Editorial Board

What We Know About Gun Violence

Lack of research can be lethal. But policy makers aren’t entirely in the dark.

Let’s start with the facts.

Photographer: Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images

If Americans were 25 times as likely to die of cancer as citizens of other wealthy nations, the federal government would be pouring billions into research to find the causes.

Yet there is much less interest in examining why the U.S. gun homicide rate is 25 times as high as in peer countries. For Americans ages 15 to 24, the rate is 49 times as high. Among two dozen wealthy nations combined, nine of every 10 youths murdered with a gun are Americans, as are nine of 10 women. No other successful nation tolerates a tide of roughly 100 shooting deaths per day.

The U.S. government has spent just 1.6 percent as much on gun policy research in recent decades as it has on other leading causes of mortality, such as traffic crashes or sepsis, the RAND Corporation has found.

As the National Rifle Association begins its annual meeting this week in Dallas, it’s worth asking why America’s gun lobby is so famously allergic to research, preferring slogans to data. Sympathetic members of Congress years ago put gun-violence research on ice. And while there are signs of a thaw, actual funding levels remain low — and uncertain.

What research has been done, often with private funding, illuminates certain trends. It’s clear, to begin, that more guns generally correlate to more gun violence. This is true internationally. It’s also true across the U.S.: States with lower rates of gun ownership tend to have lower rates of firearm mortality

Photographer: Elaine He

In Hawaii, between 2000 and 2015, the number of firearms registered rose 244 percent and the number imported increased 214 percent. Yet the state consistently has one of the nation’s lowest rates of gun violence.

One likely reason is strict gun laws. The state requires all gun buyers to obtain a permit and virtually all guns to be registered with local police. The state regulates purchases and possession of ammunition. It bans many semi-automatic handguns and large-capacity ammunition magazines. Gun sellers, meanwhile, must obtain a state license and renew it annually. And they are subject to inspection by local police.

In addition, Hawaii has an ocean between itself and states with lax gun laws. Chicago, where gang violence is fueled in part by guns purchased in Indiana, Mississippi and elsewhere, enjoys no such buffer.

New Hampshire also has relatively little gun violence but very different characteristics: It combines weak laws with a relatively low level of gun ownership. Alaska, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi all have weak laws and high rates of gun ownership — a combination that appears reliably lethal.

The data also reveal a clear association between gun prevalence and the risk of suicide. Here, Alaska, with very high rates of both, is a leading example. And, no, those who kill themselves with an available gun would not necessarily commit suicide otherwise. Most who attempt suicide “act on impulse, in moments of panic or despair,” gun violence researcher David Hemenway of Harvard University has explained. “Once the acute feelings ease, 90 percent do not go on to die by suicide.”

Credit: Elaine He

Curtailing gun violence requires two distinct actions: identifying high-risk individuals, and then effectively keeping them from getting hold of firearms. Diversion of guns to criminals can be curtailed, Daniel Webster of Johns Hopkins University and Garen Wintemute of the University of California at Davis have found, by requiring permits to buy guns and comprehensive background checks, by maintaining strict oversight of gun dealers, and by requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms.

What’s striking is how few of such policies are in effect nationwide. Comprehensive background checks, perhaps the most obvious and intuitive of all efforts to keep guns out of the wrong hands, have been repeatedly undermined in Congress. The huge private-sale loophole enables a thriving market for criminals, multiple investigations have shown. Yet the gun lobby insists on maintaining the loophole, and Congress complies.

Photographer: Elaine He

Similarly, gun dealers face minimal regulation. Many guns used in crimes are traced to the same rogue merchants. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lacks the resources to inspect dealers regularly, and the gun lobby has succeeded in erecting hurdles to oversight. When a single, troublesome gun dealer in Milwaukee tightened its sales practices, the number of its guns traced to crimes abruptly dropped by 73 percent.

Research has also shown that domestic abusers who possess a gun are five times as likely to kill victims as those who do not. From 2001 to 2012, at least 6,410 women were murdered in the U.S. by an intimate partner who used a firearm. Such findings have led numerous states to adopt laws prohibiting abusers from buying or possessing firearms. 

Studies have also confirmed the effectiveness of safe-storage laws to keep guns away from children.

Data on other elements of gun violence are often incomplete or inconsistent. The patchwork of state laws and the robust black market in guns make it difficult to determine which specific laws best deter violence or whether factors other than regulations also play a role. Greater investment in more comprehensive gun research is essential to overcome such hurdles.

The gun lobby will always dispute whatever data conflict with its agenda. But facts have weight. Consider this one: More Americans have died from gun violence in the past half century than in all U.S. wars combined.

Congress should aggressively fund research to determine which state and national laws can stem the bloodshed.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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