Can gun violence be reduced in a culture of guns?

In the wake of the latest school shooting, in which a female student shot and injured another female student on September 8 at Alpine High School in Brewster County, Texas, then shot and killed herself, a Vox article explored America’s extraordinary level of gun violence—higher than any other country in the developed world—and what might be done to reduce it.

Research suggests that high levels of gun ownership are the main reason that the U.S. has so much more gun-related violence than its developed peers, and that tightening gun control measures could help reduce homicides and suicides, according to the article.

David Hemenway, professor of health policy at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center (HICRC), told Vox that even if Congress was willing to pass gun control measures, it could take decades for the U.S. to achieve gun violence levels similar to those in other developed countries “because a) we have so many guns which are durable, and b) we have a gun culture—we tend to use guns more often in more situations than citizens of other developed countries.”

Hemenway’s colleague Cathy Barber, director of the Means Matter Campaign at HICRC, talked to Slate about how to reduce gun-related suicides, which represent two-thirds of all gun deaths in the U.S. Rather than focusing on controversial gun control efforts, she and other suicide-prevention advocates are asking gun owners to help remove guns from anyone they think might be suicidal, even if just temporarily. Given that most people attempt suicide during a short-term crisis—and most don’t attempt it a second time—removing a gun at the right moment can be a big help.

Likening the suicide prevention education effort to the “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” Ad Council campaign of the 1980s, Barber said, “We’re trying to create a new social norm in the gun-owning community.”

Hemenway was also mentioned in an August 30 Vox article about a new book by anti-gun control writer John Lott, titled The War Against Guns: Arming Yourself Against Gun Control Lies. In the book—which Vox said is “riddled with errors and falsehoods”—Lott dismisses the link between guns and suicide; claims that mass shooters target “gun-free” zones; and says that wielding a gun keeps people safer from criminals.

The article cited research from Hemenway that debunks one of Lott’s assertions—that guns are used defensively about 2 million times each year. Vox pointed out that 25-year-old research cited by Lott in making this claim is biased because it’s based on a small telephone survey, and that extrapolating its findings leads to absurd results. Hemenway, Vox wrote, has conclusively demonstrated that “this kind of small-sample survey of an inherently rare event—especially when that event is socially desirable (like fending off a criminal)—is so prone to bias as to be useless.”

Read the Vox article about the Texas school shooting: Alpine High School shooting in Texas: what we know

Read the Slate article about preventing gun-related suicides: Friends Don’t Let Friends…Hold Onto Guns?

Read the Vox article about John Lott’s book: The bogus claims of the NRA’s favorite social scientist, debunked

Learn more

Guns & Suicide: The Hidden Toll (Harvard Public Health magazine)

Do guns make us safer? Science suggests no (Harvard Chan School news)

Gun violence is a public health issue (Harvard Chan School news)