Guns kill people
In this week’s obvious news, laws that allow people to kill other people with guns have led to more people killing other people with guns. According to two new research papers, stricter firearm laws are associated with fewer firearm homicides, and the implementation of Florida’s stand-your-ground law was associated with increased firearm homicides.
These findings, released today by the JAMA Internal Medicine, may sound obvious. But since Congress has essentially withheld all funding for gun violence research for the last 20 years, large-scale studies of this sort have been few and far between. As The Atlantic reported, “In the mid-1990s, Congress declared that funding at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shouldn’t be used to advocate for gun control, and it effectively blocked funding for the study of gun violence at the agency.” Despite studies showing that gun violence is a threat to human health and safety, the CDC, a federally funded public health agency with a seven billion dollar annual budget, still withholds support from gun research. Perhaps these new findings will bolster the case for federal funding.
One paper released today, first-authored by Lois K. Lee of Harvard Medical School, examined five types of gun laws: “those that (1) curb gun trafficking, (2) strengthen background checks, (3) improve child safety, (4) ban military-style assault weapons, and (5) restrict firearms in public places and leniency in firearm carrying.” The researchers found strong evidence that laws strengthening background checks and purchase permits helped decrease gun homicide rates. Interestingly, the researchers did not find strong evidence that laws focusing on trafficking, child safety and assault weapons decreased firearm homicides. The evidence for the effects of laws regarding guns in public places was not conclusive either way. On the whole, though, they found that, “stronger gun policies were associated with decreased rates of firearm homicide, even after adjusting for demographic and sociologic factors.”
What can be done to decrease gun homicides?
Another paper released today, also in JAMA Internal Medicine, tracked the effects of Florida’s stand-your-ground law since its implementation in 2005. This law allows a person to use deadly force instead of retreating from what they believe to be a life-threatening encounter. To conduct this research, David K. Humphreys of University of Oxford and his colleagues examined gun death data for the years leading up to 2005 and the years after, then compared them to other states’ data for the same years. They found that gun homicides increased in the years following 2005, while prior to 2005 they had remained relatively stable. The comparison states (New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and Virginia) which don’t have stand-your-ground laws, did not have similar increases, strengthening the evidence that this is a Florida trend associated with stand-your-ground laws, not part of a national trend.
Sherry Towers, who uses data to research societal phenomena at Arizona State University, notes that the researchers in this second study looked at all homicides, not differentiating between unjustified homicides (which are, of course, crimes) and justified (which are not considered crimes, under the stand-your-ground law). She points out that, according to FBI statistics, there were 238 justifiable homicides nationwide in 2006, but there were over 1,100 total homicides in Florida during the same year, “so obviously justifiable homicides really aren’t a big fraction of the total number of homicides.” Towers does agree with the finding that stand-your-ground had a significant impact on homicides in the years following its implementation, and added that the law seemed to have little impact on property crimes and robberies, the exact type of crimes the law is intended to deter. “It would take more study to determine the trends in justifiable homicides, before and after [stand-your-ground] in Florida, to see if the law had an effect on those,” she tells Popular Science.
Informed discussion of public health issues requires sound data, and this research is just one small step towards informing a national conversation. Debate over the Second Amendment has reached a fever pitch in the United States this year, and while this research does not recommend dismantling citizens’ rights, it does provide another point of discussion for the ongoing debate. And whatever our political affiliations, let’s hope we can still find some common ground in fact-based evidence. Towers, for one, is not optimistic that this research will help drive policy. “I doubt the results of the study will change the opinions of people on either side of the gun control fence,” she says. “Those who are in favor of [stand-your-ground] laws will likely not be persuaded by this study as to the public health impact.”