UPDATED: The Disturbing Facts of Gun Violence Research in the US

March 1, 2018 | 10:07 am
Photo: St. Louis Circuit Attorney's Office/Wikimedia
Kathleen Rest
Former Executive Director

UPDATE (August 5, 2019): Heartbreaking, horrifying. Words fail in describing the back-to-back mass shootings and senseless loss of life in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio this past weekend. Until more carnage happens—a certainty at this point given the shameful inaction of our elected officials to stem the tide of gun violence—there have now been 251 mass shootings in this country this year. That’s more than one a day.

This is a national disgrace and a public health tragedy. Gun violence prevention is not a pipe dream. There is a growing body of research on gun violence prevention. Even though scientific research at the federal level has stalled for more than two decades, foundations and even states are investing in gun research that could help save lives.

This public health scourge is multi-faceted, and there is no one approach or solution. But gun control laws are clearly an essential part of the mix. The US House of Representatives passed the Bipartisan Background Checks Act earlier this year and included funding for gun violence prevention research in one of its FY2020 appropriations bills. It’s not enough, but it’s a start. The Senate, on the other hand, remains MIA.

Please join us and our colleagues in the public health community to demand action. We need gun control laws now. And we need a vigorous and rigorous research effort on gun violence prevention at the Centers for Disease Control.

Until then, more people will die as our elected officials continue to dither and mouth empty platitudes while our children, friends, neighbors, and community members get shot. This is beyond unacceptable. It’s simply insane.


Original post (March 1, 2018): Students in Florida and across the nation have had enough—enough carnage, enough tragedy, enough thoughts and prayers, and enough empty promises from adults who are supposed to protect them. They are taking on the issue of gun violence and demanding change.

These young people are a rising power. They are mobilizing, they are leading, and they are confronting lawmakers who for too long have lacked the courage to take meaningful action to stem the scourge of gun-related violence in our county. And science, data, and evidence are on their side.

Gun violence: data and research tell the story

Gun violence is more than a law enforcement problem. It is a major and well-recognized public health problem that threatens the health, safety, security, and welfare of our nation’s residents.  Mass shootings at schools, in workplaces, and in other public venues are the most visible and shocking manifestations of this problem; they understandably garner high levels of public outrage and attention when they occur. Yet the majority of gun-related deaths, injuries, and disabilities are lost in the mix. The daily toll that homicides, suicides, assaults, and unintentional shootings exact on people, families, and communities is too often hidden from view.

Morbidity and mortality data on gun-related violence in our country speak for themselves (good summary here). Data from five years of CDC statistics estimate that 96 Americans die every day from gun violence, with over 33,000 deaths per year. Nearly 79,000 other people are injured annually by guns. And guns account for more than two-thirds of US homicides.

Research studies (see here, here and, here) have found that:

  • Gun ownership increases the risk of completed suicides compared to all other means of suicide combined, i.e., by pills, cutting, jumping, even hanging.
  • Domestic violence increases in severity and deadliness when guns are present in the home.
  • Women are 16 times more likely to be killed by guns in the US than in any other developed nation.
  • Black people are more likely to be killed by guns than those who are white.
  • Gun violence is a leading cause of injury and death for our nation’s children and youth. The Gun Violence Archive, a clearinghouse of gun violence statistics, reports that in 2016 alone, 446 children (aged 0–12) and 2,072 teenagers were injured or killed in gun violence incidents.

A crisis of gun violence

Like other health disparities in the US, gun violence is not distributed evenly across our population. A recent analysis by The Guardian found that in 2015, half of America’s gun homicides were clustered in just 127 cities and towns, and within them, the highest numbers of gun homicides were further concentrated in certain neighborhood areas—areas marked by intense poverty, low levels of education, and racial segregation.

And lest we think that gun violence is primarily a problem of homicides in certain pockets of our cities, mass shootings—like the school shootings in Parkland, Florida and Sandy Hook, Connecticut—remind us that gun violence can strike anywhere and in any place.

Since 2013, there have been nearly 300 school shootings in America—an average of about one a week. The Parkland shooting marked the 18th school shooting in 2018 alone! From just January 1 to February 18, 2018, there were 30 mass shootings in the US. (The Gun Violence Archive defines a mass shooting as a single incident in which four or more people, not including the shooter, are “shot and/or killed” at “the same general time and location.”)

And then there’s the crisis of domestic violence–which does not discriminate by geography (rural, suburban, or urban), by race, or by socioeconomic status. By gender of victim is a whole other matter.

A 2016 analysis by the Associated Press of national and state law enforcement data and reported in The Guardian found that an average of at least 760 Americans are shot to death by current or former partners each year. Nearly 75 percent of the victims in these fatal domestic violence shootings are the current wives or girlfriends of the men who killed them.

EveryTown for Gun Safety, an independent non-profit organization dedicated to understanding and reducing gun violence in America, reports in an average month, 50 American women are shot to death by intimate partners and many more are injured.

Other analyses have found a disturbing thread between domestic and family violence and mass shootings.

The US is number one – not in a good way

The United States has the highest rate of civilian gun ownership among high-income nations. It also has the highest rate of gun-related deaths among these countries. A recent study examined violent death rates for 2010 in 27 high-income countries that reported mortality data to the World Health Organization. The results, reported in the American Journal of Medicine, are startling.

Homicide rates in the US were seven times higher than in other high-income countries, driven by a gun homicide rate that was 25.2 times higher; a firearm suicide rate 8 times higher; and an unintentional firearm death rate that was 6.2 times higher. The overall firearm death rate in the United States from all causes was 10 times higher than in the other countries. Even more shocking: among all the countries, 90% of women, 91% of children aged 0 to 14 years, 92% of youth aged 15 to 24 years, and 82% of all people killed by firearms were from the United States. (Read that again!)

Gun control research banned at the CDC

Gun violence is a significant and complex problem that demands multi-faceted solutions. There is a growing literature on gun violence. Some research contributes to the contentious debates about gun control—see, for example, this excellent multi-level and cross-sectional analysis of gun control versus gun violence as an artifact of US gun culture. Other research studies have examined the relationship of gun ownership/availability and homicides and suicides (see for example here and here). Some studies examine the effectiveness of community-based interventions.

But public health and medical professionals have bemoaned the dearth of critical research on firearm violence relative to the scope of the problem. Many point to the Dickey Amendment, an unrelated ideological provision added to a must-pass spending bill (also known as a “poison pill rider”), which stipulated that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

This effectively banned gun control research done or funded by our nation’s public health agency, casting a pall over gun control research and limiting the engagement of a generation of public health researchers on an issue of major public health significance. Indeed, recent studies have documented the decline in both funding and publication of research related to gun violence (see here and here).

Academic researchers, public health and medical professionals, and gun violence prevention advocacy organizations have called for action, highlighting the need for research and scholarship to inform and guide evidence-based policies and interventions. The National Academy of Science/Institute of Medicine has identified priorities for research to reduce the threat of gun violence. Medical organizations and publication have called for a restoration of CDC funding (here, here).

It is peak nonsense to effectively cut our nation’s disease control and prevention agency’s ability to engage in research related to this major cause of morbidity and mortality in this country.

Here’s what you can do 

Clearly, there are significant gaps in research on gun violence. But make no mistake, the need for more research is no excuse for failing to act to curb gun violence in the United States.

As outlined above, the data tell us we have not done nearly enough to reduce the crisis of gun injury and death in this country, and there are common sense actions that could be taken today if elected leaders had the political will. But if we are to continue to address this public health scourge, Congress must remove the poison pill anti-science rider that prevents gun violence research at the CDC as they negotiate a final spending package to fund the federal government for the rest of the 2018 fiscal year.

Recently, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said that conducting gun violence research is a priority for his agency. This would a good first step. Now is our time to call our elected officials and encourage them to remove this rider from the appropriations bills and allow scientist and public health experts at the CDC and other agencies to do their job.

As our nation continues to debate solutions to this public health crisis, this is one small step that seems like a no-brainer common-sense solution.

Call your members of Congress

Tell your members of Congress that you want ACTION NOW. And that you will hold them accountable for further delay.