his assessment is probably a bit fantastical.

There are a whole slew of reasons Parrish’s hypothesis might fall short, the most obvious of which was pointed out early and often by commenters to the post: There just aren’t enough incidents of gun-powered mass murder to draw strong assumptions about what types of behavior typically precede such an attack. Here’s an excerpt from the most-popular comment, from JLR84:

“The ‘patterns’ that you think of indicative of a spree-killer in the making are far more common than you think, meaning that the whole thing would be rife with false positives. So many that the authorities would never be able to follow up on them, and the system would quickly be ignored. … What you think is a ‘large amount of ammunition’ isn’t. … Spree shooters use relatively small quantities of ammunition compared to the average enthusiast, all things considered. Regular violent criminals, even less.”

Another strong argument has to do with ownership — who actually owns and purchases the guns used in mass murders, or any other homicide, for that matter? If a shooter steals guns or uses his father’s gun, for example, the shooter’s name might never find its way into a government database. Without other evidence linking the possession of guns with intent to do harm, trying to predict who’ll commit horrific crimes with guns might be a fruitless task.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a less glamorous way to use data as a means for curbing violence by guns. Perhaps — if someone were willing to undertake a massive data collection effort, carefully selecting, gathering and analyzing international data on topics such as poverty rates, mental health, gun laws, drug laws, violence in the media, known information about those who have committed murder, family composition, health care, etc. — we could actually identify commonalities or anomalies that shed some light on why certain countries have higher murder rates than others. It’s possible that Americans’ easy access to guns only facilitates a willingness to kill that has been cultivated by other factors and extends far beyond the small fraction of deaths attributable to mass murder.

By way of comparison, the Canada has a rate of 1.6; the UK is 1.2. (Source: Wikipedia/UNODC)

By way of comparison, Canada has a rate of 1.6; the United Kingdom is 1.2. (Source: Wikipedia/UNODC)

Guns certainly make it easier to kill, but they probably don’t, by their mere presence, inspire violent tendencies. At 4.2 murders per 100,000 people, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, we’re well above peers such as Canada, Australia and Western European countries — and even above many African, Middle Eastern, Asian and Eastern European countries. And although the percentage of homicides committed with guns is high in the United States (the UNODC says 68 percent, or 9,960 murders, in 2010, while the Guardian‘s Datablog uses data showing 60 percent), there’s no guarantee many of those murders wouldn’t have happened or have been attempted by other means.

Gun homicide rate per 100,000 people by country. Updated: the X axis now correctly reads "Guns/100 people." (Source: KDnuggets)

Gun homicide rate per 100,000 people by country. Updated: the X axis now correctly reads “Guns/100 people.” (Source: KDnuggets)

Looking at statistics about guns alone does little to answer the question. Over at KDnuggets, an online community dedicated to data mining, there has been some discussion about the correlation between the number of guns in a country and the number of gun deaths. Excluding the United States — which easily tops the charts in terms of guns per capita 100 people and gun homicide rate (among countries with a per capita GDP of more than $20,000) — it’s hard to say with any statistical certainty that having more guns actually does lead to more murder by guns.

So maybe big data really can help solve America’s penchant for killing by helping us understand why, exactly, so many of our citizens feel so compelled to do so. Instead of trying to figure out when people are going to pull the trigger, let’s focus on answering why people are so willing to kill in a country that appears to have so much.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user Sascha Burkard.


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