Bringing Science to Bear, at Last, on the Gun Control Debate

Despite the restrictions on CDC funding, research into gun violence has actually increased in recent years. How can the findings inform public policy?

February’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which resulted in 17 killed and 17 more wounded, horrified people across the country, spurring student walkouts and marches in support of stricter gun control laws, including universal, comprehensive background checks and a ban on assault weapons. But gun debates in the United States have proven to be contentious and intractable. Indeed, even as thousands rally for new legislation, opponents contend that such measures won’t prevent determined criminals from obtaining a firearm and that responsible gun ownership makes communities safer.

Research into gun violence has actually increased in recent years, rising from less than 90 annual publications in 2010 to 150 in 2014.

In charting a course forward, it is necessary to move beyond “people’s anecdotal opinions,” says David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. He and other researchers are analyzing data and conducting studies with the ultimate goal of informing public policy. It’s a tough task, in part because of a by now well-known piece of legislation called the Dickey Amendment, passed by Congress in 1996 with support of the National Rifle Association. This amendment prevented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using funds “to advocate or promote gun control.” It didn’t ban federally-funded gun research, but the legislation had a chilling effect: from 1996 to 2013, CDC funding in this area dropped by 96 percent.

Against this backdrop, it can be easy to overlook an important fact: Research into gun violence has actually increased in recent years, rising from fewer than 90 annual publications in 2010 to 150 in 2014. Universities, think tanks, private philanthropy — even the state of California — have been offering support. And last Wednesday, governors from six northeastern states and Puerto Rico announced plans to launch a research consortium to study the issue. A December 2017 policy article published in the journal Science describes a “surge” of recent scientific publications. “The scope and quality of gun-related research is growing,” write the authors, a pair of researchers from Duke and Stanford, “with clear implications for the policy debate.” This research has generated significant findings about suicide, intimate partner violence, community health, and the effect of various state-level gun laws.


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More than 36,000 people are killed by gunshot in the U.S. every year, making it a leading cause of death in the country, comparable to that of motor vehicles incidents. Among those deaths, nearly two-thirds are suicides. “A gun in the home increases the risk of someone in that home dying from suicide maybe threefold, and the evidence is overwhelming,” Hemenway says.

A conventional view holds that if people really want to kill themselves, they will find a way to do it — with or without a gun. Yet the data suggest that households with guns do not differ from those without guns when it comes to mental health risk for suicide. Instead, the difference seems to stem from the fact that suicide attempts with a gun are usually fatal, unlike attempts with pills, for example. Putting time and distance between a suicidal person and a gun can save that person’s life.

This line of thinking is supported by a recent study published in the Journal of Surgical Research, which found that states with weaker gun laws have more gun-related suicide attempts, which tend to be associated with higher mortality. Rodrigo Alban, a surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, and his colleagues analyzed data on about 35,000 subjects spanning 14 years. Almost two-thirds of the firearm suicide attempts occurred in states with the lowest rating by the nonprofit Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence — mostly states in the South and West. These states had little to no gun legislation, such as background checks, concealed weapons laws, and safe storage laws.

Of course, correlation doesn’t imply causation, and Alban and his co-authors identify a need for research that pinpoints which particular laws have the greatest effect on reducing suicide attempts. But in the meantime, in light of these findings, they conclude that, “Efforts aimed at nationwide standardization of firearm state laws are warranted.”

Another route to reducing gun violence, academics suggest, is to identify risk factors that increase a person’s chances of harming themselves or others. Such individuals could then be considered for gun violence restraining orders. This was the logic behind the 1968 Gun Control Act, which specified narrow categories of people disqualified from buying or owning guns, including convicted felons and people committed to mental institutions. The 1994 Violence Against Women Act and the subsequent Lautenberg Amendment followed to bolster protections for victims of domestic violence, but because they only apply to people who are currently or formerly married, live or have previously lived together, or have shared children, Susan Sorenson, a professor of social policy and public health at the University of Pennsylvania, says they fail to protect a growing portion of the population who are not in marital relationships, who can be just as violent.

A separate study by Carolina Díez of Boston University assessing state laws confirms Sorenson’s conclusions. Domestic violence homicide rates drop by 10 percent in states prohibiting intimate partners with restraining orders from owning guns and requiring them to relinquish them.

Some states have gone a step further and passed so-called “risk-warrant” laws. In 1999, Connecticut became the first to pass such legislation allowing police to obtain a warrant to temporarily remove guns from someone who poses an imminent hazard to themselves or others. Garen Wintemute, an emergency room physician at the University of California, Davis Medical Center and director of the Violence Prevention Research Program, advocates for gun violence restraining orders based, in part, on a 2016 evaluation of Connecticut’s law. He also points to individual cases where such laws would have made a difference: “The Parkland shooter was making all kinds of public pronouncements,” Wintemute argues. “A gun violence restraining order would’ve allowed his family or law enforcement to go to a judge and get an order that would’ve gotten that gun taken away from him and prevented the shooting.”


Following the barrage of nearly daily shootings, some researchers have begun to call for a community-wide approach, rather than only focusing on high-risk individuals. Charles Branas, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, says that poverty can contribute to gun violence within communities.

“Hopefully these policy debates have some science behind them.”

In their latest research, Branas and his colleagues examined hundreds of vacant land plots and abandoned buildings in U.S. cities, with a special focus on Philadelphia. These abandoned spaces, like old parking lots and homes, often become places to store illegal firearms. Millions of people live near and walk by these spaces, which can cause community members to feel unsafe or stressed. Using a randomized control design, Branas found that even just planting trees and plants and boarding up windows and doors can make a difference. “Gun violence can be sustainably reduced in poor neighborhoods of those cities by as much as 29 percent,” he says. “These cost peanuts. The return on investment is very high, because shootings are very expensive events.”

For all the progress made in the study of gun violence, gaps still remain. In March, the RAND Corporation released a meta-analysis of thousands of studies published since 2003. The report states that, “Federal funding for research on gun-related mortality is far below levels for other sources of mortality in the United States.” As a result, more research is warranted in virtually all aspects of gun control policy, including on officer-involved shootings, defensive gun use, gun-free zones, the gun industry, and lost or stolen firearms, to name a few.

The latest federal budget, passed by Congress and signed by President Trump in March, may offer some assistance, as it technically allows the CDC to fund research on gun violence. It doesn’t reverse the Dickey Amendment, however, and CDC officials may still face resistance when trying to support such research. In any case, it’s ultimately up to lawmakers, and the public they answer to, to determine how to balance Second Amendment rights with scientific data.

“Hopefully these policy debates have some science behind them,” Hemenway says. “Everything we learn should matter and should have an effect.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece attributed the lack of protection for domestic violence victims to the 1968 Gun Control Act. It is the later 1994 Violence Against Women Act and the 1996 Lautenberg Amendment that relate to guns and domestic violence.

Ramin Skibba is an astrophysicist turned science writer and freelance journalist who is based in San Diego. He has written for Newsweek, Slate, Scientific American, Nature, Science, among other publications. He can be reached on Twitter at @raminskibba.

Top visual: Julie Dermansky / Contributor/Getty
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21 comments / Join the Discussion

    Milking it? So that must mean the father’s and mothers also out there….who lost children in the shooting..must be milking it.

    Thank God for those kids..Keep “milking it”

    Reply

    In science, the conclusion follows the research. Research done to justify a predetermined conclusion is not science, but propaganda. That was the kind of research banned by the Dickey Amendment. So why did the amount of ‘research’ decrease after that amendment ‘chilled’ research? Because the so-called researchers wanted to do that anti-science research! If they wanted to do *real*, scientific research, instead of goal-oriented phone research, the funds were there and there was *no* prohibition on it. That kind of crappy, phony research is still done today by people friendly to the gun control bigots. It is almost all one sees in the mainstream media, and factually, it counts for *nothing*. If this or any other author relies upon that type of research, he or she is an out and out liar and ought to be publicly shamed for it.

    Reply

    First, the benefits of people having guns used to avoid crimes must always be stated. Gun avoided crimes are at least 20 times the number of gun related deaths, from which, 2/3 are suicides.
    Second, if you believe abortion is a right, so must be suicide. And with more reason, as it takes only the decision maker’s life, and not one of a child not able to help decide.
    Third, all tyrannies start with disarming citizens before dominating them.
    This should be enough to stop this gun control discussion and hystery.
    But there is one more argument: guns don’t kill people by themselves. Someone, the killer, must use them. As London and Germany now prove, ban guns and criminals willo kll with knives. Ban knives and they will kill with cars, or hammers, or baseball bats, or…

    Reply

    There is so much factually incorrect in this piece, it’s hard to know where to start, so I won’t. It’s too bad a publication claiming to be pro science can publish such irrevocably biased assertions. Here’s a CDC study for you. The estimate that several hundred thousand defensive firearm uses occur each year, was pulled back after publication. It needed to be revised. Upwards. Those responsible for the study figured because of their sample size, the figure should have been upwards of 700,000 times a year. These go largely unreported as the only crime that ends up occurring is the would be criminals wounded pride. Simply displaying a firearm in many cases can be enough to prevent the crime from happening. Where are your data sets on that? Pardon me if I don’t hold my breath while waiting.

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    How many times do we have to remind everyone that there is no such thing as “gun violence” – violence is an act committed by a person (probably not a human being). It matters not what the instrument used is, well unless it is a gun, then it becomes the ‘evil’ instead of the evil person.
    IOW – start with a faulty premise, reach a faulty conclusion.

    Reply

    Astrophysics & California moonbeams, this ‘truth’is so slanted ,it’s weight will pull it over,IF GRAVITY STILL SUCKS…Seems,Lenin was right (at least once): repeat a lie enough times & it becomes truth. “SCIENCE” , added to ‘REVISIONIST HISTORY’; I wish The clueless would stick to their areas of ‘expertise'( & HAND ME a blackhole, someday!)

    Reply

    When you write propaganda stories like this that obviously attempt to taint gun ownership with an intermingling of not really facts to try and make facts you completely lose all of your “science” credibility. You’re trying to turn suicides into gun violence. It’s not. You stated gun violence is up there with leading causes of death, it’s not. Take your number of gun related deaths, use a little “science” and compare it with gun ownership preventing deaths and you’ll find a negative component. The more you twist the truth to continue your lie, you look rediculous and sacrifice real science for political hackery. Articles like this set information backwards because it’s complete propaganda.

    Reply

    Well I see one side of the coin is written about, now how about the other side? How many thousands of times are guns in the hands of citizens able to stop a violent attack, robbery, looting, or killing?
    Article states that cars kill as many or more, so why do we let everyone have a car? Why not institute mass transit for everyone to cut down those deaths? The supreme court has already ruled that driving is not a right.
    I get that some people that are anti-gun live in a small town with hardly a chance of any shootings. But that shouldn’t be the standard for the whole country.
    There are still people that can see thru the media’s attempt to whip people into a frenzy to push a anti gun agenda.
    But this isn’t a gun issue, its a safety issue for our kids. Instead of doing something that would actually curb these attacks, anti-gun politicians use these kid’s deaths to push an agenda.
    We make our government buildings safe, banks safe, I even went into the local Social Security office and saw a ARMED GUARD! WTH!?!
    But for schools we use signs & posters!??
    Get rid of the No Gun Zones and let CC bring their weapons of if they choose to. (Not an armed camp, just STOP advertising these places where the nuts can go to kill kids!)

    Or they can go on blaming a organization that represents MILLIONS of gun owners, and try to strip people’s rights to defend themselves…and which they have done so thru the years.
    Battle of Athens 1946 WWII vets break into a armory and attack corrupt government officials (they even made a movie about it.)
    1965 Watts riots, 1980 Miami Riots, 1992 LA Riots (Store owners were on their roofs with rifles with large capacity magazines)
    Or for the younger crowd we have hurricane Katrina, again looting & killing. But people were able to defend themselves, at least until the National Guard showed up and threatened to kill citizens unwilling to give up their guns. How many times has our National Guard been called out to kill their own citizens? (When Unions were being formed or when protests broke out…Kent State, Jackson University, & New Mexico University) They bayoneted the college kids at New Mexico.
    Maybe people don’t think they need a ‘assault’ type weapon, but they don’t speak for me….maybe they think our Government could never turn on us…it could never happen in America….BUT IT ALREADY HAS!
    Remember that before you give up this right so readily.

    Reply

    Suicide/self-determination is just as much a human right as self-defense. End the totalitarian infringements now!

    Reply

    Judging from the comments (and others around the web on gun issues), the hardcore pro-gun advocates are worried that public opinion is swinging the pendulum toward improving gun control which they seem to interpret as complete gun bans and confiscation. I.E.the slippery slope fallacy. I appreciate the findings and suggestions in this article. As a long time gun owner, I think that more research and data should be welcomed on gun violence in America.

    Reply

    “the legislation had a chilling effect: from 1996 to 2013, CDC funding in this area dropped by 96 percent.” – Well, if we can’t immediately arrive at the conclusion we want, why bother funding the “research”?
    If we can all agree that:
    1. Self defense against any unlawful attack is a basic human right.
    2. That as a basic human right, self defense is and should always be considered a Civil Right of the People and thus the exercise of that right must be immune from restriction, infringement, licensing or taxation by Government at any level.
    3. That the Civil Rights of the People are not subject to the approval of the Majority Opinion and belong to every Individual regardless of their social status.
    4. That any infringement, restriction, licensing requirements or taxation levied on the free exercise of a Civil Right is a violation of that right.
    5. That any law, policy or rule that prohibits or discourages the free exercise of any Civil Right is an infringement on that right.
    6. That if a law, policy or rule that prohibits or discourages a Citizen from legally acquiring the tools, weapons or means to freely exercise their Civil Rights, then their rights have been infringed.
    -Then it follows that those who advocate for the preservation of the right of the People to keep and bear arms are, in fact, Civil Rights advocates. It also follows that those who oppose the right of the People to keep and bear arms are against the People’s civil rights.
    We have a word for people who advocate for or try to use the force of law to infringe on the civil rights of others: we call them Bigots. 🤠

    Reply

    Painkillers kill far more people than guns. Let’s ban those too.

    If someone commits suicide, it should not affect my right to own a target pistol for recreation.

    Reply

    Tom, we both know that suicides are irrelevant to the conversation as suicidal fruitcakes will find a way to make the world a better place and kill themselves. That’s hardly a national health issue (and accounts for more than 2/3 of your numbers.) Accidental shootings are so rare as to be roundable to zero… as for homicides… You want to drop homicides? Stop letting drug dealers and gangbangers out of prison. 80% of homicides in the US are gang or drug related. Make gang membership and narcotics offences punishable by summary execution and the homicide rate will drop like a rock.

    Reply

    “Susan Sorenson, a professor of social policy and public health at the University of Pennsylvania” did she eat the monkey?

    Reply

    Hi, big fan of Undark articles. I am a very active Canadian target shooter. I have a really in depth (imho) perception on firearms in both Canada and the USA. I know most of the statistics for both countries. I start off saying this to show my own bias toward owning guns.
    My opinion is that when it comes to overall societal harm, we tend to think about an “easy” fix. There is no easy fix to gun crime (in either country) I believe that for the USA, if there was more investment into: preventing for profit prisons, having low education funding, infrastructure all crumbling (schools, poison water,etc) Having more community centres for youth, having access to healthcare, mental healthcare among many other factors. My point is in Canada (and I assume the US) 90% of gun crime happens in “low income” areas. So the connection to poverty is undeniable. With poverty comes many of the things I listed as problematic. I truly believe that if those factors were fixed, gun crime would disappear.
    But they are not easy problems to fix. So people want something fixed NOW, and much of “banning” guns is a result of this cry for change.
    The USA does imo, need to have some controls on access to firearms. Canada has a very strong control system that in some ways is actually more relaxed than the US (like owning short barrel shotguns, or having guns delivered to your door from the store by mail) But Canada does NOT have the violence with firearms issue. (200ish murders by gun/yr) I think healthcare, education, social safety nets are all the reason why.
    Fixing the “gun” problem is really just fixing peoples desperation enough to commit violence.
    There are a multitude of factors and ways to accomplish societal harm reduction, without “banning guns”.
    But they are hard fixes.
    If anyone at Undark would like any Canadian firearm content, If I don’t know it, I can find out for you. This was a bit rambly but I hope my point was made. Thanks for the great content. I don’t usually respond like this but big fan and gun owner, thought I would.

    Reply

    You know what Howard? Most mass shootings are committed with handguns, not ARs. That one 9mm pistol is all that is needed for a mass shooting.

    Reply

    seriously. How are they milking this? They are advocating for gun control so that what happened to them and their friends won’t happen again. I’m sorry this makes you physically sick. I’m sure those kids are physically sick when they remember what they went through. What they have to say is more meaningful because of what they went through. They are listened to because they are teenagers and they were targeted and killed in a place they should be safe.

    Reply

    “More than 36,000 people are killed by gunshot in the U.S. every year, making it a leading cause of death in the country, comparable to that of motor vehicles incidents.” This statement is a flat lie. I stopped reading after this because if you are willing to lead with a lie this big, I don’t have time to research all the other facts and figures you are using to see if you are actually telling the truth about anything.

    “Truth, Beauty, Science.”….or not.

    Reply

    Hi Chris – Just want to point you to the CDC report from which that figure was obtained, dated November, 2017. The number includes all homicides, suicides, and accidental shootings for 2015, which is the reference year. You can find the analysis at the link below. Search for “firearm mortality” within the document.

    https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr66/nvsr66_06.pdf

    All best,

    Tom Zeller Jr.
    Editor in Chief, Undark Magazine
    Knight Science Journalism @MIT

    Reply

    I would ban all guns except for 1 hunting rifle (traditional) and one 9mm pistol per person. But I’m sick of those kids milking what happend. They are in the press again today. Not the action of traumatised kids but kids cashing in on their dead friends. Sorry but that’s what I see. And I’m physically sick of them doing it.

    Reply
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