Data on firearms and violence too weak to settle policy debates


Comprehensive research effort needed

WASHINGTON -- The role of guns in U.S. society is a subject of intense policy debate and disagreement. However, current research and data on firearms and violent crime are too weak to support strong conclusions about the effects of various measures to prevent and control gun violence, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. A comprehensive research program on firearms is needed if criminal-justice and crime-prevention policy is to have a sound basis.

Some of today's most pressing policy issues in this area cannot be tackled with existing data and research methods, which are weak, the report says. For example:

  • There is no credible evidence that "right-to-carry" laws, which allow qualified adults to carry concealed handguns, either decrease or increase violent crime. To date, 34 states have enacted these laws.

  • There is almost no evidence that violence-prevention programs intended to steer children away from guns have had any effects on their behavior, knowledge, or attitudes regarding firearms. More than 80 such programs exist.

  • Research has found associations between gun availability and suicide with guns, but it does not show whether such associations reveal genuine patterns of cause and effect.

    "Policy questions related to gun ownership and proposals for gun control touch on some of the most contentious issues in American politics: Should regulations restrict who may possess firearms? Should there be restrictions on the number or types of guns that can be purchased? Should safety locks be required? These and many related policy questions cannot be answered definitively because of large gaps in the existing science base," said Charles F. Wellford, professor, department of criminology and criminal justice, University of Maryland, College Park, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. "However, we do know what kind of data and research are needed to fill those gaps and, in turn, inform policy debates in a more meaningful way."

    The study committee was not asked to address any issues of policy and did not do so. Rather, the committee evaluated the research base on firearms violence and on prevention, intervention, and control strategies. It also explored how new methods of merging scientific findings and data could inform strategies for reducing gun-related crime, suicide, and accidental fatalities. The federal government should support a robust research program in this area, concluded the committee.


    Research linking firearms to criminal violence and suicide is seriously limited by a lack of credible information on who owns firearms and on individuals' encounters with violence, the report says. Moreover, many studies have methodological flaws or provide contradictory evidence; others do not determine whether gun ownership itself causes certain outcomes.

    Assessing the potential of several ongoing national surveys to provide useful data on firearms should be a starting point, the report says. For instance, questions about gun use and access could be added to or fine-tuned in the Monitoring the Future project or the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. For research purposes, scientists also need appropriate access to federal and state data on gun use, manufacturing, and sales.

    One of the largest barriers to better understanding gun violence is the lack of high-quality and extensive data on gun ownership and use. Some people have expressed concerns about expanding the government's data on gun ownership. Others have noted that some individuals -- especially those who use guns illegally -- will always be reluctant to disclose ownership information. Yet scientists in other fields, such as health care, have found effective ways to collect individual data on sensitive topics while protecting privacy. Research is needed -- and can indeed be done -- to determine whether ownership data can be accurately collected with minimal risk to legitimate privacy concerns, the report says.


    Many Americans keep firearms to defend themselves against criminals, but research devoted to understanding the defensive and deterrent effects of guns has resulted in mixed and sometimes widely divergent findings, the report says. In addition, the accuracy of responses in gun-use surveys is a topic that has not been thoroughly investigated. The committee called for systematic research to define what is being measured in studies of defensive and deterrent effects of guns, to reduce reporting errors in national gun-use surveys, and to explore ways that different data sets may be linked to answer complex questions.

    Likewise, new research tools are needed to evaluate right-to-carry laws. Existing studies that use similar methods and data yield very dissimilar findings. Some studies indicate that the laws reduce violent crime. Other studies show negligible effects, while still others suggest that they increase violent crime. It is impossible to draw any strong conclusions about their effects from these studies, the report says.


    Firearms are bought and sold in both formal markets, such as gun shops, and informal ones, such as the underground economy. Market-based interventions aimed at reducing criminals' access to guns include taxes on weapons and ammunition, limits on the number of firearms that can be purchased in a given time period, and gun "buy back" initiatives. Arguments for and against these approaches are largely based on speculation rather than scientific evidence. Data on gun markets -- on how many guns are sold through various channels, or how systematically background checks are performed, for instance -- are virtually nonexistent. Greater attention should be paid to research design and data needs regarding gun markets, the report says. More studies also should be conducted on potential links between firearms policies and suicide rates.

    Programs created to prevent gun violence are common in the nation's public schools. However, the actual effects of particular programs on violence and injury rates are difficult to predict, the report says. Some studies suggest that children's curiosity and teenagers' attraction to risk make them resistant to the programs or that the projects actually increase the appeal of guns. But few programs have been adequately evaluated. Gun-safety technologies, such as trigger locks, also have been proposed as a way to prevent injuries. Yet how these technologies affect injury rates remains unknown. Government programs for prevention of firearm violence should include evaluation.

    Available scientific evidence on how policing interventions and tougher sentencing policies affect firearms violence is both limited and mixed, the report adds. Several cities, including Boston and Richmond, Va., have implemented highly publicized programs designed to suppress crime and gun offenses. It is difficult to gauge the value of the measures because social and economic factors behind criminal acts are often complex and interwoven, and the efforts are narrow in scope. Without much better research, the benefits and costs of policing and sentencing interventions remain largely unknown.

    Data limitations are immense in the study of firearms and violence, the committee emphasized. The report calls for the development of a National Violent Death Reporting System and a National Incident-Based Reporting System. No single data system can answer all questions about violent events, but it is important to start collecting accurate and reliable information that describes basic facts about violent injuries and deaths.

    The report includes a dissenting opinion written by one committee member regarding the effects of right-to-carry laws on homicide rates, and a response by the committee.

    The study was sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Joyce Foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

    Source: Eurekalert & others

    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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