More from the series
Guns and kids
Over the past five years, at least 36 Kentucky children accidentally shot themselves or another child with a loaded gun that adults either gave them or left within their reach. Most of the time, police quietly closed their investigations of the shootings without bringing criminal charges. “How is nobody legally responsible for this?” one anguished father asks.
When gunshots make national news, Mark Bryant’s phone rings in Lexington.
Bryant, 62, is neither a law enforcement officer nor a trauma specialist. He runs a private website, Gun Violence Archive, that updates on an hourly basis, with street-level details, most of the gun-related incidents that have occurred in the United States since 2013.
Want to know how many people have been killed by guns so far this year nationally? In your state? In your city? Last year? The year before that? The number of people wounded? How many shooting victims were children? How many mass shootings there were? Police-related shootings? How many times guns were used in self-defense? How many shootings were unintentional?
Operated out of a small home just off Richmond Road, Bryant’s GVA answers such questions for journalists, policymakers, even law enforcement. And despite the public-safety menace of gun violence in this country, few others do this kind of work.
Typically, the FBI undercounts shootings and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under-counts gun deaths because they rely on incomplete reports passed along by local officials and extrapolated surveys. Academic study of gun violence slowed nearly to a halt in 1996 once Congress, at the behest of the National Rifle Association, prohibited federal funding from going to research that could be used to advocate for gun control.
“For firearms, we have rotten, absolutely rotten data,” said Jon Vernick, co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “We have some accounting of the overall number of deaths. But if you want to learn who pulled the trigger or any other circumstances behind the shootings, we collect very little information.”
“Compare that to car crashes,” Vernick said. “We collect all sorts of information about car crashes. I can tell you not only how many people died in your state last year in car crashes; I can break it down for you by the make and model of the vehicle, the speed it was traveling, the road conditions, the weather, the age and experience of the driver, on and on. But shootings? No. Nothing like that with shootings.”
GVA comes closer than most. It has 19 researchers around the country to sweep information about gun-related incidents from the websites of more than 2,000 news organizations and police departments. (One researcher is devoted entirely to the violence-plagued city of Chicago, which can see more than 100 people shot over a single holiday weekend.) Researchers follow up with phone calls and open records requests to collect more details when necessary.
Incidents are promptly reviewed, categorized and posted on GVA, with one or more links to original sources to confirm their authenticity. There is no commentary; GVA is nonpartisan and takes no position on gun ownership or gun control. It simply provides the numbers.
Last year, according to GVA. there were 384 mass shootings in the United States, adopting the federal government’s definition of “four or more people shot and/or killed in a single event.” There were 671 children up to age 11 killed or wounded by guns, and 3,124 teenagers up to age 17 killed or wounded. There were 1,971 verified defensive uses of a firearm, which can include either brandishing a gun or shooting it. There were 2,198 unintentional shootings.
Overall, there were 15,063 fatal shootings, continuing an upward trend since GVA began counting, and 30,613 gun-related injuries, also reflecting a steady annual increase. None of those numbers include suicide shootings, which GVA doesn’t track.
GVA’s data has been cited in hundreds of news stories by scores of news organizations, including The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, CNN, ABC News, and broadcast and print outlets in Canada, Mexico, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Australia.
“We provide very little analysis, and that’s intentional,” Bryant said recently. “We want people to be able to draw their own conclusions.”
Reborn after Newtown
GVA’s budget of about $500,000 a year comes from Michael Klein of Washington, D.C., who made a fortune in commercial real estate and corporate law before backing a number of nonprofits that interest him. Apart from GVA, Klein helps fund the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for transparency in politics and government.
Bryant fell into the job by accident. A shooting enthusiast who grew up with hunting rifles in Harlan County, he sometimes wrote about gun safety for various blogs. But he did other things for a living, including postcard distributor, photographer and computer systems analyst.
With the rest of the world, Bryant was horrified in December 2012, when Adam Lanza shot up an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., murdering 20 children and six adults. Lanza had been treated for psychiatric problems, but he had easy access to his mother’s arsenal of a half-dozen firearms in their home, most notably the .223 caliber Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle that he used for most of that day’s bloodshed.
Overnight, gun safety went from being Bryant’s hobby to his all-consuming passion. His own experiences led him to think that two changes could cut the number of shooting deaths in the United States by half: requiring background checks on all gun sales to prevent people with criminal or psychiatric problems from obtaining a gun, and requiring secure gun storage to keep firearms out of the wrong hands, including burglars, the mentally ill and children.
“You can buy a gun safe at Bud’s Gun Shop that will keep your 4-year-old out,” Bryant said. “People say, ‘I don’t need a safe. I teach my children gun safety.’ Well, you can throw that out the window for a 4-year-old, because you can’t teach a 4-year-old gun safety. Even for the 6- to 10-year-olds, you can tell them all day long, ‘Stop. This is dangerous; don’t touch this.’ But you and I both know what boys will do. They will do whatever they want, because they are boys.”
As Bryant tried to research individual acts of gun violence around the country, he had a hard time finding solid data.
Then he discovered that Slate, an online news magazine, was building its own nationwide database of shootings in the days after Newtown, to show how many Americans died by gunfire all the time. Bryant admired Slate’s effort so much that he started contributing to it himself. He alerted the magazine’s editors whenever he uncovered shootings in the news that they had failed to include.
“We would keep bugging them to say, ‘You missed this one; you missed that one,’” he said, laughing. “Finally, after I bugged them enough times, they said, ‘Fine, look, here are the passwords, you go do whatever you need to with this, thanks.’”
By the end of 2013, with his wife, data analyst Sharon Williams, Bryant had taken over the database from Slate and rechristened it as Gun Violence Archive.
Gun violence prevention
On any given day, GVA gets about 20,000 page views. A major shooting — say, the Orlando nightclub rampage a year ago that left 50 people dead — can spike that to 1.2 million page views a day.
“It comes close to blowing our website apart,” Bryant said.
“Mass shootings drive much of the traffic to our website. Children getting shot is second. Familicide (when someone murders the rest of their family) is third in terms of, you know, media interest. But even with those, usually after two days, it’s rolled off. You’ll hear about these awful shootings for a couple of days, and then they’re gone, and nothing more is really said about how we might prevent them from happening the next time.”
Although GVA takes no position on guns, Bryant advocates for what he calls “gun violence prevention.” He does not oppose gun ownership — in fact, he enjoys target practice when he can find the time — but he says the data confirms a need for mandatory background checks on gun sales and secure gun storage.
Many shootings recorded on GVA were preventable had someone acted more responsibly with their firearm, he said.
“Gun violence prevention is not anti-gun. It’s anti-gun violence,” Bryant said.
“I equate it in some ways to what Mothers Against Drunk Driving did with drunk driving,” he said. “MADD was against the injuries and deaths that occurred due to people driving while drunk. They were not against cars, they were not against car owners, they were not against alcohol. They were simply against the carnage that was occurring from drunk driving.”
However, the subject of guns is politically and culturally radioactive, even after the Newtown school massacre, he said.
“I know a lot of guys — friends of mine — who are very smart, rational people on most issues. But when it comes to any kind of legislation about gun safety, all that goes out the window,” Bryant said. “They have this visceral reaction that people are trying to take away their guns. Nobody is trying to take away their guns. They’re just trying to make things a little bit safer for the rest of us.”