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Don’t Shoot From the Hip; Shoot From the Research

What Does Research Say About Gun Violence?
August 26, 2018 | Comments

According to the Collins English Dictionary, “If you say that someone shoots from the hip, you mean that they react to situations or give their opinion very quickly, without stopping to think”. With pun fully intended, that is often the way statements are made about firearm-related injuries and deaths in the U.S.

Almost no area of interest to us at Critica arouses as much public comment as gun violence. Indeed, this is a tricky area for us, especially now that we are a non-profit organization that does not advance partisan political views. Yet we feel strongly that the incomplete but important empirical research surrounding gun ownership in the U.S. must be brought to the public’s attention so that policies and laws can be based as much as possible on the evidence. Although the federal Dickey Amendment has limited the extent to which the federal government may fund gun research, there are still many studies that deserve emphasis.

Recent, tragic, and heart-wrenching instances of gun violence directed against children and adolescents sadly provoked many examples of “shooting from the hip,” that is, of statements and responses that are almost entirely data-free. Let’s look at three examples:

  1.     Schools all over the country have rushed to put in place protocols to deal with active shooter situations. These can resemble fire drills or the ridiculously useless air raid drills of the Cold War period. What do the data say about this? The fact is that school is about the safest place an American child can be. Writing in the New York Times on May 22, 2018, Dana Goldstein noted that “Unintentional injury is the leading cause of death for American school-age children, with traffic accidents, poisoning and drowning among the most common causes. Those deaths almost always occur away from school”.   Focusing on active shooter events is actually concentrating on a rare event. If schools want to make children safer, they should be putting their efforts toward teaching children and their parents how to prevent fatal accidents away from school and promoting mental health and suicide prevention.

  2.     A portrait of the typical school shooter seems to be emerging in the public’s mind. He (and almost all shooters are male) is the victim of bullying and peer rejection. In other words, although we condemn the shooter for his horrible act of violence, we also think of him as himself a victim, driven to the breaking point by mean and callous fellow students. Blame, then, is shared with the students at the school who were shot. But this stereotype turns out not to fit the data. While it is true that most school shooters experienced some form of peer rejection, the vast majority of rejected adolescents do not resort to homicide. An article in The Conversation notes that, “In reality, the cause of school shootings is likely far more complex than a simple case of a shooter being rejected by peers. Specifically, while peer rejection might be part of the profile of many school shooters, it is important to think about the range of environmental and individual factors that might contribute to school shootings”.

  3.     Many parents who keep guns at home insist that their children would never touch them, but about 1200 children are accidentally injured by guns in the US every year. To make matters worse, a recent study found that half of the guns in homes where children live are not stored in the safest manner, leaving an estimated 4.6 million American children living in homes where they are exposed to unsafely stored guns. Unfortunately, efforts by organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics to increase the safe storage of guns in homes with children “have fallen short”. We clearly need to disabuse gun-owning parents that it is sufficient merely to tell their children not to touch the guns in the closet.

There are many more myths about guns that studies refute. For example, contrary to popular belief, stolen guns play only a minor role in crime and guns in the home, far from offering hoped for protection, are “far more likely to kill or wound the people who live there than is a burglar or serial killer.

And a final myth, perpetrated by what we see on television and in the movies, is that people who survive being shot just get up in a few minutes and continue whatever they were doing before the assault—including going after the bad guys—as if nothing happened. In fact, write John Maa and Ara Darzi in the August 2, 2018 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, “…beyond the deaths caused by gun violence, survivors often have lifelong physical and psychological problems, including disability, depression, and substance abuse”.

Research continues to tell us a lot about firearm violence despite the barriers gun advocates in Congress have put up to prevent such studies from being completed. But there is still so much we need to know in order to properly inform public policy. That is why Maa and Darzi state emphatically that “Objective data on the history, epidemiology, health effects, and financial costs of firearm violence, as well as the factors that contribute to it, could inform this discussion by conveying the full scope of the problem”.

More than 30,000 Americans die every year from firearm-related homicide, suicide, and accidents and hundreds of thousands of adults and children are injured. This is a major public health crisis that calls for more science, not science denial. It is time to stop “shooting from the hip” in the things we say about guns and both accept the facts we have and gather more of them.

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