The day after the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla., House Speaker Paul Ryan sounded a cautious note: “I think as public policy makers, we don’t just knee-jerk before we even have all of the facts and the data.”
It’s a common refrain from politicians opposed to strengthening gun laws: They use “lack of data” as a fig leaf for their inaction.
The misconception that gun violence has not been researched began with the infamous 1996 Dickey Amendment, a gun-lobby rider attached to an omnibus appropriations bill that prevents the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using any funds “to advocate or promote gun control.” At the same time, Congress cut the agency’s budget by the exact amount it used to research gun violence. The message was clear.
Although the amendment dealt a significant blow to research on gun violence, it did not end it. GVPedia has collected more than 740 academic studies and papers on the subject, a majority of which were published after 1996. The best of this work, combined with detailed data on gun deaths and injuries from the Gun Violence Archive, tell a clear story about what can help stop mass shootings in America.
Following tragedies such as the killings in Parkland, Las Vegas and Sandy Hook, gun apologists are fond of saying that stricter laws wouldn’t have prevented the carnage. Yet we can easily see that this claim was false in Parkland.
The shooter at Stoneman Douglas High had a long history of red flags that didn’t show up in the national database but were well-known to local police. A law that would have required a gun buyer to apply for and get a permit at the discretion of law enforcement could have empowered authorities to deny the shooter access to an AR-15.
Multiple studies from researchers at Johns Hopkins University have found that such “permit to purchase” laws, which include a particularly strong background check, reduce homicides, suicides and gun trafficking. Literature reviews that examine a wide range of gun policies throughout the U.S. also consistently find that these laws save lives.
Research also shows that domestic violence restraining orders with the teeth to remove firearms from abusers reduce intimate-partner homicide. Likewise, banning high-capacity magazines would likely reduce the deadly outcome of shootings. Australia’s ban and buyback of semi-automatic firearms significantly reduced gun deaths in that country.
Instead of stricter purchase and ownership rules, the gun lobby and its allies claim that a “guns everywhere” agenda will reduce violence because, as the National Rifle Assn. puts it, “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.”
Among the lobby’s most prominent efforts is passing “concealed carry reciprocity” legislation. HR 38, a national reciprocity bill, passed by the House in December, is now in the Senate Judiciary Committee. It would allow a concealed-carry license from one state to apply in all states, which means that weaker standards for carrying firearms in say, Louisiana, could trump stricter regulations in California.
Recent research shows how dangerous reciprocity would be. A 2017 study in the American Journal of Public Health correlated minimally restrictive “right to carry” laws with a 6.5% increase in total homicide rates and an 8.6% higher firearm homicide rates. Another 2017 study, by John Donohue of Stanford University, found that such laws were consistently associated with increases in violent crime. These two studies are backed by earlier research also showing that minimal standards for carrying firearms bring down the rate of violent crime.
The push to get firearms into more hands is based on the false notion that defensive gun use — DGU — is widespread and effective at preventing injury. The gun lobby and its allies tout research that put the number of defensive gun uses at approximately 2.5 million a year. However, the methodology behind that figure has been called into question by David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. And, by combing through media and police reports, the Gun Violence Archive documented approximately 2,000 verified DGUs in 2017, which also casts doubt on the 2.5-million estimate. As to the efficacy of DGUs, a 2015 Hemenway study showed that using a gun in self-defense is no better at preventing injury than alternative means such as doing nothing or running away.
In reality, the best research shows what common sense tells us: More guns mean more crime and more death. Gun possession significantly increases your risk of being killed by someone you know. A gun in the home doubles your risk of homicide and triples your risk of suicide. The presence of a gun increases the lethality of domestic violence. Areas with higher gun ownership see a significant increase in burglary. And states with higher levels of gun ownership experience higher rates of firearm fatalities.
The Dickey Amendment should be overturned. We undoubtedly need more research on the public health effects of gun laws, gun ownership and gun use. But the need for more studies is no excuse for ignoring the research that already exists; it is no excuse for inaction. The best data are clear: More guns mean more carnage, and stronger gun laws save lives.
Legislation that reduces the easy availability and number of firearms is the best way to respond to mass school shootings, church shootings, domestic violence and firearm-suicide. To delay any longer is to dishonor the 17 lives lost in Parkland, and the more than 38,000 Americans killed annually by guns.
Devin Hughes is the founder of GVPedia. Mark Bryant is the executive director of Gun Violence Archive.