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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.

19 Responses to “Maybe big data can quell gun violence — but not in the way you think”

  1. The Information Technology answer to this has little to do with some causality algorithm, based upon old data.

    It’s about the ability for a surveillance camera, with a supercomputer backend grid, to delimit every person and object on a frame, and then deduce, what’s about to happen. Thus, if anyone is spotted on a camera with a firearm, that computer will first determine the person’s identity, criminal background, right to carry a concealed weapon, etc. And based upon surveillance cameras, in and around this person’s residence (and the place where the first firearm was noticed), where he’s planning to go to, based upon prior snapshots, all stored on a high speed data warehouse. Then, within a split second, the police will be texted with a photo of this person and the fact that they’re headed to a store (or school), carrying an unlicensed concealed firearm, and the route that they’re on.

    Yes, the above capability will be around come 2025. And this will be a type of police state but w/o needing to place 1000s of troops on the streets, as high end computing will provide much of data needed for ordinary police to do their work.

  2. Since the Newtown shooting, I haven’t stopped thinking about how this situation could have been prevented and furthermore how we as a country can preempt any further tragedies. When you think about the billions spent on resources including intelligence to protect us from foreign threats, it seems to me that some of that should be reverted back to protecting homeland interests. I agree that big data and predictive analytics can help – no question statistics are helpful, but it’s the correlation of separate and distinct data sets that will lead to action. We may be years away from being able to create models (I presume data security and access to information will have to be resolved) – but correlating data of mental health records, to gun owners (perhaps a match to relatives), to those who frequently play video games with violent content may be ones to track on a “watch list” or provide proactive care. The next question would be who is responsible, our government, our local law enforcement, our healthcare insurance companies…don’t know the answer…but we are in the dawn of a new era…with robust technologies and limitless ways to look at data and help predict how we become a smarter and safer world.

  3. Is there any source for more granular data?

    I suspect that once you further classify gun deaths into categories that include gang-on-gang, drug-deal-gone-bad, etc, and get a clear view on the number of gun deaths that did *not* involve career criminals on both ends, or a cop taking out a criminal, you’ll find a very low rate indeed, even if you include career criminals vs law abiding citizen. And if you look at first-time-crimes committed by a previously law abiding citizens, you’ll find very, very low rates. (When I say previously law-abiding, I mean upright, responsible, tax-paying citizen, not a gang member who simply has never been caught yet.)

    The significance is that there is no way to stop career criminals with any gun laws at all, so once we look at the *other* gun violence, what sort of gun laws are needed?

    It must be understood that all the gun laws that get passed are going to be followed by the upright, responsible, tax-paying citizens, but will be ignored by the criminal class. Most ideas for gun laws being bandied about will have the sole effect of making an upright, responsible, tax-paying citizen into a criminal one day without him having done a single thing differently from the day before.


  4. Do note the homicide rate in the U.S. is comparatively trivial (Derrick’s list started midway). Hondoras 91.6, El Salvador 69.2 ….. the list of more deadly nations is long. Derrick’s abbreviated list is unintentionally deceiving.

  5. Concerned Citizen


    ” (there must be some 30-35k suicides/year in the US ,10-15% of them teenagers – not sure how many gun related but it should be significant)”

    Don’t make stuff up that you don’t know the answer to or aren’t able to cite reliable data. Wikipedia is easily manipulated and thus not reliable data.

    Educate yourself about gun control/ownership here…a well written piece by someone with credentials and in the know. (also rather long, but extremely interesting)

    Something to keep in mind about countries that have implemented strict gun control measures…it’s a bit melodramatic, however, not farfetched.

    In 1929, the Soviet Union established gun control. >From 1929 to 1953, about 20 million dissidents, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated (murdered)
    In 1911, Turkey established gun control. From 1915 to 1917, 1.5 million Armenians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated (murdered).
    Germany established gun control in 1938 and from 1939 to 1945, a total of 13 million Jews and others who were unable to defend themselves were rounded up and exterminated ( murdered).
    China established gun control in 1935. From 1948 to 1952, 20 million political dissidents, unable to defend themselves were rounded up and exterminated (murdered)
    Guatemala established gun control in 1964. From 1964 to 1981, 100,000 Mayan Indians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated (murdered).
    Uganda established gun control in 1970. From 1971 to 1979, 300,000 Christians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated (murdered).
    Cambodia established gun control in 1956. From 1975 to 1977, one million educated people, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated (murdered).
    Defenseless people rounded up and exterminated ( murdered) in the 20th Century because of gun control: 56 million.
    You won’t see this data on the US evening news, or hear politicians
    disseminating this information.
    Guns in the hands of honest citizens save lives and property and, yes, gun-control laws adversely affect only the law-abiding citizens.
    Take note my fellow Americans, before it’s too late!
    The next time someone talks in favor of gun control, please remind them of this history lesson.
    With guns, we are ‘citizens’. Without them, we are ‘subjects’.
    During WWII the Japanese decided not to invade America because they knew most Americans were ARMED!
    If you value your freedom, please spread this anti-gun-control message to all of your friends and family.
    Spread the word everywhere you can that you are a firm believer in
    the 2nd Amendment!

    • You forget, Switzerland is full of Swiss, not a bunch of John Wayne wannabes. They are relatively culturally homogenous, don’t have a large component of society that was abducted from their homeland and forced to live as slaves and don’t have another component that thinks things would be better if we went back to that.

      America is not the Soviet Union, Turkey, Guatemala, China, Germany, Uganda or Cambodia. It is not the gun that ensures that, it is the ballot box. The person with the most blood on their hands in America is Wayne LaPierre, who enables every high-capacity magazine in the country, which have no use except to mass murderers and those who hope to become armed insurrectionists.

  6. Regarding the school shooting. The fact is that a gun was not necessary, as evidenced by the fact that something similar was done a couple of weeks ago in China, with a similar amount of deaths, but using only a knife.

    The other problems mentioned by others, are that in this case there were no prior criminal acts, and no prior mental illness noticed or recorded by the government for the person doing the shooting. His family had not reported him to social services for mental problems, and not to the police for mental problems. His parents probably never thought he would be violent to the degree he was in this case. The school also did not report him to anyone, since they had nothing to report. Quiet and weird do not necessarily indicate a killer. That he chose a school at random and not one he went to, to attack, also makes it very hard to predict. It also does not allow us to easily differentiate between, a depressant, or someone who kills himself, or someone who kills people he knows, or someone who kills people he has never met before.

    This makes it very hard to search for or analyze in the big data database because the record is not there, and was never there.

    • Your facts are incorrect. There were NO fatalities in the Chinese knife attack. The attacker was subdued by the other adults at the school. The Newtown murderer was successful because he had 30 round magazines.

      It is not a free society when you must be constantly wary of your fellow citizens, who could be armed and might be crazy, like the legal concealed-carry nut who shot the teenager because his radio was too loud. It is a tense society.

      • 30 round magazines did not cause the tragedy at Newtown to be successful, as you wrote.

        If a person decides to commit an act as heinous as that one, they won’t care if they have to carry three magazines instead of one. It would only slow a shooter down by five to ten seconds to change magazines twice. Unless there is an armed deterrent to stop the shooter in that amount of time, limiting the size of a magazine would do nothing.

        Be careful out in public. 499 people have been killed in the United States by people legally carrying a gun in the last five years. At an average of 100 per year, that would about 1% of the number of murders committed with a gun each year. Looks to me like you have more to fear from people illegally carrying a gun. And be extra careful if you live in Chicago where 500+ people were killed and they don’t even have concealed carry laws.

  7. thickhamsteak

    I don’t know what data you used for that graph but it is terrible and disingenuous. First, you have the horizontal axis labeled as “Guns/Capita” which would indicate nearly 90 guns per person for the US. That is plainly wrong. The real number is around 90 guns per 100 people, or 0.9 guns per capita.

    Second, the graph has obviously cherry picked the data in some way to make a political point. Using data published in The Washington Post I created the same graph without trying to be dishonest (and with correctly titled axes):

    Ignoring that terrible graph, the text of the article is quite good. Using “big data” to find spree killers is indeed going to be fruitless task if you make assumptions like “people who buy guns and ammo = bad”. You might be able to weed some out by analyzing ominous or threatening Facebook/Twitter posts, but even then it will not be easy. Even if you suspect someone is going to become a spree killer, it’s actually incredibly difficult to have someone involuntarily committed or arrested. Of course this ignoring the privacy and ethical issues of spying on citizens in order to reduce an already extremely rare occurrence.

    While access to guns may expedite those inclined to violence to kill, pushing for gun control is treating the symptoms and not the cause. It does nothing to examine and treat the root cause of these tragedies.

    Unfortunately there are risks associated with living in a free society. Unless we are willing to make the US a dystopian police state with TSA metal detectors and body scanners at the entrance to every building, we generally accept those risks as a consequence of living in a free society. It’s the same risk analysis that occurs every time we get behind the wheel of a car or choose to drink a beer. Thankfully there are more good, responsible people in the world than there are people willing to do harm and that tips the favor back to living free. Even after a national tragedy we see good outnumber evil a million to one. If this were not true humans would have never made it out of the jungle.

    Above all else, the crime and murder rate in this country has plummeted over the last 20 years and nobody really knows why. At the same time gun ownership has exploded with more Democrats and Woman choosing to exercise their right to bear arms than every before. Anyone who looks at the issue critically and honestly recognizes that more gun control will make little to no difference in actual murder and crime rates.

    • Derrick Harris

      Thanks for pointing out that mistake. The graph — pulled from KDnuggets — incorrectly labels it as guns per capita, and I’ve noted this. That aside, it’s still an interesting comparison of the U.S. compared with other countries with relatively high per capita GDP. And, yes, my whole point is about treating the disease (i.e., murder) rather than just the symptom (i.e., gun murders).

  8. Are there factors not related to gun control that inspire a willingness to kill?

    Why yes there are! The FBI data shows that there are regions within the US, we used to call them ghettos, where gun murders and crimes are still extremely high. When Freakanomics can show that kids in these areas may not reach the age of 25 because of gun crimes, it is sad that the establishment has not done anything about it. Who are these killers and victims? They are the illegal drug dealers and gangs killing one another with illegally acquired guns.

    Outside of those areas, in the US, gun crimes and gun murders are much lower, on the order of those in Europe, such as Germany or Britain. However, European countries do not report suicides by gun or accidental killings by guns. The USA does include those in its report to the UN.

    So you say gun control? So you say take away all guns from law-abiding citizens? Well then as the good friend of our President, Mr. Bill Ayers did, in the 1960’s, just break into a military base and into its military arsenal and steal M-16s and explosives, as you need for your criminal activities, or as might be more politically correct, your freedom fighting activism.

    By the way, the FBI and other agencies do use big data to analyze crime data. They have for many years now.

  9. Go look at the FBI data, some of it shows there are 70 million US people (one quarter US population) living in counties where there were no gun murders. Other FBI data shows that the rate of gun murders is lower in Europe for two reasons, they don’t report non-capital murders (commonly, accidents), the US does include those. Secondly, the ghettos of the US have been shown to have 10 times the gun murder rate as compared with the rest of the country, because of illegally procured guns being used by criminals to kill and murder their competitor illegal drug dealers and competitor gangs. The rest of the US outside of such ghettos has the same murder rate that countries in Europe have.

    What exactly, have the liberals done to reduce the rate of gun murders in the ghettos in the US? Er, nothing, nothing at all. Just look at liberal run DC or liberal run Chicago.

    These two facts directly skew the numbers reported to the UN. One might consider that the US is too honest, and other countries not reporting all of their gun deaths (as opposed to just intentional gun murders). If so, the US would rate somewhere around 2. per 100,000. Much like the rest of Europe. (Except for European countries that have banned guns – for some strange reason these all have higher gun death and gun crime and general crime rates than the rest of Europe.)

    Another interesting note: Canada has twice as many guns per capita than the US. Yet, has the same low rate of gun murders as European countries. Some kind of cultural ghetto thing in the US skewing the numbers.

    • Gregory Piatetsky

      Canada is a good example showing that it has some of US gun problem. Canada has about 30 guns per 100 people. Its homicide rate is 0.76 / 100K – 4 times lower than in the US but 2nd highest (after Israel) among the rest of the countries with GDP > $20000 . The average homicide rate in these other countries is 0.22 per 100,000 – 3.5 times lower than in Canada, and about 15 times lower than in the US

      • The only large major city in Canada, in terms of violent crimes, is Toronto. And Toronto has a mix of lower income and higher income neighborhoods. The other cities like Winnipeg, Ottawa, Calgary, Montreal, and Vancouver do not have a similar mix between gentrification and urban blight.

        In contrast, the US has Chicago, LA, NYC, Houston, Philadelphia, Detroit, St Louis, and so forth, not including burned out small cities like Gary ID, East St Louis IL, Oakland CA, Camden NJ. All and all, that’s a far more dangerous array of violent districts than many other western nations, esp Canada.

  10. Eradicating poverty and investing in education are not short or medium term solutions.Fighting poverty is rather difficult in the US as it is since the right is rather extreme.

    ” it’s hard to say with any statistical certainty that having more guns actually does lead to more murder by guns.”
    No it’s not hard at all, it’s only hard if you ignore all other factors that impact murder rates. You can’t use grossly incomplete data and expect reliable results. There is also no reason to ignore other gun related crimes , accidents and suicides (there must be some 30-35k suicides/year in the US ,10-15% of them teenagers – not sure how many gun related but it should be significant)
    Mass shootings are somewhat US specific ,could be that the idea pops in someone’s head too easily when they break and chances are the problem can’t be solved without very harsh regulations . Everything else is not so much US specific and the causes and solutions are not all that complicated it’s just that the conversation is ,unnecessarily , politicized and somehow it’s harder to see (or accept) the obvious.
    Here a stat that factors in suicides too

    • Derrick Harris

      Thanks for the comment. I ignored suicides — which represent the majority of gun deaths in most rich nations, including the United States — because I think murder and suicide have different causes.

      Regarding education and poverty, I assume they’re related to murder rates, but I’m leery to give them too much weight. We have so many ways of collecting and analyzing data now, I’d love to see a comprehensive study looking at correlations among myriad factors that people often blame for murder rates, and maybe some outside-the-box factors.

      Maybe it really is that lax gun laws would boost murder and gun-murder rates in other countries up to U.S. levels. Or maybe we’d find there are solutions that would better help us address the core problem of trying to commit murder in the first place, regardless the weapon. Of course, maybe there’s nothing to find at all and thickhamsteak is right that a relatively high murder rate is just the price we pay for our freedoms.

      We expend so much effort using big data to segment consumers using demographic data, web behavior and other factors. I’d like to see the same techniques applied to nations and murder rates and see what we find out.

      • Successful suicides should be impacted by gun ownership numbers so they are relevant when considering any gun related measures. Suicides are also a significant problem that doesn’t get money or attention ( just like car crashes and some other issues) so i would much rather not ignore it. There are also some common causes and in mass shootings i’m betting that the majority of shooters are suicidal.
        Accidents (fatal or not) have both a social and monetary cost so we can’t ignore those either.
        Education and poverty are the main factors impacting crime rates (in general not just gun related crimes) – this is why ,after all, we compare the US to other developed nations since , in theory, they should be able to provide education and fight poverty better than less developed nations.Problem is that better education and fighting poverty can’t be done overnight, it takes time,it might be the root of the problem and we should aim at that but it’s not something that can be fixed in a decade or even two.
        Would also like to point out that freedom is a relative term and sane regulations shouldn’t be seen as a loss of freedom. Huge losses for freedom and privacy are things like warrantless eavesdropping and many other unacceptable regulations that are just dangerous (somehow after the fall of the Berlin wall everybody forgot how important certain safeguards are).
        Gun regulations are not just about how one obtains a gun but also how gun related crimes are punished and that might be really hard to fight against even in today’s political situation – and here you look at the % of americans in prisons and you got another great topic, but i’m not starting on that issue.