One Answer to Firearm Violence: Fix Our Gun Data Infrastructure

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America is facing an epidemic of gun violence, with an average of 106 people killed every day. Responding to this epidemic requires crafting effective gun policies that save lives and respect the constitutional right to bear arms.

But policymaking requires data, and as a 2013 National Academy of Sciences report makes clear, the United States’ current gun data infrastructure fails to properly collect and share fundamental data on gun possession, distribution, ownership, acquisition and storage.

And little progress has been made on this front since the report was published.

This dearth of vital information is why Arnold Ventures and NORC at the University of Chicago convened an expert panel to offer practical, implementable recommendations on how we can start to collect this live-saving data.

The panel—comprising experts in public health and criminal justice—met for more than a year to hear testimony and deliberate on potential reforms to solve the problem of incomplete and insufficient gun data infrastructure in the U.S.

Asheley Van Ness

Asheley Van Ness

The task may seem overwhelming, but we were able to document reasonable, quick, bipartisan actions that could have a big impact.

Much of the problem with firearms data infrastructure can be fixed with changes in how agencies manage data and how they prioritize data collection and release. For example, providing more support for the local agencies that collect data on guns, and prioritizing the timely release of data, would resolve many of these issues.

However, there are several barriers that limit how gun data can be gathered and used. The Tiahrt Amendment to the 2003 and 2004 federal budgets prohibits the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from sharing data from crime gun traces for research purposes.

A lack of funding also undermines the ability of federal agencies to carry out the creation, maintenance and oversight of firearms data. It will take Congress to tear down these barriers and ensure that data collection efforts are fully funded.

Not all of the recommended reforms changes require congressional action. Executive action from the White House and federal agencies can substantially improve the collection and study of firearm data.

For example, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) compiles detailed, individual-level data on homicides and suicides, the system does not extend to nonfatal injuries.

An executive order could ensure that law enforcement and public health agencies collect and the CDC compiles data on non-fatal gun injuries as well as gun deaths.

Further fixes can be made through modest changes in legislation, budget allocations, regulations, and working groups. We highlight important examples of the types of recommendations below and more can found in the expert panel report.

We estimate that the recommendations of the NORC Expert Panel could be implemented for about $150 million, an amount that pales in comparison to the costs of gun violence, which are estimated to be tens of billions of dollars each year.

With Election Day less than a week away, federal and state leaders may soon have a mandate to set new priorities. Researchers and advocates have an opportunity to help set those priorities.

We need to communicate loudly and clearly that data is critical to answering key questions about the ongoing epidemic of gun violence.

John Roman

John K. Roman

This is a chance to build upon past progress and improve our nation’s firearms data infrastructure in order to make our country safer.

Our response to the public health crisis of firearms violence must be built on the same scale as the problem it seeks to solve.

Creating a coordinated response begins with a shared set of facts. Our current gun data infrastructure is woefully unprepared to inform those facts. For a relatively modest investment, we can begin to fill the facts necessary to start saving lives.

The real question is whether we have the political will to make those changes.

It is time for a broad coalition to raise their voices and demand that the federal government treat the gun violence epidemic with the scientific rigor and scrutiny necessary to stem the bloodshed.

John K. Roman, PhD, is a senior fellow in the Economics, Justice, and Society department at NORC at the University of Chicago, an objective, non-partisan research institution that delivers reliable data and rigorous analysis to guide critical programmatic, business, and policy decisions. John is the project lead, responsible for the scientific design and implementation of the NORC Expert Panel.

 Asheley Van Ness is the director of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures, a philanthropy dedicated to tackling some of the most pressing problems in the United States. Its core mission is to invest in evidence-based solutions that maximize opportunity and minimize injustice. The NORC Expert Panel is an Arnold Ventures-supported effort.

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