By a Biometrica staffer
With the Covid-19 virus and vaccines having underscored the importance and strategic role played by objective scientific research, many, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, are saying it’s time for us to invest in more studies on gun violence.
Earlier this week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released a report that concluded that the number of murders in 2020 in the U.S. jumped 30%, up 4,901 to 21,570 total homicides. What was particularly worrying was the fact that just over three in every four of those murders (around 77%) involved the use of a firearm. It was the first time that figure breached the 75% mark, though it has been inching up for several years now.
At the same time, the violent crime rate rose around 5% (the category encompasses murder, assault, robbery, and rape). Per experts, though this is still below the historic highs noted in the 1990s, it is the largest single increase in yearly homicide rates since record-keeping began in the 1960s.
Research from the Gun Violence Archive (GVA), which tracks 7,500 sources on a daily basis for their comprehensive database, shows as of Sept. 30, there have been a total of 33,378 gun deaths in the U.S. this year (covering homicides, murders, unintentional deaths or injuries, and suicides). They estimate the number of total injuries at 30,698. For comparison, in 2020, the GVA says there were 19,411 deaths and 39,492 injuries; and 15,448 deaths and 30,186 injuries in 2019.
According to research commissioned by CNN and carried out by the GVA, this summer has been particularly violent in terms of gun-related injuries and deaths, with weekends being especially bloody. Each weekend, the GVA estimates, there have been an average of 200 deaths and 472 injuries. This evens out to about 3.4 people shot every hour every weekend.
These statistics corroborate a general feeling among law enforcement and the public that violent crime has increased drastically this year, something that has been particularly jarring after what seemed like a quiet year on that front, when much of the news cycle and mindshare was consumed by the Covid-19 pandemic. This recent uptick has thrown back under the microscope what President Joe Biden has called a “public health epidemic.”
What is different, experts say, is that the issue is slowly being reframed, pivoting the gun violence problem into “a matter of injury prevention,” and not of politics. It is, they say, a grave threat to public safety and health.
Many are pointing out that while it’s the high-profile mass shootings, like the recent one at a Kroger store in Tennessee, that draw media attention, gun violence is not only about preventing mass-casualty episodes. Nor is it about “gun control” measures like taking away firearms or establishing a national registry, they add.
Rather, academicians and experts hope that further scientific research will help craft better and more effective policies. There is limited evidence that any of the measures being debated at the moment would truly be effective in curbing gun violence. Research is key to figuring that out. To truly solve the problem, experts say, we need to understand it and its scope first.
It may be hard to believe, but there are some aspects of gun violence that are actually understudied and under-reported, according to some. At the center of this information black hole is the fact that shooting incidents that result in deaths are actually eclipsed by those that result in injuries (debilitating or otherwise). In addition, mass shooting events claim fewer lives every year than other types of gun violence, though they are the ones most likely to garner attention.
The CDC divides the causes behind firearm-related injuries into several categories, including intentionally self-inflicted; unintentional; interpersonal violence; and legal intervention, which covers incidents involving police or other law enforcement agents acting in the line of duty.
Per the CDC, gun violence is among top leading causes of death for people of all ages in the U.S. The agency estimates that in 2019 there were 39,707 firearm-related deaths nationwide, amounting to about 109 deaths per day. Six out of ten of these were suicides, and just over three out of ten were homicides. “Guns are the leading method of suicide in the U.S., accounting for half of all suicide deaths,” per some estimates. Further, around two in every three firearm-related deaths in the U.S. are suicides.
However, as the agency says, “more people suffer nonfatal firearm-related injuries than die.” One study found that between 2009 and 2017, there were on average 329 firearm injuries per day, and that people were twice as likely to be shot and injured than die.
This is a problem in the long-term, for the victim who survives, the economy, and the healthcare system. Consequences include cognitive problems experienced by the individual, instability in emotions, physical disabilities or paralysis, chronic mental health problems like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and — crucially — a self-perpetuating cycle of violence that can lead to more death and injuries. Some estimates say that gun violence costs the U.S. around $280 billion annually in lost productivity, and insurance, legal, and medical expenses.
It is all these factors that drive the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC), which for decades has been investigating the impact of gun violence on Americans’ health and safety. After limits were put on it in terms of fully studying this epidemic in the 1990s, just recently the NCIPC has started funding on-the-ground research into various associated topics for the first time in a quarter century.
CNN reported in August that the agency is already spending over $2.2 million on tracking, in real time, how many people are coming into emergency rooms with nonfatal gunshot wounds, how the wound was inflicted, whether it was intentional, etc. In addition, the agency is spending over $8 million on 18 different research projects to prevent gun-related violence and injuries.
The areas being studied include the effectiveness of suicide awareness programs, campaigns about the storage and safe use of firearms, and various forms of violence intervention and prevention programs; the characteristics of firearm violence; and “the risk and protective factors for interpersonal and self-directed firearm violence.” One project in Houston is hoping to map hot spots for gun violence in the city, in the same way that epidemiologists are doing with Covid-19.
In the same vein, earlier this week, the Justice Department announced it had awarded almost $187 million in funding to support state, local, and tribal public safety and community justice activities.