Opinion: Deep, detailed research needed to help lower gun violence

Credit: Luke Sharrett

Credit: Luke Sharrett

Solutions: Author: Our two objectives are to prevent gun violence deaths and injuries, and to protect the rights of law-abiding gun owners.

Many people think the solutions for gun violence are obvious and don’t see the need for research; they say we just need to enforce the laws we already have. But for many gun violence prevention policies, we don’t really know with any degree of certainty exactly how well they work, nor what their trade-offs are.

Our lack of lack of knowledge is embarrassing. A 2020 Rand analysis of the different types of gun laws concluded that there wasn’t strong evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness (or lack of effectiveness) of any of them — the definitive research just isn’t there. And when gun rights and gun safety advocates are polarized, radicalized, scared and distrustful, we need evidence that is both clear and compelling.

Such research can throw up surprises. For motor vehicle crashes, for example, studies have shown you can, perhaps shockingly, reduce intersection fatalities by 90% by replacing traffic lights with roundabouts — it turns out that drivers speed up when faced with a yellow light, turning what might be low-speed fender-benders into high-speed fatalities.

For suicides (which account for nearly 60% of gun deaths in the U.S.), research has shown that young people frequently act impulsively in the wake of an upsetting incident, rather than at the end of a long emotional struggle. If they must wait a week before they can run out and buy a gun, the impulse to commit suicide frequently passes.

It’s very hard to predict what’s going to work best when you have two simultaneous objectives. It’s like looking for a chemotherapy drug that has to both stop the tumor and protect the patient at the same time. Nothing but good research will show you what drugs will do that.

Our two objectives are to prevent gun violence deaths and injuries, and to protect the rights of law-abiding gun owners.

We can already identify some interventions that we think will do this: universal background checks, waiting periods, or keeping guns out of the hands of people convicted of domestic violence and other felonies or misdemeanors. Extreme-risk protective orders, also called “red-flag” laws, may be another way. We know enough to get started on these, but we will need to continue to collect data that will let us find out if they are working. We need to make sure that the programs and policies we implement are designed so they can be evaluated.

Unspeakable tragedies like the one in Texas are always followed by loud debates about what was really to blame, and how to best prevent it from happening again.

I believe that science will show us.

We have lost two decades of time to accelerate research on gun violence. But we can correct course. I believe there is a way out of this deadlock, a way to safety.

Like my relationship with Congressman Jay Dickey described in Sunday’s installment, the solution lies in mutual respect and conversation, not name-calling and conflict. With good research, we can have policies that both protect the right to own guns and prevent gun violence at the same time.

It’s time to dispel the myth that is killing us and move forward.

Dr. Mark Rosenberg is a physician-scientist trained in infectious diseases, psychiatry and public health. He served as founding director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control and also served as an assistant surgeon general.

This piece was produced by Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor published by Annual Reviews. Sign up for their weekly newsletter for more evidence-based stories on science.

Deeper-dive research

From the Annual Review of Public Health

“Considerations for Developing an Agenda for Gun Violence Prevention Research,” published April 2021.

Dr. Mark Rosenberg outlines a research agenda to guide the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, covering the scope of the problem of gun violence, its causes, effective preventative measures and best implementation. The full report can be found online at: https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-012420-105117

Editor’s note: Part 1 of this opinion package appeared in Sunday, June 19′s The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and on AJC.com/opinion.