By Larry Keane
A National Public Radio (NPR) report this week told us what many already strongly suspected. The criminal misuse of firearms at schools can be and has been overestimated.
An NPR team looked at the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection reporting for the 2015-2016 school year, which found “nearly 240 schools … reported at least one incident involving a school-related shooting. Seems high, doesn’t it? Well, it turns out that’s because the data collection was haphazard and inaccurate.
In fact, NPR was able to confirm just 11 incidents. There were 161 schools or districts responding that the reported incidents never took place, or that they couldn’t confirm they did. A full 25 percent of schools didn’t even respond to NPR’s follow-up. Some were incidents that didn’t even involve a firearm. Thirty-seven schools reported that knives or firearms were lumped together in the same category.
False Counting In California
One California school district was reported having four firearms-related incidents, but a spokeswoman said that in the past 20 years, there have been exactly none.
Even worse, the Ventura (California) Unified School District was recorded as having 26 shootings. Contacted by NPR, the outgoing superintendent Joe Richards said he “has been here for almost 30 years and he doesn’t remember any shooting.”
At a middle school in DeKalb County, Georgia, a report of a toy cap gun on a school bus apparently was entered as a shooting.
For its part, the Department of Education blamed local school districts for the faulty reporting, and perhaps that is so, but don’t federal officials have some obligation to at least spot check and verify numbers that seem so alarming? Apparently not.
Credit To NPR
NPR deserves a great deal of credit. Reporters there saw a federal report with numbers that seemed far too high and they went to work. They blew the whistle on some very sloppy data reporting and collection. Their work has received some attention from conservative media outlets, but because it does not support a pro-gun control narrative, it will quickly recede into the background. We’ve seen that happen before.
Earlier this year, Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox reported that based on the data he collected schools are safer now than they were in the 1990s. Again, not much media coverage. But, clearly, our national debate is not based on statistics. It is driven instead by the video images that have come across the television screens in our homes and on our smartphones wherever we are. Perception becomes reality.
Safety Is A Common Goal
No one needs to tell us about the dimensions of a true tragedy involving a school and its impact on a community. We know. We have our headquarters in Newtown, Connecticut, after all. We do not for one minute minimize the impact of the tragedies that have occurred.
We all want safer schools and communities. To achieve that goal, however, we must know we must rely on the sharing of accurate information, being willing to listen to one another, and engaging in civil discussion without name calling and political theatrics.
We all share the obligation to remain vigilant to threats and to work toward solutions that truly help improve our collective safety. The firearms industry has been playing such a role, as we will continue to tell the public, and we will continue to be part of the meaningful conversation toward progress.
Larry Keane is Senior Vice President and General Counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation.