Did Gun Violence Actually Surge in 2022?
Trying to make sense of NCVS 2022.
The 2022 version of the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) was published last week and it’s a doozy!
As a reminder, NCVS is the nation’s other way of counting crime. As the name implies, NCVS is a survey of crime victims which attempts to account for the fact that crime is frequently not reported to the police. Because it is a survey, NCVS comes with decent sized error bars which until last year have not been seen in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.
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So what does NCVS 2022 show? Well, the biggest eye opener is the suggestion that there was likely a massive increase in violent victimizations in 2022. The survey shows a 44 percent increase in total violent victimizations from 2021 to 2022 with a slightly smaller but still large 29 percent increase in violent victimizations reported to the police.
I say ‘likely’ because the error bars mean the increase in total violent victimizations could have been much smaller and there might not have been any increase in violent victimizations not reported to the police.
NCVS does not measure homicides because dead people tell no tales, but it does measure “firearm victimizations.” These are defined as “violent crimes in which the offender possessed, showed, or used a firearm.” According to NCVS, firearm victimizations surged by an incredible 96 percent in 2022 relative to 2021 with a 64 percent increase in firearm victimizations reported to police.
I have a little trouble accepting this finding as correct given how it does not conform to the other available evidence1. It sounds like NCVS is saying there was a huge surge in shootings last year while the FBI’s NIBRS data is likely to say the opposite.
But “firearm victimizations” does not inherently equate to shootings. Based on the above definition, a simple assault with a firearm present would count as a “firearm victimization.” As always, it is important to be careful with squishier crime definitions.
There are two known facts and two assumptions that give me pause when considering the meaning of NCVS’s measurement of “firearm victimizations.”
Fact 1: There is good evidence that shootings fell in 2022 in most big cities with available data.
Fact 2: The big city data matches what we see in Gun Violence Archive data which points to a 5 percent drop in fatal and non-fatal shooting victims (not counting suicides).
Assumption 1: The vast majority of shooting victims are successfully reported to the police. Perhaps some shooting victims don’t receive a police report, but that figure is likely to be pretty low.
Assumption 2: There is unlikely to be a huge increase in shootings or firearm discharges without a measurable increase in reported fatal and non-fatal shootings.
So, while NCVS points to a surge in firearm victimizations, this does not equate to a surge in shootings in light of the other evidence which points to a decline. I have two theories to make sense of this confusion though they are nowhere near as strongly informed as I typically like my analyses to be.
First, the operative word in the definition of firearm victimization may be “possessed”. We know that firearm sales have surged since the start of COVID, and more guns have been recovered in crimes. It is possible that more people carrying guns plus the survey picking up more violent crimes would naturally lead to more guns being around in violent crimes.
Second, COVID may have played a bit of havoc with the figures recorded in NCVS in 2020 and 2021. The 2020 report has a disclaimer noting:
“Due to increasing risks related to COVID-19, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), in coordination with the U.S. Census Bureau, suspended all incoming sample interviews and shifted all returning sample interviews to telephone calls starting in mid-March 2020 (figure 2).
In July 2020, modified personal visits resumed in some geographic areas for returning sample households, based on applicable federal, state, and local guidance at that time. These modifications allowed field representatives (FRs) to leave survey information at respondents’ doors and to classify vacant or abandoned properties. Without the FR’s visit, these households would have been misclassified as nonrespondents.
In October 2020, personal visits resumed for both incoming and returning sample households, under modified procedures and subject to federal, state, and local guidance. Interviews were primarily conducted over the phone through the end of 2020.”
I’m not an expert on survey methodology and do not know what impact this methodological change had on the final numbers, but NCVS 2020 showed a 27 percent decline in firearm victimizations from 2019 to 2020 with another 7 percent decline in the 2021 survey. Those changes make zero sense in light of the available evidence from both the FBI and Gun Violence Archive showing a large, widespread increase in gun violence nationwide in 2020 and a smaller rise in 2021.
If we ignore the 2020 and 2021 NCVS surveys as being a bit wonky then firearm victimizations were up around 33 percent in 2022 relative to 2019. That’s a larger percent change than where murder is likely to end up when the FBI releases its data in the next month, but not by a crazy high amount. In other words, it is plausible that the firearm victimization figures are largely correct for 2022 if we take away the post-COVID weirdness of 2020 and 2021.
If violent crime was higher in 2022 than in 2019 — very plausible — and more people were carrying guns — highly likely — then a sizable increase in firearm victimizations in 2022 relative to 2019 makes sense. Ultimately, I’ll defer to people smarter than me on the NCVS survey methodology to say whether my read is a sensible one or a hopeless grasp for order amidst a sea of data chaos.
Plus my natural squishiness about the reliability of surveys for precision.