In late December, Congress earmarked $25 million in federal dollars to fund gun violence research, ending a virtual spending freeze that has stymied the field for more than two decades. There’s much we still don’t know about the nature of gun violence in America, even down to the number of people who are shot each year and survive. The new funding, however slight, offers hope that the contours of the problem, and its solutions, may soon begin to come into sharper focus.
The facts and figures below are an overview of what we did learn this year. They offer a lens into new research, striking trends, and the existing gaps in our understanding of an issue that continues to define our nation.
Financial misconduct. Self-dealing. Campaign finance violations. These are some of the National Rifle Association’s alleged wrongdoings that are under scrutiny in a growing number of government investigations. Spurred by The Trace’s reporting, the Senate Finance Committee, the House Ways and Means Committee, and the attorneys general of New York and Washington, D.C., sent subpoenas or letters to the gun group and several of its longtime allies, including the PR firm Ackerman McQueen and election consultant OnMessage, Inc. As the investigations advance, we’ll continue keeping tabs on these probes in the new year.
That’s according to a study by Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox and Ph.D. student Emma Fridel. Most of the increase came after 2014. Fox told the Huffington Post that intimate partner homicides — deaths in which a person kills their spouse or intimate partner — increased each year between 2014 and 2017. In 2014, there were 1,875 intimate partner homicides across the country. By 2017, the number hit 2,237.
The rate of homicides in St. Louis has made it the most deadly large city in the nation since 2014. The violence has hit children especially hard. This year, St. Louis recorded at least 11 children killed by gun violence, according to Evita Caldwell, a Police Department spokesperson. All of the victims were black, a disparity also present in other cities with pervasive gun violence. For example, in Chicago, 37 minors have been killed with guns this year. Three-quarters of the victims were black, despite the fact that African-Americans account for less than 30 percent of the city population.
In January, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine examined hospital admission records from 2010 through 2015 and calculated that the cost of hospitalizations for gun injuries averaged $911 million per year during that period. The government ended up footing half of the bill through Medicaid and other public insurance programs. Nearly 10 percent of the total — $86 million — stemmed from return visits within six months of a shooting. The costs do not include additional follow-up care or long-term rehabilitation, which add considerably to the financial toll of America’s gun violence epidemic. “So often gun injuries are talked about in terms of mortality, as one-time events for medical care,” said Sarabeth Spitzer, the study’s lead author. “What tends to be forgotten are the long-term effects these injuries have on the people who survive and the monetary costs to the health care system.”
The August shooting in Dayton came amid a flare-up of mass shootings across the country, occurring within days of those in El Paso, Brownsville, and Gilroy. But the Saturday-night attack in the busy downtown district of Dayton stood out for its sheer speed: In the span of just half a minute, a gunman fired 41 shots, killing nine people and injuring 26 more, before he was killed by police. The carnage was inflicted with a rifle outfitted with an 100-round drum magazine, an item that was illegal in Ohio until 2015, when Republican lawmakers repealed the state’s magazine capacity limit. In recent years, a number of mass shooters used high-capacity magazines capable of holding more than 30 rounds. “They know damn well they are highly increasing the lethality of firearms available to the public — for profit,” Jay Wachtel, a former agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said of the companies manufacturing this new generation of magazines. “It’s really a breakdown in the commercial conscience.”
The 2019 peak for background checks coincided with the year’s busiest day for retail, but fell just 25 checks per hour short of the single-day record, which was set on Black Friday in 2017. The figure likely undercounts the actual number of guns sold — multiple guns can be purchased on one background check — but it’s still a convenient proxy to gauge market demand. And demand surged this year, amid renewed calls for gun regulation. Should sales continue at their usual clip into the new year, 2019 is on track to set an all-time record for background checks processed.
In mid-December, Congressional leaders set aside $25 million for gun violence research, to be evenly split next year between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. The agreement marked the first time that federal tax dollars were pledged to study gun violence since 1996, when Republicans in Congress established what came to be called the Dickey Amendment, a budget rider banning federal funding of research that would “advocate or promote gun control.” While not a direct prohibition, the amendment ensured that no new federal money would be earmarked for the study of gun violence in America for more than two decades.
Former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke’s declaration that, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15,” during the September Democratic presidential debate briefly spurred discussion of a federal assault weapons ban and buyback. But there was a problem: Nobody knows precisely how many assault weapons exist in America’s civilian arsenal. Even rigorous counts of broader, simpler categories of weapon — like the number of semi-automatic guns or the number of rifles — are not readily available. Instead, we must turn to researchers’ estimates and opaque industry figures, which yield a wide range of possible numbers. On the low end, using the conservative methodology detailed in a 2008 amicus brief filed in District of Columbia v. Heller places the number of AR-15-style weapons available in America in 2017 at around 3.3 million, a definite undercount. On the other hand, a fresh figure from the National Shooting Sports Foundation put the number of “modern sporting rifles” (the trade association’s preferred euphemism) at 17.7 million. Other estimates fall somewhere in between. For now, a more stable, reliable figure remains out of reach.
Many of the entries on this list highlight the severity of gun violence in the United States. But for all its human costs, the problem is not intractable. Even without new federal restrictions on firearm access, there are tactics that — when well-implemented — have proven to significantly curb a leading category of shootings: the community gun violence which disproportionately ends the lives of young black men. The missing ingredient has been more government funding. With adequate public resources, the organization implementing the interventions could scale up, stay on the job, and stop more shootings.
How much money would it take? Not as much as you might think, according to the calculations of Harvard fellow Thomas Abt. Published this summer, Abt’s book Bleeding Out was part of a broader shift in 2019 that saw the everyday shootings that plague some city neighborhoods become a larger priority for gun violence prevention. In the book, Abt lays out the evidence for tools like police- and community-driven violence interruption programs, group therapy to help at-risk residents squelch violent outbursts, and cleaning up the hotspots where homicides and assaults cluster. If the government came up with $899 million to spend on those fixes over an eight year span, he estimates, it could save more than 12,000 lives in America’s 40 highest-crime cities. The price tag would be a “rounding error,” he writes, in annual federal budgets that top $4 trillion.