Expert Panel Offers Ideas for U.S. Gun Violence Research

5 June 2013 3:00 pm


Violent study. Research on U.S. gun violence needs to start with better data on how many firearms are in the country, a new report says.

After getting the cold shoulder from the federal government for 17 years, U.S. scientists who study the public health impact of gun-related violence are finally getting a warm embrace. A report issued today by the National Research Council (NRC) and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) lays out a national strategy for firearms research that identifies more than a dozen possible topics.

The report comes 5 months after President Barack Obama announced an end to the ban on public health research on gun violence by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that had been in place since 1996. The White House also asked NRC and IOM to organize a blue ribbon committee of firearms experts, criminologists, and public health scientists, which was charged with surveying the existing literature and coming up with recommendations for future research.

One key need, it says, is simply more and better information on how many guns are in the United States and how often they cause death or injury. "The problem is there just aren't any data," committee Chair Alan Leshner told ScienceInsider in a telephone interview. (Leshner is CEO of AAAS, publisher of ScienceInsider.) "Others on the committee may not have been surprised, but I was."

The best available estimates put firearm-related deaths in the United States at more than 30,000 per year, with twice as many nonfatal injuries. That is the highest rate among industrialized nations. But details about the circumstances of the deaths and injuries, let alone their causes, are often lacking. And the number of guns across the country—both legally and illegally owned—is simply unknown. Political lobbying groups such as the National Rifle Association have vigorously fought to prevent such data from being collected by the federal government.

Although research specifically focused on guns has been stymied, CDC has tallied gun deaths by analyzing data in its National Vital Statistics System. "These data are based on death certificates and represent a good count of gun deaths across the U.S. from all causes—suicide, homicide, and unintentional gun deaths," says Charles Branas, an epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who used them to compare urban versus rural gun deaths. A newer government database, the National Violent Death Reporting System, includes far more detail about each gun-related fatality, but so far it covers just 18 states.

As for getting data on the number and type of guns in the United States, Branas declined to comment on the advisability of creating a federal gun registry—an idea that has drawn extensive opposition from opponents of firearms regulation. "But I will say that there are survey methods [not involving gun registries] that could perhaps get us serviceable estimates."

Besides calling for more data and better coordination of existing data-collection efforts, the report names more than a dozen "high priority topics that could be explored with significant progress made in 3-5 years." For example, it calls for more research on biometric systems which could prevent guns from being fired by anyone other than their owners. The technology could "block any unintended access to weapons in the home, could prevent accidental deaths from mishandled weapons, eliminate the possibility of officers being killed by their own weapon, and potentially reduce the trafficking of stolen weapons," says panel member Donald Sebastian, a chemical engineer at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. But the lack of data is a stumbling block here, too. "Without baseline data [on gun-related fatalities] there really is no way to predict the number of lives that could be saved by [this] technology," he says.

The report also focuses on the need to explore "the relationship between exposure to media violence and real-life violence" -- a topic that has caused bitter disagreement, with some researchers arguing that mayhem in movies and video games incites violence, while others dispute any link. Given such conflict, the call for more study of the issue is good news, says Craig Anderson, a psychologist at Iowa State University in Ames who has studied media-related violence for decades. "I'm hoping that there will be funding for a large-scale longitudinal study of gun violence, one that includes good measures of media habits as well as various family, community, and biological factors."

Fresh funding could be on the horizon, says committee member Jeffrey Runge, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, "but that is not what this report is about. This is about coordination and leadership." With its new mandate and a research roadmap in hand, Runge hopes that CDC will lead the charge. "It is the premiere public health agency, and firearms violence has all the features of a big public health problem."

CDC declined an interview request, saying only that the agency "thanks the IOM for developing the report in a timely manner and looks forward to reviewing the report."

The committee briefs Congress on its report today.

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