Why there’s so much gun violence in the U.S.—and what to do about it

May 28, 2022 – In the wake of a May 24 mass shooting at an Uvalde, Texas, elementary school that left 19 students and two teachers dead—the 27th school shooting this year alone—Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s David Hemenway has been speaking out about why there’s so much gun violence in the U.S. and what to do about it.

In a wide-ranging interview on the Bay Area’s KALW radio on May 25, on the show “Your Call,” Hemenway, professor of health policy and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, noted that, compared with other high-income countries, the U.S. is about average in terms of overall levels of violence and crime. But he added, “Where we are different is the guns. All societies have issues about violence, but we give our violent people incredibly easy access to guns.”

Hemenway noted that the gun lobby was successful in essentially eliminating federally funded research about gun violence for almost a quarter century, and data about gun violence has also been lacking. There’s been a recent increase in federal funding for firearms research, he said, “but it’s not nearly commensurate to the size of the problem.”

In a country that already has between 350 million and 400 million guns, there are still reasonable policies that could be enacted that would make living with guns safer, such as stronger background checks and bans on large-capacity magazines, Hemenway said. Research from Hemenway and colleagues has found that there are fewer mass shootings in states that have banned large-capacity magazines, and the mass shootings that did occur in those states killed many fewer people, “because if you need time to reload it gives potential victims time to run and hide and attack,” he said.

Acknowledging that the issue of gun control has become more intractable because it’s become part of the culture wars, Hemenway said it’s likely to take a long time for stricter gun laws to be enacted. “There have been so many successes in public health … yet they all took many years to happen,” he noted. “It took, for example, over 20 years to force car manufacturers to put airbags in cars, much against their will. Things just take a long time, and that’s what I try to emphasize to my students who want to make the world a better place—that you’re in it for the long haul. If this was easy, it would already have been done.”

Hemenway also spoke about gun violence in a May 25 story on GBH News and in a May 26 NPR story.

Listen to the KALW “Your Call” show: Republicans to speak at NRA conference in Houston just 3 days after Uvalde school shooting

Listen to or read the GBH News story: Massachusetts leaders respond to Texas school shooting

Listen to or read the NPR story: Research shows policies that may help prevent mass shootings—and some that don’t

Learn more

The costs of gun violence (Harvard Chan School news)

Could recent mass shootings spur action to reduce gun violence? (Harvard Chan School news)

A public health approach to stemming gun violence (Harvard Chan School feature)

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