The National Rifle Association and others have portrayed the measure as a potential attempt to weaken Second Amendment protections and confiscate guns from law-abiding owners. Some activists on the other side have heralded it as a step toward “gun control” to address the rising gun deaths in the United States.
But scientific research on gun violence isn’t about being for or against gun ownership. It isn’t done with the intention of getting rid of guns. Rather, the goal is harm reduction: to make legal gun usage safer, using evidence instead of political rhetoric to drive policy decisions.
In the 1960s, there were similar concerns when government officials began looking for ways to make motor vehicles safer. The first director of the old National Highway Safety Bureau, William Haddon, a public health physician, used a science-based approach to treat motor vehicle injuries like other medical conditions. He regarded accidents not as inevitable human errors, but as faults in the system that could be identified and prevented.
For every crash, details were collected, including the type of car, seat-belt use, driver impairment and road conditions. These became part of a national database that was analyzed for trends: Were there structural issues involving the car, the driver or roads that made crashes more likely or deadly?
Car manufacturers were also required to install safety features such as airbags, rollover protection and shatter-resistant windshields. Road improvements were also implemented, including guardrails, center-line stripes, and reflectors and crash cushions on exit ramps. States started cracking down on driver licensing, alcohol-impaired driving and traffic violations.
As a result, the annual vehicular death rate declined by more than 80 percent since the 1950s. In that same period, the number of vehicles operated increased by six times and vehicle miles traveled grew by seven times.
Addressing motor vehicle crashes as a public health issue didn’t stop people from driving cars, but it did make being on the road a lot safer.
A public health approach to policy also helped to prevent childhood drowning. In 2007, after research showed that children died after being trapped under loose drains, Congress passed legislation to equip all public pools with anti-entrapment devices. Other studies on drowning risks resulted in interventions such as four-sided pool fencing, life jacket use and the required supervision of small children. These steps together reduced childhood drowning death rates by 28 percent.
Research on gun violence could have similarly life-saving effects, without reducing gun ownership or usage. Studies can examine the best methods for safe gun storage, interventions to prevent suicide by firearm, and the effectiveness of proposals such as universal background checks, required gun safety courses and ammunition regulation. The research could even find some existing policies as ineffective for reducing firearm deaths and support their repeal. After all, studying car accidents and drownings hasn’t stopped people from driving or swimming. Thanks to evidence-based policies, these activities are now much safer for everyone.
Some might question why federal funding for this research is needed, when some states and private entities already study gun violence. One reason is the need for a federal database with a national coordinated response. Another is to undo the chilling effect that lack of federal support has had, deterring researchers. Studies on gun violence dropped by more than 60 percent since the funding ban was put into place. Overturning it signals that gun violence warrants unbiased, scientific study that is free from political interference.
If the goal is to reduce gun deaths and ensure safe, legal firearm usage, activists on both sides should stop fearing data and start embracing it. Public health works by using evidence to lessen harm. Public health research has saved countless lives in the past. We can trust it to do the same again.