In Our View: Research gun violence reduction strategies

Gun Rights

Most Americans, we believe, can agree that the United States should work to reduce gun violence. While there is room for debate over specific strategies, most responsible gun owners and gun-rights activists can recognize that our nation has a problem.

The United States has by far the highest rate of gun deaths among developed countries. According to The Commonwealth Fund, the United States had 10.4 firearm deaths for every 100,000 people in 2019 (the latest year for which complete data is available). Among developed nations, France was second at 2.2 deaths per 100,000 residents, and Switzerland was next at 2.1.

It is no coincidence that the United States also leads the world in private gun ownership. There are an estimated 120 firearms for every 100 people in this nation — more than three times the number in any other developed nation.

It also is no coincidence that, for decades, Americans have been reluctant to effectively study and assess this phenomenon. The first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one, and U.S. policy has effectively ignored that dictum.

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All of this is relevant to a preliminary study from the University of Michigan Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention. Published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the study examines four types of laws that restrict access to firearms, particularly for individuals considered to be at risk of harming themselves or others, colloquially known as “red-flag laws.”

The study cites conflicting studies — some show a decline in firearm injuries following such laws, while others show no reduction. “It is inarguable that more research is needed on both the implementation and outcomes of these gun safety laws,” the University of Michigan’s April Zeoli said.

Therein lies the point. For too long, powerful political forces have effectively prevented robust research into gun violence. Much of this reluctance can be traced to the Dickey Amendment, which was passed by Congress in 1996 as a rider on a spending bill. The amendment, supported by the National Rifle Association, stated, “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

In the minds of too many gun-rights advocates, research equates to advocacy. Ignorance, as the saying goes, is bliss. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that from 1998 to 2012, CDC funding of gun-violence research declined by 96 percent, and academic publications studying the issue declined by 64 percent. Notably, former Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., for whom the amendment is named, has since lamented his role in preventing research.

In 2016, 69 percent of Washington voters approved a ballot measure implementing an Extreme Risk Protection Order. It allows family members to seek a court order preventing troubled individuals from possessing firearms. The Michigan study found that a lack of awareness has limited the scope of the program: “The number of ERPOs issued has been low. For example, 40 percent of Washington counties did not have any ERPO petitions for at least the first two years the ERPO law was in effect.”

Gun-rights advocates have challenged the constitutionality of such laws, and gun violence is a prominent election issue. But amid the political wrangling, it is essential that Americans support and promote studies of strategies to curb gun violence.

After all, we have a problem. It will not go away if we ignore it.

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