Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence
In 2010, more than 105,000 people were injured or killed in the United States as the result of a firearm-related incident. Recent, highly publicized, tragic mass shootings in Newtown, CT; Aurora, CO; Oak Creek, WI; and Tucson, AZ, have sharpened the American public’s interest in protecting our children and communities from the harmful effects of firearm violence. While many Americans legally use firearms for a variety of activities, fatal and nonfatal firearm violence poses a serious threat to public safety and welfare.
In January 2013, President Barack Obama issued 23 executive orders directing federal agencies to improve knowledge of the causes of firearm violence, what might help prevent it, and how to minimize its burden on public health. One of these orders directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to, along with other federal agencies, immediately begin identifying the most pressing problems in firearm violence research.
To help identify important research topics, the CDC and the CDC Foundation asked the Institute of Medicine, in collaboration with the National Research Council, to convene a committee tasked with developing a potential research agenda that focuses on the causes of, possible interventions to, and strategies to minimize the burden of firearm-related violence. The committee’s proposed research agenda—designed to produce results in 3 to 5 years— focuses on the characteristics of firearm violence, risk and protective factors, interventions and strategies, the impact of gun safety technology, and the influence of video games and other media.
Firearm-Related Violence as a Public Health Issue
The complexity and frequency of firearm violence, combined with its impact on the health and safety of Americans, suggest that a public health approach should be incorporated into the strategies used to prevent future harm and injuries. The public health approach involves three elements: a focus on prevention, a focus on scientific methodology to identify risk and patterns, and multidisciplinary collaboration to address the problem. This approach has seen success in reducing tobacco use, unintentional poisonings, and motor vehicle fatalities.
Characteristics of Firearm Violence
To develop a research agenda and prevention strategies, it is first important to understand what is and what is not known about the general characteristics of both fatal and nonfatal firearm violence. The exact number and location of guns and gun types in the U.S. are unknown. Because gun type and intended use vary, so do the manifestations of firearm violence. Important disparities exist across socioeconomic and ethnic groups in overall mortality rates from firearm violence, and within each form of violence—suicide, homicide, unintentional injuries and fatalities—there exist substantial variation. Focusing resources on three specific populations—the general population, the general youth population, and the offender population— should yield actionable information that can be used in intervention development.
To better assess the unknowns about the characteristics of firearm violence across populations, the committee suggests characterizing both the scope and motivation for obtaining, owning, and using a firearm, as well as the differences in violent gun use across the United States.
Risk and Protective Factors
The risk posed by firearms is affected by a number of factors ranging from relatively simple, such as how securely a firearm is stored, to more complex society-, community-, situational-, and individuallevel predictors. A number of individual behaviors and susceptibilities also are associated with the various types of firearm violence and injury.
Across populations, little is known about the types of weapons obtained, the means of acquisition, the frequency of carrying firearms in public, community-level risk and protective factors, and level of knowledge and skill in firearm operation and safety. To enhance knowledge about risk and protective factors, the committee suggests that research identify factors associated with young people’s access to, possession of, and carrying of guns; evaluate the effect of gun storage techniques on rates of suicide and unintentional injury; and improve the understanding of risk factors that influence the likelihood of firearm violence in specific high-risk locations.
Firearm Violence Prevention and Other Interventions
A successful intervention to reduce firearmrelated injuries must involve health and public safety organizations, educators, and community groups.
Interventions may target the firearm or its possessor; the victim(s) of the violence; and the social, physical, or virtual environments that may shape firearm policies, norms, and behaviors. Findings have been mixed on the effectiveness of interventions that aim to prevent firearm violence. For example, while regulations that limit hours for alcohol sales in pubs, bars, and nightclubs have been associated with reduced violence, evaluations of widespread public school firearm safety education programs prove less effective.
The committee’s proposed research agenda includes a focus on improving understanding of the effectiveness of several specific forms of firearm violence prevention across the three intervention targets.