A major effort by the RAND Corporation to explore gun violence in America will provide initial grants totaling $10 million for support new research into policies that can reduce injuries and deaths from firearms.
“We know shockingly little about the effects of gun laws,” Andrew Morral of RAND told a special session on Gun Violence in America at the annual conference of the American Society of Criminology.
Morral said the new National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research, underwritten with a grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, will eventually fund up to $20 million in new research over the five-year period of the project.
He said the initiative was aimed at filling the gap left by reduced federal funding of scientific research into gun violence.
According to Morral, researchers have so far identified only a few harm-reduction strategies that are clearly effective, such as laws restricting children’s access to guns, as well as several that have been shown to be counter-productive, such as the ‘Stand Your Ground” law passed by Florida.
Many other intervention strategies such as “focused deterrence” are promising but inconclusive, the panel was told.
Jocelyn Fontaine, a senior research fellow at the Urban Institute, told the session that interviews with young people in marginalized communities indicated that such intervention strategies are often undermined by perceptions that the guns are required for self-protection—even if they never expect to use them.
She quoted one youth interviewed in her study as saying that having a gun allows you to “flash it if someone looks at you wrongly.”
For many young people in violence-prone neighborhoods, even those who are not gang members, carrying a firearm involves making a “calculated decision” based on rational considerations.
“It’s a mainstream logical decision,” she said, noting that this makes it harder for youth intervention programs to “disabuse people from carrying a gun.”
Fontaine noted that most youths considered the risks of getting caught as low, thereby perpetuating a “vicious cycle of gun-carrying,” she said.
Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said that while homicide rates have fallen significantly in the U.S. over the past three decades, homicides with firearms have increased.
“The proportion of homicides with firearms was 74 percent in 2016,” he said. The figure was 66 percent in 1990.
The firearm homicide rate increased by 30 percent between 2014-2016, he said.
The reasons for the increase still need further study, but one factor may be the opioid epidemic, said Rosenfeld, observing that drug-related homicides among whites increased by 55 percent in that time period, five times the rate for African Americans.
“As sources dry up, people are forced to go into the streets,” for opioids like heroin, which may exacerbate deadly competition among suppliers, he said.
Daniel Webster, a gun policy researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said additional research was needed into public health strategies of gun violence reduction.
Some widely promoted remedies such as making guns “smarter” with RFID chips that allow only authorized users to fire them may be counter-productive.
“They might be useful for certain tragic kinds of shootings [like mass shootings],” he said, but he added researchers found that the only gun owners who are interested in safer guns are those who are already committed to taking steps to safeguard and protect their firearms.
And smart-gun technology could prove counter-productive in the long run, he warned, since “it might also bring more people to buy the product, and lead to more deaths.”
Webster noted that 60 percent of gun deaths are suicides, which indicated the need for proactive strategies that deal with mental health and behavioral issues of individuals who are most likely to turn their guns against themselves.
Editor’s Note: Earlier version of this story incorrectly said homicides among whites increased by 55 percent between 2014-2016. The statistic refers to “drug-related homicides.”
This report was prepared by TCR editor Stephen Handelman.