The Sacramento Bee

SB 877 would give California answers to many violent deaths

September 15, 2016

By Richard Pan and Lois Wolk

Somebody’s friend, parent or child – an average of 16 people each day – dies violently in California. These deaths are investigated by police, coroners, doctors and others. There may be a story in the newspaper or on television at which we shake our heads at the tragedy of it all. But it doesn’t have to stop there; we can prevent violent deaths if we have the data to understand the root causes.

Unfortunately, for 20 years, the National Rifle Association has bullied Congress into withholding national funding for research on gun violence, a leading contributor of violent deaths. But Californians are refusing to be cowed.

In this year’s state budget, California is implementing Senate Bill 1006 by Sen. Lois Wolk, establishing and funding the California Firearm Violence Research Center at UC Davis. But the research center needs more than money to find answers to this public health crisis. It needs one more critical thing: data.

That is why Sen. Richard Pan’s Senate Bill 877 is essential. SB 877 requires California to maintain a comprehensive data-tracking system on violent deaths in the state, including gun deaths, and to participate in the National Violent Death Reporting System.

From 2005 to 2008, county health departments collected data on violent deaths from several data sources – death certificates, coroner/medical examiner records, police reports and secondary sources including crime lab records, toxicological reports, child fatality review team data, hospital data and supplementary homicide reports. Counties provided this data to the National Violent Death Reporting System, which contains the data researchers need to study the causes of violent deaths.

Some current databases contain information from death certificates alone, which has information on the victim, but leaves out important data including the circumstances leading to the death, the perpetrator or other victims. Those databases miss the mark because they are not able to characterize the perpetrators, including their relationship to the victims.

Because the national reporting system is incident-based, not victim-based, each incident report contains information on the victim and suspect. The national reporting system links all the victims and suspects of one crime and provides a full picture of what occurred with 250 unique variables for each violent death. Counties already gather these variables.

SB 877 does not require any new data collection, but creates a comprehensive and integrated database of what we already collect. With this data, researchers can better determine the root causes of violent deaths, including gun deaths, as well as the effectiveness of our efforts to reduce them. Without this data, our policy debates on reducing gun violence will remain centered on ideology and guesswork instead of facts.

We have a public health crisis. Since 20 children and six adults were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary school in December 2012, there have been more than 180 shootings on school campuses. Gun deaths outpaced motor vehicle deaths in 21 states and the District of Columbia in 2014, according to the Violence Policy Center.

This wasn’t always so; auto fatalities previously far exceeded the number of gun deaths. That changed when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration established the Fatality Analysis Reporting System in 1975. Now, every time a person is killed on the road, agencies share information and provide the database with more than 100 unique variables. Thankfully, policymakers and agencies saw the wisdom of compiling this data. Analysis of data has resulted in safer cars and fewer motor vehicle deaths.

We do not have to accept the current tragedy of violent death and gun violence in California. We can prevent many of the violent deaths in California when we understand why they occur. The governor should sign SB 877 so we will have the high-quality data to understand how to reduce violent deaths including gun violence.

Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, represents the 6th Senate District. Contact him at Senator.Pan@senate.ca.gov. Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, represents the 3rd Senate District. Contact her at senator.wolk@senate.ca.gov.