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No Silver Bullet: Why We Need Research on Gun Violence Prevention

Police tape saying "police line do not cross"

By Clinton W. Anderson, PhD (Associate Executive Director, APA Public Interest Directorate)

Deaths and injuries from firearms pose a substantial risk to public health.

  1. Firearms are involved in more than 50% of suicides and 70% of homicides.

  2. There are more than 30,000 firearm fatalities each year and more than 80,000 non-fatal firearm injuries requiring emergency medical care or hospitalization.

  3. Gun violence imposed an estimated total cost of $174 billion in medical, legal, and other expenses on the United States in 2010, while also indirectly affecting those who witness or fear firearm violence in their homes or communities.

Clearly, we need research to identify factors that both cause and protect against gun violence.

On May 21, I represented APA at a press conference called by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY). They announced the introduction of legislation to fund research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on gun violence prevention and firearm safety.  The legislation calls for $10 million each year for six years beginning in fiscal year 2015. APA joined other organizations including the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics in endorsing the legislation.

APA strongly supports the legislation’s goal of greater research, which is highly consistent with our Resolution on Firearm Violence Prevention and Research and recent report summarizing the scientific research on gun violence. Both documents support the growing consensus among health professionals and scientists that we need to take a public health approach to prevent deaths and injuries associated with firearms. This requires careful study and analysis of the psychological factors, behavioral pathways, social circumstances, and cultural factors that lead to gun violence. The legislation would advance the public health approach to gun violence by supporting CDC’s efforts to pursue the needed research (see the research agenda in the 2013 Institute of Medicine report Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence). The research that this bill will support will help to reduce the burden of gun violence on public health and the economy.

Access to a firearm is the common denominator in every firearm-related death or injury. Beyond this obvious fact, it has proven to be a complex task for us to achieve a greater understanding of the different forms of firearm violence, the populations disproportionately harmed, and the factors relevant to preventive interventions. We must pursue developmentally and culturally appropriate public policy and prevention strategies that account for differential risk, occurrence, and context across groups. For this, we need the research that this bill will support.

People with serious mental illness commit only a small proportion of firearm-related homicides, and the overwhelming majority of people with serious mental illness never engage in violence toward others. However, people in intense emotional crisis are at higher risk of impulsive aggression and harming themselves and others, including spouses and children. Intoxication, despair, panic, rage or other intense emotions may result in acts of impulsive violence involving a firearm, if one is accessible. We need the scientific research called for by this bill to produce scientifically grounded methods for preventing gun violence by people in crisis.

Some have argued that we need to focus on policies that prosecute criminals and prevent those individuals who have been found to be a danger to themselves or others from obtaining a firearm. While these policies have merit, they are clearly not fully effective, and do not address the roots of violence in our society. With our jails and prisons already overflowing, we need to create programs designed to prevent incidents from escalating to violence in the first place and to ensure that those in crisis are not afraid to seek help. No one policy can prevent violence; it will take a multi-faceted approach. Funding research that explores these horrific, impulsive acts can help us all inform and adapt our policy approach.

There is clearly no silver bullet for preventing gun violence, but the only way forward is to learn more about the phenomenon in all its diversity and to use this knowledge to evaluate and promote preventive interventions. Otherwise I fear we will never succeed in reducing the tragic harm from firearm violence that we have seen occur in recent mass shootings, and in daily unpublicized incidents of gang shootings, intimate partner violence, impulsive suicide, and child accidents.

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