Gun Violence Summit: We’re Not More Violent, Just More Deadly

The state of the universe.
Jan. 15 2013 2:40 PM

Gun Violence Summit: What Do the Experts Say?

Despite the NRA’s best efforts, researchers have some decent data on gun deaths.

A trash bin full of handguns collected during the LAPD Gun Buyback Program.
A trash bin of handguns collected during the LAPD Gun Buyback Program in December 2012.

Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

The headquarters of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry’s trade association, is 3.2 miles, a seven-minute drive, from Sandy Hook Elementary School.

After last month’s massacre, all the pictures of NSSF executives had been taken down from the organization’s website, said Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the UC-Davis Medical Center.

“I suspect they were taken down because they were involved. This was their neighborhood elementary school. Their kids went there.” Their kids may even have been in the building during the rampage, he said. “Everyone in the industry knows the people at NSSF. Every executive in that industry was not that many degrees of separation from Sandy Hook.”

Maybe this would be a good time to ask them to help, Wintemute suggested to an auditorium full of gun violence researchers. They met this week at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, at the Summit on Reducing Gun Violence in America, to discuss what we actually know and don’t know about gun violence and to propose some solutions to one of America’s greatest public health threats.

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The eponymous Bloomberg was there—Michael, the onetime-Republican mayor of New York City, a graduate of Johns Hopkins and the university’s biggest donor since, well, Johns Hopkins. So was Martin O’Malley, the Democratic governor of Maryland. Both men have been on the front line of the gun control debate; both men this week proposed sweeping laws that would put what they say are rational limits on gun ownership.

The setting, Baltimore, the locale for The Wire, was fitting. The emergency room around the corner specializes in gunshot wounds, and the neighborhood around the medical center may be more dangerous than Baghdad on Saturday nights.

Several people in the audience, including uniformed police and others not in uniform, were packing heat. Security was tight.

No speaker at the conference suggested confiscating guns, except guns owned by people who are ineligible to own guns by law: criminals, the insane, people involved in nasty domestic violence disputes. Even limiting ammunition didn’t get much time. Most of the discussions were about interrupting the flow of weapons to people who might use them to do evil, who was to blame for getting them the guns, and who, after all, should be allowed to own guns.

Thanks to legislation pushed in Washington and the state capitals by the National Rifle Association over the years, there aren’t very many gun violence experts. And the data scientists have gathered through the years are not a great help. Most of the results are ambiguous, and the studies are retrospective—going back after the fact to look at possible predictors of gun violence and the best ways to prevent it—which is not the preferred way to prove anything in science.

One of the reasons results are limited is the ban by the government’s two largest research institutions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, on funding research that could “advocate or promote gun control.”

Thanks to Congress, the CDC spends $100,000 on gun research out of a budget of $6 billion, Bloomberg said. The NIH spends less than $1 million out of a budget of $31 billion. It spends more researching headaches.

Nonetheless, university researchers, mostly privately funded, have gathered some data to work with.

In 1994, Congress voted to ban assault weapons and, more important, magazines that held more than 10 bullets. The idea, said Christopher Koper of George Mason University, was less to reduce the number of shootings than to reduce the number of people shot. It is the magazines that make these guns so deadly.

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