A Skeptic’s Guide to Gun Violence Research

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A congressional subcommittee held a hearing last week on the state of gun violence research in the U.S. The conclusion? It’s shamefully incomplete.

As Andrew Morral of the Rand Corporation testified, “We know little about gun violence and its prevention compared to other safety and health threats, because the federal government has not had a comprehensive program of research in these areas for decades.”

Another drawback to gun research is the complexity of the landscape. Regulations are delineated by state and municipal borders. Yet guns easily cross state and city lines, along with the people who use them. Guns found at crime scenes in Chicago, for example, often originate in Indiana, Wisconsin or elsewhere — in fact, only 40 percent of the guns recovered in Chicago were purchased in Illinois.

And researchers are stymied by their inability to study relevant government records. “With very rare exceptions,” said Daniel Webster, a gun-violence expert at Johns Hopkins University, “researchers do not have access to granular-level data from crime gun traces conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.”

This helps explain why Morral and his Rand colleagues, after surveying thousands of studies, found largely inconclusive evidence about the effects of various gun policies on outcomes such as mass shootings and unintentional injuries. While they did conclude that some laws — including those that require comprehensive background checks and those that prevent child access — likely deter suicide and unintentional firearm deaths, other areas of research have mostly produced more questions.

Any other public health problem that caused so much death, injury and trauma would be a focus of intensive government research. But for years, legislators in thrall to the gun lobby have fought to keep researchers — and voters — in the dark.

One person who testified at the hearing took their side. John Lott, an economist whose own research has been vigorously contested by other scholars, cited a litany of private research efforts to make the case that gun research is actually plentiful and well-funded.

But he went on to argue that too much of the research is shoddy and lacks credibility. Owing to data limitations and human fallibility, he’s almost certainly correct in some cases. Fine. The solution to that problem is clear enough: more good research and better data. What’s needed is more funding, full access to federal gun and crime data, and a rigorous peer-review process to ensure that studies meet the highest standards.

The roadblocks to research need to be removed so America can learn the scope and costs of gun violence. 

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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