Tracking Gun-Related Deaths, One Tweet At A Time

Dec 28, 2012
Originally published on January 2, 2013 8:36 am

How many Americans died on Christmas Day from a gun shot? How many have been shot and killed since the Dec. 14 mass shooting at a school in Newtown, Conn.?

No one knows for sure. Authorities pull together annual figures, but not daily reports on gun-related murders, suicides and accidental deaths.

Slate and a citizen journalist who tweets as @GunDeaths are trying to fill at least some of that information void. Their admittedly incomplete data suggest that on average, at least 17 Americans a day have died from gunshots since the Newtown shootings that claimed the lives of 20 children, seven adults and the gunman.

Dan Kois, a Slate senior editor, tells NPR's Audie Cornish that the project is "our best attempt to collect up all the gun deaths in America." The goal, he says, is to put some names and stories behind such deaths. As the debate over gun control since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School continues, says Kois, "it's hard to really know what kinds of decisions we should make" if more isn't known about gun-related deaths.

The information that Slate and @GunDeaths are relying on to produce an interactive chart comes from newspapers, TV stations and websites run by trained journalists. The anonymous @GunDeaths began collecting and tweeting the reports after the July mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. The data are incomplete, Kois concedes. Many suicides by guns, for example, go unreported.

But he believes the project is painting a picture of the role guns play, every day, in the lives and deaths of Americans. Clicking on the icons in Slate's chart leads you to news reports about each person's death.

Twenty children and six adults were killed by a gunman at the Sandy Hook school. He also killed his mother that day, and took his own life.

As for Christmas Day, so far Slate and @GunDeaths have collected reports about 21 gun-related deaths.

And as of earlier today, they had reports about 242 gun-related deaths since the shootings in Newtown.

The Slate interactive chart and more about the project are online here.

Much more from the conversation with Kois is due on today's All Things Considered. We'll add the as-broadcast version of the interview to the top of this post later. Click here to find an NPR station that streams or broadcasts the show.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. It's been two weeks since a gunman shot and killed 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. The shooting set off a fierce debate over gun control, one that's certain to spill over into next year.

In a year when multiple mass shootings have rocked the country, we wondered just how many people are killed by guns every day in America. It turns out journalists at were asking the same question. Now they've put together a tally of gun deaths since Newtown displayed in an interactive on their website.

As of today, that number is at 277. Dan Kois, a senior editor, says finding the numbers wasn't easy.

DAN KOIS: We were very surprised to find out that that information is really difficult to come by. The FBI and the CDC keep that data, but they're several years behind. No one is keeping track of gun deaths on a day-to-day basis at all. And so we wanted to fill that hole. We wanted to try to start to suss out that data so that people would have it as they're having this argument.

CORNISH: And you found your information, oddly enough, on Twitter, with someone with the Twitter handle @gundeaths.

KOIS: Correct, Gundeaths is a Twitter user who, following the Aurora shootings this summer, decided to try to agglomerate information on all gun deaths in America in a real-time basis. So this Twitter user searches news reports, he has Google News searches, and he takes tips from followers about news reports about gun deaths everywhere in the country, and he then posts one tweet for each news report.

I reached out to him and asked him if he would be interested in partnering with us, and he was. And I think by us creating this interactive with him and partnering with him, we expanded his reach substantially. And whereas before he had 200 or 300 people following him, now he has 3,000 or 4,000. He's collecting up numbers much more reliably than he was before.

CORNISH: Can you give us any more information about how you're verifying the information, how accurate you think the count is? This person is anonymous.

KOIS: Well, the count is based on news reports. You know, we're not linking to random people on Twitter claiming their next-door neighbor got shot. We are linking to newspapers, to TV station news departments, to local magazines, local websites like Patch, who are all trained journalists or journalistic organizations who are writing and reporting about these deaths.

And so we found that they are very accurate. The greater question is: Is our number accurate? And the answer is no, absolutely not. One big issue that we face in collecting these numbers is the issue of suicides. It's very rare that a suicide by gun ends up in a newspaper. It's estimated that as many as 60 percent of deaths by gun in America in any given year are suicides. And so those numbers are almost always going to be left out of our interactive because we don't have confirmation on them.

CORNISH: On the website, it's pretty sobering because it's not a typical chart. Essentially you're looking at rows and rows of male and female figures, sort of like the ones you might see on a restroom door, but each one symbolizes a person, correct?

KOIS: Right, so for some of these deaths, the news reports don't have names, they're unnamed victims, perhaps their names aren't known, perhaps early reports don't have those names. For many of them, we do have names and ages. For all of them we have a citation.

So for instance, right now if you look at Christmas Eve, there are 26 gun deaths that we've catalogued so far that happened on Christmas Eve. That number I'm sure will increase over the days to come as more and more deaths get reported. That includes men. That includes women. It includes two teenagers. It includes the two firefighters who were killed in Webster, New York.

On Christmas Day, two children were killed by guns that we know of so far, 10-year-old Alfred E. Gibson(ph) in Memphis, Tennessee; and two-year-old Sincere Smith(ph) in Connelly, South Carolina. According to news reports, those were both accidental shootings at home.

CORNISH: What's been the response from the response from the public to this map?

KOIS: I think that people are really shocked. There was a horrible toll taken in Newtown, and that number, 27 or 26 or 28, depending on who you count as a victim of guns, is a huge number, and it sticks in people's minds. But people are amazed and disheartened, I think, to see that that many people were killed again in the two days following Newtown and killed again in the two days following that.

And there's a real toll being taken, and I think any arguments about what purpose and role guns play in American society probably needs to begin with data like this, data that is really hard to come by, which we hope we're improving every day.

And I want to add that the data on this interactive is open so that anyone who wants to use this for any project that they want, can.

CORNISH: Dan Kois is a senior editor at Dan, thank you for speaking with us.

KOIS: Thank you so much, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.