The New York Times, Accidental Gunfire, And the Value of Public Access to Death Records

by Categorized: Data, Government, Media, Transparency/FOI Date:

It certainly wasn’t their primary objective, but an intriguing Sunday story in the New York Times illustrates the value of keeping death certificates and death-certificate data available to researchers, including journalists.

The Times’ story reveals that in eight states in which reporters were able to analyze death records, most accidental shooting deaths of children were classified as something other than an accident, skewing the apparent prevalence of such deaths and in turn giving policymakers misleading data.

It’s not the result of a deliberate effort to under-report such tragedies. Instead, in states surveyed by the Times – as in Connecticut – medical examiners have a number of options for  describing the manner of an individual’s demise, including classifying a death as a homicide, suicide or accident. And in some states, any death directly caused by the actions of another, even if accidental, is classified as a homicide. Likewise, some self-inflicted deaths are classified as suicides, even if the deaths – such as those from accidental shootings – are not intentional.

In all, the Times identified more than 250 fatal shootings of children known to be accidental – the majority of which were not counted as accidents in official death records.

The same issue appears to exists in Connecticut. In 2010, for example, death-certificate data – which has been collected and analyzed by the Courant for decades – includes five individuals younger than 18 who died by gunfire. Four are known or believed to have been killed intentionally. But the fifth victim, Jamese Hudson, a 16-year-old New Haven girl, was accidentally shot in the face by a friend, police said, while the two were playing with a gun in the friend’s bedroom.

Nevertheless, Hudson’s death is listed as a “homicide” – and not included in statistics for accidental shootings.

That discrepancy has important policy implications. Most safety legislation represents a balance between inconvenience to those affected and the reduction in harm that might be realized by government-mandated behavior. But for years, lawmakers considering measures to reduce accidental shootings have engaged in that balancing act with incorrect information on one side of the scale. And groups opposing stricter gun-storage laws have cited government statistics on accidental shooting deaths – now revealed to be flawed – to argue that such fatalities are uncommon enough that they don’t justify more-intrusive laws.

That debate will continue – but it will now do so with all sides having access to more-accurate information. And it’s worth remembering that none of this would be occurring if the Times had been unable to review death records.

A public analysis of how Connecticut classifies accidental shootings would likewise be impossible without the state’s tradition of making such records available. In the past, that same data has allowed the Courant to identify deadly medical errors that hospitals failed to report to state authorities, and was a cornerstone of the paper’s recent investigation revealing scores of preventable deaths among individuals with developmental disabilities who were living in state-run or state-supervised facilities.

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