On Oct. 6, 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming, a 21-year-old man named Matthew Shepard was found tied to a fence post, pistol-whipped and left to die in freezing conditions.
That case, among others, was one datapoint in a pattern that Dallas Drake thought were going unnoticed: crimes against members of the LGBT community.
So Drake started keeping track.
A year later, he became the co-founder and principal researcher for the Center for Homicide Research, a Minneapolis nonprofit that researches homicide, with an emphasis on the kinds of victims that don’t usually make the nightly news. Gay people, for one. Black people, for another.
Jeff Mathwig is the center’s research manager. Before he got an internship there, he really didn’t think about homicide.
“When I did think about it, I was usually thinking about a drug deal gone bad, or a woman getting killed by a serial killer, or a mass shooting,” he says. And by “mass shooting,” he means a public mass shooting, in a public place, like a high school in Parkland, Florida.
Those are the kinds of homicides that get the most attention. The fact is, according to the center’s research, two-thirds of all mass shootings are family annihilations. About 95 percent of the time it means dad killing his wife and kids.
The idea behind the center is that if they get enough data, they can find patterns in how these crimes happen and how best to prevent them. They have a national LGBT homicide database -- the only one in the nation. They also have a church shooting database. And a permit to carry database. They even have a database that shows a connection between homicide and food scarcity in Native American communities.
They use that data to train police to recognize patterns in homicide cases – like signs that the victim might be a part of the LGBT community. They also field the occasional call from detectives asking for a second opinion on a crime. The center has enough data to know about certain patterns or circumstances that investigators may not see even over the course of a career. They also issue reports on matters such as how homicide impacts tax dollars.
But one of their main hopes is to get the attention of legislators. They want the people who make decisions about gun control and policing to know what the numbers are: that Middle Easterners are the ethnic group least likely to commit a school shooting, for example, or that nearly half of all church shooters are affiliated with the church – making enhanced security a questionable fix.
Mathwig fell in love with his job. Yes, the subject matter is disturbing. Yes, it means you occasionally get a call from a mom or a sister or a boyfriend -- not a dad, the dad pretty much never calls -- who has a terrible story about what happened to their loved one. You have to input everything about the woman and her boyfriend, who were hanging out with the woman’s daughter on her birthday. How the boyfriend stabbed the daughter multiple times. How he dumped her in a bathtub and set her on fire.
That is a true story. They also have a dismemberment database.
But Mathwig feels like he’s saving lives, even if he the only homicides he hears about are the ones they couldn’t prevent. The center is educating law enforcement on what to look for during investigations, and coming up with best practices for keeping homicides from happening, all based on data.
The problem is that nobody’s beating down the door for their data -- not unless someone they know has become a victim. The center has a grant from the Minneapolis Foundation, but their funding mostly comes from small donations. Homicide is just too grim for most people to want to dig deeper. The idea that people occasionally kill each other, and they do for as many reasons as there are killings, is a hard one to think about.
And then a gunman kills 58 people at a concert in Las Vegas. Or someone kills 26 people in a Texas church. That’s when people start bringing out their opinions.
They’ll start citing better school security as the silver bullet, or arming teachers, or getting rid of assault rifles, or focusing on mental health. More often than not, research and numbers aren’t a part of the conversation.
“There are so many types of homicides, and the reasons for these homicides are so vast, but people only want to focus on one thing,” Mathwig says. “These are much deeper issues than a two-answer solution can help.”
Here are the facts, according to the center’s data. The number of high school mass shootings has gone down in the past few years, but the number of college mass shootings has risen. Two out of every three homicides involve a firearm, and it’s usually a handgun, not an assault rifle. Often, even if a killer doesn’t have access to a firearm, they will still kill someone. They’ll find a knife. They’ll use their hands.
But the bottom line is that nobody goes on a knifing spree at a concert. No one commits a mass strangling in a Texas church. Gun control wouldn’t solve the psychological and sociological causes of homicide, but it would mean these events would be less lethal.
If we were able to somehow fix poverty and racism and get everyone the health care they needed, Mathwig says, we probably wouldn’t need gun control. But that stuff isn’t as easy to fix.
“[Gun control] would make it more difficult for people to kill each other, and then we could solve some of the sociological problems underneath,” he says.
Getting people in power to listen will be difficult. But they will keep working to find answers out of a growing pile of datapoints.