In D.C., Most Gunshots Happen Near Schools

A new study uses gunshot-detection technology instead of police reports to track gun violence.

Washington's Bruce-Monroe Elementary School. About 54 percent of D.C. gunshots during the year occurred within 1,000 feet of a school.
Wikimedia Commons/ ParkViewDC
A new report sheds light on how often children in one city’s public schools encounter gunfire in a year's time.

The Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, looked at gunfire within 1,000 feet of public schools and public charter schools in Washington, D.C., during school hours in the 2011-2012 school year. The report suggests that government officials should pay attention to guns fired near a school, even if no police report is filed -- and tracking homicides or other common metrics from police reports may not be enough.

To measure the number of gun shots near schools, researchers used data from ShotSpotter, a technology that detects the sound of gunfire and triangulates the location of each gun shot. Of the 175 schools open during that school year, 116 fell within the technology's coverage area. The data show 336 gunshots fired during the school year. About 54 percent occurred within 1,000 feet of a school. The report noted that exposure to gunfire was concentrated near a few schools: about 9 percent of the schools experienced 48 percent of all gunfire.

To better understand the findings, Governing interviewed one of the report’s authors, Sam Bieler. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

The first thing that intrigued me here is that your unit of analysis was the sound of gunfire as a proxy for gun violence. How did you end up looking at that facet of overall gun activity?

Pretty much any gun shot fired in a city is a crime and so we were really excited by the possibilities of this new measure of gun crime. In the coming months, we’re going to be doing a lot of work, hammering out what exactly the relationship is between a gunshot and a gun assault. For a lot of families in these neighborhoods, we heard stories about [people] hearing gunshots and having to put their kids in bathtubs to protect them from the incoming rounds and people having their windows shot out.

Even when you don’t have something with a formal police report, like a homicide or a gun robbery, you still have gun violence in the form of gunfire inflicting a huge psychological toll on families. In many cases, there may be an economic toll, too. There’s probably huge property value implications if there’s bullets flying around a neighborhood.

Aside from schools, what other kinds of locations might you look at in terms of venues exposed to gunfire?

You can look at recreation centers. You can look at basketball courts. You can look at after-school community centers. You’d want to break it down for the community. A really good study would go in and ask kids, “where do you spend a lot of time?” If you have a bunch of kids who spend time in a particular park, you want to understand how much gunfire is in and around that park. Developing that local insight will be key to building out some really good research on this topic and understanding where gun violence is and how we can protect kids from it.

You mention access hours (8-9 a.m. and 3-4 p.m.) in the report. Why do you consider those to be so important?

This is when you’re going to a lot of kids who are outside and concentrated in small spaces at school entrances. This is when parents are dropping off kids. There’s a lot of kids waiting to go into school and a lot of kids filing in or out. This is when a gun shot going off is going to have the greatest audience, for lack of a better word. Incidents at these times are really big because you’re going to have a lot of kids involved and potentially a lot of kids affected.

If somebody from the D.C. City Council comes across this report, what are the main takeaways? What are policy implications from this initial round of research?

Gunfire is still a challenging issue. We need to be constantly working to put the services in place to develop plans that link police and service providers together and devise ways to bring that volume of gunfire down.

I would also urge policymakers to start funding research to figure out how we can generate information from this kind of data-driven intelligence to engage police, but also schools and community service providers. A lot of times, service providers are going to be the ones helping kids process the violence. They’re going to be the ones helping kids stay engaged academically, stay connected to their institutions. There really needs to be a lot more resources devoted to figuring out how we can protect kids from harm, understanding the harm, and then link that all together into one prevention network.

What’s next for your research on this issue?

We want to understand what this means to kids. Gunfire has this distinct sound, but we want to see how kids experience that. Can they identify gunfire and what effect does it have on them?

If Kid A hears 18 to 19 rounds of gunfire and Kid B hears two or three rounds of gunfire, is there a difference between the two of them? Does it affect their academic attainment? Does it affect their hopes for the future, how far they believe they can go in life?

Understanding gunfire’s effect on youth and on their perceptions of their academic chances, their economic chances, is really important. We hope to make that a big focus of our next work. The other part of this is understanding how we can use this to help guide policing and help guide service providers.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.