Gun violence addressed in reddit ‘AMA’

There’s been a heightened focus on gun violence in the U.S. On January 5, 2016, President Barack Obama announced new executive actions to reduce the number of mass shootings, suicides, and killings. On January 7, he held a nationally televised town hall to discuss the new measures. Ahead of the town hall, David Hemenway, professor of health policy at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, discussed gun violence and public health during a reddit AMA.

Here are some highlights:

Last month Dr. Nancy Krieger [professor of sociology at Harvard Chan School] did an AMA here during which she argued for the need for gun violence data to be reported to the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] as a “notifiable condition.” Currently, the data we have about gun violence seems to be piecemeal and incomplete. She argued that from a public health perspective we need real time reliable data so that we can make sound policy decisions. Do you agree with the idea of making gun violence a notifiable condition? And how has the lack of reliable statistics about gun violence in the U.S. impacted your own work?

I am not an expert on the cost and benefits of making things “notifiable conditions.” But I can answer your second question with examples about reliable statistics making it harder to perform useful research.

(1) The National Violent Death Reporting System is missing data from 18 states, which means that all the important analyses from that system may not be fully representative of what is happening in the entire USA.

(2) The fact that the CDC stopped asking any gun questions on the large annual Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (n = over 200,000) means that estimates of state household gun ownership levels are only proxies rather than good estimates.

(3) The law that makes it unlawful for ATF [the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] to easily share information on gun traces with researchers makes it harder to fully understand how crime guns move in the U.S. and how to prevent guns from getting into clearly wrong hands.

(4) The lack of gun licenses and a gun registration system makes it impossible to undertake many useful studies of the effects of gun laws (Garen Wintemute has been able to do many informative studies with California data because they have better gun data than other states or the U.S.).

Why do states with the strictest gun laws seem to be the places with the most gun issues? Are the laws really making a difference?

The evidence indicates that, all other things [being] equal (e.g., controlling for poverty, alcohol consumption, urbanization, non-gun crime, mental health…), places in the U.S. with higher levels of gun ownership and weaker gun laws have more gun problems, and more overall violent deaths. More guns and weaker gun laws tend to go together as do fewer guns and stronger laws. It is hard to tease out the separate effects of each on violent death, and it is hard to determine whether having fewer guns is a prime reason places can pass stronger gun laws, or whether strong gun laws lead to fewer gun owners.

The effect of strong gun laws is diluted somewhat, but only somewhat, because crime guns move from places with weak laws to places with strong laws.

Can you give us some examples of successful vs. failed examples of attempts to curb gun violence, the measures used, and potential obfuscating variables and circumstances in those examples?

Very briefly, success stories would include the Australian gun policies after the mass shooting in Tasmania and the Boston miracle in reducing youth gun homicide in the 1990s (I’ve written about the latter in my book While We Were Sleeping: Success Stories in Injury and Violence Prevention and the former on our Harvard Injury Control Research Center website under Bullet-Ins.) The assault weapons ban in the U.S. would probably be considered a failure because of all the loopholes in the law.

View the full AMA

Learn more

Why is gun violence a public health issue? (Harvard Chan School video)

Exploring the increase in public mass shootings (Harvard Chan School news)