The Committee on Priorities for a Public Health Research Agenda to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence, under the direction of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently published a study of findings related to violence and guns. Some of the results may come as a shock – to those on both sides of the gun control argument.
The study was conducted as part of the 23 Executive Actions signed by President Obama in January in an effort to reduce gun violence. The order specifically called to “issue a Presidential Memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes and prevention of gun violence.”
Some have posed the logical question as to why the CDC would become involved in such a study which focuses on gun violence when the priority of the agency lies in the preventing and control of diseases. The academic community chose to study gun violence as a public health problem, partly because, according to the study, “Violence, including firearm related violence, has been shown to be contagious.” Therefore, gun violence is being studied in the same manner of a contagious disease.
The study did, however, recognize the right to bear arms as a basic human right acknowledged by the United States Constitution.
“An individual’s right to own and possess guns was established in the U.S. Constitution and affirmed in the 2008 and 2010 Supreme Court rulings in District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. City of Chicago.”
The initial summary of the study reiterated the need for sound evidence from a scientific standpoint to produce public policies that will best support the rights of the people while still doing whatever possible to protect the public from potential threats of violence.
“The evidence generated by implementing a public health research agenda can enable the development of sound policies that support both the rights and the responsibilities central to gun ownership in the United States. In the absence of this research, policy makers will be left to debate controversial policies without scientifically sound evidence about their potential effects.”
While the problem of gun violence is multi-faceted with no one single solution, the study resulted in a whole plethora of useful information (the entire study can be read here).
There were five primary areas of interest on which the study focused: The characteristics of firearm violence, risk and protective factors, interventions and strategies, gun safety technology, and the influence of video games and other media.
It was found that there are vast differences in who is more likely to become a victim of gun violence, with primary factors lying in socioeconomic status and ethnicity. Homicide rates were shown to be significantly higher in African Americans, while suicide rates were higher in Caucasians.
Additionally, the study concluded that high rates of poverty, illicit drug trafficking and substance use all increase the risk of becoming involved in gun violence. In addition, “criminals often engage in violence as a means to acquire money, goods or other rewards.”
However, the study also inadvertently explored some of the myths surrounding what seems like a recent epidemic of gun violence, including accidental deaths and mass shootings.
According to the study, “Unintentional firearm-related deaths have steadily declined during the past century.” Accidental deaths resulting from firearms accounted for less than one percent of all unintentional fatalities in 2010.
“Mass shootings are a highly visible and moving tragedy, but represent only a small fraction of total firearm-related violence. … It is also apparent that some mass murder incidents are associated with suicides. However, the characteristics of suicides associated with mass murders are not understood.”
The study also explored an often overlooked statistic regarding suicide, especially among veterans. “Firearm-related suicides — though receiving far less public attention — significantly outnumber homicides for all age groups, with suicides accounting for approximately 60 percent of all firearm injury fatalities in the United States in 2009. In 2010, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death among individuals in the United States over the age of 10.”
Yet the study also looked at the effect of having firearms available for self-defense, and found that firearms are much more likely to be used in a defensive manner rather than for criminal or violent activity.
“Defensive uses of guns by crime victims is a common occurrence, although the exact number remains disputed. Almost all national survey estimates indicate that defensive gun uses by victims are at least as common as offensive uses by criminals, with estimates of annual uses ranging from about 500,000 to more than 3 million per year, in the context of about 300,000 violent crimes involving firearms in 2008.”
It was also discovered that when guns are used in self-defense the victims consistently have lower injury rates than those who are unarmed, even compared with those who used other forms of self-defense.
The study admitted that the results of interventions for reducing gun violence have been mixed, including strategies such as background checks and restriction of certain types of firearms, as well as having stricter penalties for illegal gun use. However, the study did reveal that “unauthorized gun possession or use is associated with higher rates of firearm violence than legal possession of guns.” In other words, law-breaking criminals are the ones most responsible for gun violence, not law-abiding citizens.
The study also looked at the source of guns used by most criminals, which helps to see partly why “there is empirical evidence that gun turn in programs are ineffective.”
“More recent prisoner surveys suggest that stolen guns account for only a small percentage of guns used by convicted criminals. … According to a 1997 survey of inmates, approximately 70 percent of the guns used or possessed by criminals at the time of their arrest came from family or friends, drug dealers, street purchases, or the underground market.”
In reference to gun safety technology, the study claims that “research from the injury prevention field indicates that changing products to make them safer is frequently more effective at reducing injury and death than trying to change personal behavior.”
With the latest gun debate, there has been more emphasis placed on violent video games, movies and other media. However, the study’s findings on the influence of these things were inconclusive.
“The vast majority of research on the effects of violence in media has focused on violence portrayed in television and the movies, although more recent research has been expanded to include music, video games, social media, and the Internet. Interest in media effects is fueled by the fact that youth are spending more time engaging with media that portrays increasing amounts of violence. Although research on the effects of media violence on real-life violence has been carried out for more than 50 years, none of this research has focused on firearm violence in particular as an outcome. As a result, a direct relationship between violence in media and real-life firearm violence has not been established and additional research is necessary.”
The results of this study were surprisingly unbiased for the most part and closely resemble the findings from a similar study conducted following the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994, in which the CDC concluded that there was “insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws reviewed for preventing violence.”