06/17/2016

What We Do (And Mostly Don’t) Know About Guns

17:20 minutes

pile of handguns
Credit: Shutterstock

From 1973 to 2012, the U.S. saw some 2,068 cases of cholera, diphtheria, polio, and rabies, combined. The nation also recorded more than four million firearms injuries. Yet, during that same period of time, the National Institutes of Health funded 486 studies of those four infectious diseases, while funding only three on firearm safety.

[Why experts argue that gun violence is a public health crisis.]

To many researchers, that mismatch in research dollars indicates that gun violence isn’t taken seriously as a public health issue. David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health is one of them. He says we know so little about guns that more research is needed on nearly every type of interaction people have with them—including storage, training, theft, suicides, accidents, and so on.

But the Appropriations Act has prohibited the use of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funds to “advocate or promote gun control” since 1997; and in 2012, the same restriction was expanded to all agencies under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, including the National Institutes of Health. Hemenway and others say that without ample federal funding, there simply isn’t enough money to answer scientists’ questions about guns.


Interview Highlights

On what we do know about firearms:
David Hemenway: One of the few areas where we have incredibly good, solid research is the fact that a gun in the home really increases the risk of suicide, and increases it dramatically, maybe threefold, for everyone in the household. And that’s one of the things we really, really know well.

Linda Degutis: But there are restrictions, as far as researchers accessing [data collected by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and Explosives]. And those restrictions were also put in place around the same time as the funding was taken from CDC. And so, the data that are there would be very helpful, but researchers can’t easily access it.

On what experts would like to know about guns:
David Hemenway: There are so many things we don’t know, whenever you scratch the surface. One of the many things I would like to know is, who is using these guns inappropriately, and how did they get these guns? We really don’t know. We know so little about gun theft, about gun storage, about gun training, about gun threats, about how guns are used to intimidate or not. We don’t really know nearly enough about concealed gun carrying, about liability for gun owners, insurance for gun owners, taxes on guns. You name it. We hardly know anything.

On the National Rifle Association’s argument that positive outcomes and issues of self-defense should be included in gun research:
Linda Degutis: When we studied motor vehicle crashes, and things that impact deaths or injuries in motor vehicle crashes, we don’t study the benefits of cars, or of having cars on the road. We don’t even talk about that. We talk about what the risks are.

It would be very hard to do any studies that would be broad enough to include all of that. So I would say, someone would have to do a study just to look at the benefits, and do a rigorous scientific study in order to do that.

David Hemenway: People in public health actually do look at the benefits as well as the costs.

And most of our studies often look at the net benefit, the benefits and the cost combined. So if you want to try to understand, is a gun in the home beneficial, in terms of reducing or increasing the risk of homicide, you end up looking at both the benefits and the costs. And if it seems to increase the risk of homicide [it] says the problems are worse than the benefits. And if it looks like the opposite occurs, it looks like the benefits are more important than the costs.

…One of the things I’d emphasize, is that if we had discovered that having a gun in the home was really incredibly beneficial, I think people in public health would be really strongly promoting people to get guns. We’ve been saying, “Let’s give out guns as we give out smoke detectors.” We’d say, “What a great thing. Let’s try to arm everybody, because it’s so beneficial.” But that’s not what the science shows.

On the unintended consequences of firearms laws:
Linda Degutis: Often, when we study laws or look at policy, we don’t look at both the intent of the policy and how successful it is at actually having that outcome. We don’t often look at the unintended consequences. What else might happen? So I think we have seen a couple of studies that have shown some very important consequences of some laws, where they were really directed at trying to decrease risk, perhaps crime risk, other kinds of risk of guns.

But what we’ve seen is that there are a decreased number of suicides in states that have stricter gun laws. So that’s probably an unintended consequence, because that may not be why they were designed. But there it is.

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Segment Guests

David Hemenway

David Hemenway is director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and a professor in the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts.

Linda Degutis

Linda Degutis is Chief Science Officer at the Avielle Foundation. She’s also former director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. From 1973 to 2012, Americans were hit by 2000 cases of cholera, diphtheria, polio and rabies combined. Now, as a comparison, over the same 40-year period, over four million firearms injuries were recorded. Four million cases versus 2000. And yet, here’s the punch line. During that same time period, the National Institutes of Health funded 486 studies of the infectious diseases, verses only three on firearms safety.

To many researchers, that mismatch in research funding indicates that guns are not taken seriously as a public health issue. And in fact, Congress prohibits the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health from using any of their funds to quote “advocate or promote gun control.” That still leaves the door open to study the issue, as long as you steer clear of advocating gun control.

But the same year that the language was put in, in 1996, Congress slashed the CDC’S budget in the exact amount of dollars they used to devote to studying firearms, meaning a de facto stifling of large, well-designed studies of gun violence. My next guest has witnessed those Washington politics first hand. Linda Degutis is the former director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC. Today, she is Chief Science Officer in the Avielle Foundation. She joins us from WABE in Atlanta. Welcome to Science Friday.

LINDA DEGUTIS: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: David Hemenway is a director of the Harvard injury control research center, professor in the Harvard School of Public Health. Welcome to Science Friday.

DAVID HEMENWAY: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: And let me ask our audience, if you’re a gun owner, do you think there should be more firearm research? We’re going to talk about what that would mean, what kinds of research. Just a note, we did invite the CDC to join us. They gave us a statement saying, quote, “in order to pursue research into the causes and prevention of gun violence, a $10 million funding request in the 2017 president’s budget would be necessary.

Should these funds become available, CDC will pursue research activities that align with the priorities identified in the Institute of Medicine report priorities for research to reduce the threat of firearm-related violence.” Linda, you were at the CDC while this language was in the appropriations bill. Why didn’t research continue, but just avoid the policy prescriptions that were written there?

LINDA DEGUTIS: Well, I think, on the research, and the interpretation that research couldn’t be done was pretty clear. It wasn’t so much that anybody was advocating for gun control, or that anybody was doing research that said, we have to take guns away from people. But in order to do some of the research and make recommendations, some of the recommendations would inevitably be policy-based, much as they are with motor vehicle crashes, where we made recommendations for seat belts, or for child safety seats, or 0.08 blood alcohol concentrations to reduce the number of deaths and injuries in motor vehicle crashes.

The same thing would likely be true on research into the gun violence, that we would find that there are probably some policy solutions that could be made. But there was a major prohibition against doing any of that. So it was extremely difficult for the CDC to even think about taking this on.

IRA FLATOW: After Sandy Hook and President Obama’s executive order to the CDC to study the causes of gun violence, was there any effort to start up firearms research at the CDC again? Up until now, you say that it would just be futile to try to advocate doing that.

LINDA DEGUTIS: There wasn’t. And a lot of that was because, at that time, all of the funding that was in the Injury Center and in the CDC budget that had to do with injuries was already directed and committed to other projects. So it would have meant ending other projects or ending other programs in order to take that on. And at the time that President Obama issued the Executive Order, he also issued a request to Congress to provide $10 million worth of funding to restart the gun violence research. And that money has never been appropriated.

IRA FLATOW: David, have you sought funding from the CDC for your gun research?

DAVID HEMENWAY: In the past, yes. You have to realize, CDC has been afraid to do gun research, and it’s been really afraid to even say the word “guns,” when you go to conferences. Because if there’s any research, and it looks bad, it indicates that maybe having a gun in the home is not such a good thing, then, often, CDC gets brought in front of Congress and gets beaten up. And so, I think they’ve just been very afraid to do gun research. The head of CDC really– even though this is such an enormous public health problem– really never even talks about gun issues, and for good reason.

IRA FLATOW: Knowing how influential the NRA is in influencing members of Congress, our producer spoke with the NRA yesterday to clarify their stance on research. Because they’ve said in the past they support more gun research. So he wanted to find out what kind of gun research that they might support. They had Initially agreed to join us today, but right up at the end, they declined to come on the program, but instead gave us this statement. And I’ll quote them.

“A major omission in the vast majority of gun-related research is the routine failure of investigators to make any attempt to incorporate or account for the positive outcomes associated with firearm ownership, especially those outcomes related to the self-defense use of firearms by private individuals. Instead, researchers will only incorporate measures of, quote, ‘negative’ unquote outcomes, such as suicide and/or homicides.

This flaw in research design, which is nearly universal in the literature, results in, quote, ‘findings’ unquote that are biased towards the conclusion sought, more gun control at the local, state, or federal levels.” Linda, how do you react to that?

LINDA DEGUTIS: Well, I think that’s really a fallacious argument. And it’s sort of off the topic, as far as the research goes. When we studied motor vehicle crashes, and things that impact deaths or injuries in motor vehicle crashes, we don’t study the benefits of cars, or of having cars on the road. We don’t even talk about that. We talk about what the risks are.

So I really think that that argument, that we would need to say something about the benefits, it would be very hard to do any studies that would be broad enough to include all of that. So I would say, someone would have to do a study just to look at the benefits, and do a rigorous scientific study in order to do that.

IRA FLATOW: David, you’ve studied the issues of self-defence. Would you or could you include this, quote, self-defense element in every single study you do regarding guns?

DAVID HEMENWAY: Certainly not in every study. But I’ve personally conducted or sponsored over six surveys, which have asked many, many questions about self-defense gun use. And I think that I’ve written more peer-reviewed journal articles, empirical articles, about self-defense gun use than anybody in the world. So people in public health actually do look at the benefits as well as the costs.

And most of our studies often look at the net benefit, the benefits and the cost combined. So if you want to try to understand, is a gun in the home beneficial, in terms of reducing or increasing the risk of homicide, you end up looking at both the benefits and the costs. And if it seems to increase the risk of homicide, you’ve looked at, it says the problems are worse than the benefits. And if it looks like the opposite occurs, it looks like the benefits are more important than the costs.

And unfortunately for the gun lobby, which is very pro-gun, most of the research, most of the scientific research indicates that having a gun in the home is not beneficial for the family, but is detrimental, in terms of the health of the family.

IRA FLATOW: So there’s a higher risk of a detrimental effect of a gun in the home than it for being used in self-defense.

DAVID HEMENWAY: Yes, or the benefits of possibly using in self-defense. Because you could use other things in self-defense. It’s not like, if you don’t use a gun in self-defense, there’s nothing you could do. People use a gun in self-defense only incredibly rarely. One of the things, also, I’d emphasize, in terms of public health, is that if we had discovered that having a gun in the home was really incredibly beneficial, I think people in public health would be really strongly promoting people to get guns. We’ve been saying, let’s give out guns as we give out smoke detectors. We’d say, what a great thing. Let’s try to arm everybody, because it’s so beneficial. But that’s not what the science shows.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. Linda, you’ve said that one of the things you’d like to know is, what are the unintended consequences of some of our laws regarding firearms? What do you mean by that?

LINDA DEGUTIS: Well, I think we know, often, when we study laws or look at policy, we don’t look at both the intent of the policy and how successful it is at actually having that outcome. We don’t often look at the unintended consequences. What else might happen? So I think we have seen a couple of studies that have shown some very important consequences of some laws, where they were really directed at trying to decrease risk, perhaps crime risk, other kinds of risk of guns.

But what we’ve seen is that there are a decreased number of suicides in states that have stricter gun laws. So that’s probably an unintended consequence, because that may not be why they were designed. But there it is.

IRA FLATOW: Let me go to the phones, get a call from Mike in Saint Louis. Hi, Mike. Welcome to Science Friday.

MIKE: Hi, Ira. Thanks for having me on. I just have a quick comment about the state of firearms research in America. I’m actually a criminologist here in St. Louis. And we do actually do a lot of research on firearms violence and the effects of gun ownership. We just do it for the National Institute of Justice, which is the funding branch of the Department of Justice, that funds research onto crime and the effects of things like firearm violence.

So that was just my one comment, that we are doing this research, but it’s just not being done through the CDC. Which I think is unfortunate, that it is limited only to the sociologists and criminologists and their colleagues through the NIJ. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. David, do you know what he’s talking about?

DAVID HEMENWAY: Oh, yes. The NIJ it does some funding about guns, but it’s very limited, in terms of the total size of the problem. What we really would like to see, given the fact that over 300 people a day, on average, are shot in the United States, and some 90 or so die, day after day, we really want to see funding– not only a little bit of funding for the NIJ. We’d like to see that increase dramatically, but we’d also like to see funding from the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health.

IRA FLATOW: What don’t we know that you would like to know, in general, in the broad area of gun research?

DAVID HEMENWAY: There are so many things we don’t know, whenever you scratch the surface. One of the many things I would like to know is, who is using these guns inappropriately, and how did they get these guns? We really don’t know. We know so little about gun theft, about gun storage, about gun training, about gun threats, about how guns are used to intimidate or not. We don’t really know nearly enough about concealed gun carrying, about liability for gun owners, insurance for gun owners, taxes on guns. You name it. We hardly know anything.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. We hear figures all the time about these things. Is that not coming from, I guess, peer-reviewed science research? Or just stuff that people are putting out there?

DAVID HEMENWAY: A lot of the stuff we get is good data. But basically, it’s just says, as I just said, over 90 people are dying. One of the few areas where we have incredibly good, solid research is the fact that a gun in the home really increases the risk of suicide, and increases it dramatically, maybe threefold, for everyone in the household. And that’s one of the things we really, really know well.

Just recently, we published a study looking at unintentional firearm fatalities. And a gun advocate has been going around claiming that children are unintentionally killed by adult criminals, and that turns out not to be true at all. It’s, they’re really killed by themselves or other little kids. And what we find, among so many interesting things, is that two to four year olds tend to shoot themselves, whereas almost all the other kids are shot by either their siblings or their friends. And where children are shot is often at someone else’s house, but not until they reach the age of 10.

IRA FLATOW: Let me ask Linda the last question. We’re running out of time. The ATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and Explosives collects data on guns. Could we use that data to study some of the issues, short of getting more funding?

LINDA DEGUTIS: Sure. That data would be very helpful. But there are restrictions, as far as researchers accessing that data. And those restrictions were also put in place around the same time as the funding was taken from CDC. And so, the data that are there would be very helpful, but researchers can’t easily access it.

IRA FLATOW: And of course, David, whenever the issue comes up about gun safety, online or anywhere, there’s a lot of vitriol about trying to strike down the second amendment and take away everybody’s handguns. Is that anyone’s goal in this?

DAVID HEMENWAY: I don’t think so. Particularly in public health, it really seems we live in a world, in the United States, where people have lots of guns, and so many people love their guns. And so the public health approach is really a harm-reduction approach, the same way the public health approach was to motor vehicle safety.

We weren’t trying to take away anybody’s motor vehicles. We were trying to make them safer, so that there would be fewer deaths, in the same way we’re going to try to do with firearms, to make it so, if we’re going to have lots of guns, let’s try to live with our guns. Presently, we are dying with our guns.

IRA FLATOW: If the CDC continues to take a backseat on funding, can’t get that $10 million it wants, anybody else going to fund it?

DAVID HEMENWAY: It would be really nice to see major foundations step up, but they too have been cowed. They are afraid to go into this very controversial area. So one of the things, like I always say, is that public health is underfunded relative to medicine. Within public health, injury prevention is particularly underfunded, and within injury prevention, firearms research is the most underfunded.

IRA FLATOW: Linda, you get last word on that.

LINDA DEGUTIS: I would very much agree with David on that. And if we look at the kind of money that goes into other kinds of research, billions of dollars are spent every year on cancer research. So even a request for $10 million to do gun violence research is pretty minimal, and almost nothing, in the context of the federal budget. So I think we’re way underfunded in looking at this. And if we did adequately fund the research, we could have some evidence-based solutions to the problem.

IRA FLATOW: Evidence-based solutions. Wow. What a novel idea, evidence-based. Linda Degutis is Chief Science Officer at the Avielle Foundation, former director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC. David Hemenway is a director of the Harvard injury control research center and professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. Thank you both for joining us today.

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