Data in the News: Gaining an Understanding of Gun Violence

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Collecting, analyzing, and reporting with data can be daunting. The person that SAGE Publishing — the parent of MethodSpace — turns to when it has questions is Diana Aleman – editor extraordinaire for SAGE Stats and U.S. Political Stats. And now she is bringing her trials, tribulations, and expertise with data to you in a monthly blog, Tips with Diana. Stay tuned for Diana’s experiences, tips, and tricks with finding, analyzing and visualizing data. View Diana’s blog HERE.

The issue of gun control continues to build steam as the media reports more gun violence incidents across the United States. One recent incident is the gunman attack on the Capital Gazette newspaper office in Maryland this past June, which fueled renewed calls and protests for stronger gun control laws. As decisive as the ucrrent environment is about this particular issue, it is also a reminder to keep yourself informed on issues in which you are interested. If you are looking to use this as a topic of academic research, it is especially important to gain a basic understanding by reviewing and comparing the information you find.

You can begin understanding your topic of interest by writing out your current assumptions and reviewing the information to see if it supports those assumptions. One way to check your assumptions is by creating a simple data comparison. For example, let’s assume that a majority of murders are committed with firearms than with no weapon at all. You can compare murders committed with firearms to murders committed without a weapon. Since we menioned Maryland earlier, let’s focus on that state. The FBI reported that in 2016, 76.3 percent of Maryland murders were committed with firearms and 4.9 percent of murders were committed barehanded (i.e. with a person’s hands, fists, or feet). Based on this comparison, we can confirm that a majority of reported murders in Maryland were committed with firearms that without.

Line graph comparison of the percentage of Maryland murders by firearms and murders by hands, fists, and feet

Additionally, seeing this comparison visually can facilitate further research by inviting additional questions. Here are a few questions that arise when you see this data in action: Why are there more murders with firearms than without? How many of these firearm murders were mass shootings? Is this possible to identify? If there were any mass shootings included in these murders, what types of firearms were used? Why did the percentage of murders with firearms drop between 1997 and 1998? What was different about 1997 compared to 1998? Were there any unreported murders in Maryland? How do these percentages for Maryland compare to neighboring states or the U.S. average?

As you can see, a simple comparison has turned into an in-depth research topic that has raised numerous questions that allow for multiple avenues of investigation. When reviewing information gathered from your research, the best thing you can is to ask questions about what you read or observe. This not only adds to your initial knowledge of an issue, but broadens your perspective by encouraging you to consider other factors that perhaps you hadn’t thought of before and which may affect or be affected by the issue. Broadening your perspective of what factors or players are in play is imperative to building your understanding of a big issue like gun violence.

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