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Gun Violence Statistics Are Incomplete. So How Can We Tackle the Problem?

A new study reveals research into gun violence is too sparse and inadequate to make heads and tails of the underlying problem.

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As the school year begins, parents looking for ways to protect their children from gun violence are buying up bulletproof backpacks. Yep. It’s safe to say the dystopian reality of ballistic school supplies is an inadequate solution to the very serious problem of gun violence in America. There are, most likely, better solutions. The problem is, according to systemic research just published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, we have failed to collect enough data on gun violence to adequately understand the problem we’re trying to solve. Which means solutions will continue to be as piecemeal as “give them bulletproof backpacks” until the federal government releases funding for more gun violence research.

That’s the basic conclusion of researchers who looked at 33 years of research for the Journal of Behavioral Medicine. Consider that when researchers attempted a systemic review of gun research to determine the factors that put young people at higher risk of firearm injury, they only found 28 studies over the 33-year period. Moreover, only five of those studies were high-quality, longitudinal studies that looked at large populations over the course of long time periods.

The data was a bit better for studies linked to the prevention of gun injuries among children and teens, but not by much. On the topic of prevention researchers only found 46 studies in 33 years. Most of these studies were related to education and gun storage.

Researchers also looked into studies related to the effectiveness of gun laws (20 studies), long term consequences of gun incidents on kids (30 studies) and teenage gun-carrying behavior (52) studies. In each case, researchers struggled to find high-quality longitudinal studies that would allow conclusive insights into gun violence.

The lack of good research would seem counter-intuitive considering the fact that gun deaths from both suicide and assault have been climbing at steady rates over the last decade. But the lack of research has nothing to do with scientists. Public health researchers, recognizing the crisis at hand, would love to research the causes of gun violence, but the money simply isn’t there. That’s by design.

In 1996, thanks to NRA lobbying, congress banned any budget appropriations for firearms research to government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services. Even after the Obama administration freed up $10 million for the CDC to fund research, the agency refused to act because the congressional budget appropriations ban was still in place.

In the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, study authors stress why this needs to change. “Policymakers and other stakeholders often lack the evidence they need to craft, evaluate, and make informed decisions regarding firearm policies,” they write. “This should not be interpreted as the policies not having an effect, but rather that the research is often too sparse to measure impact.”

What the new research makes clear is that we do not have enough research on gun violence to take the appropriate steps to keep our kids safe. This must change. And that change must start with congress being willing to fund research that may be unpopular to gun-owning constituents.

But even more than that, gun owners must be partners in the research. It makes sense that having a stake in the safety of firearms research can only lead to more responsible ownership. More responsible gun ownership would not only be a good thing for gun enthusiasts but also for kids.

But until that research is done, we will continue to look to ridiculous measures like bulletproof backpacks, praying that if our kids are shot at, the assault rifle is pointed at their backpack and not their heart or head.