Gun Violence: What Works?

by Jerry King

We can’t begin to summarize here the endless ways we disagree about guns. We bring different perceptions from having grown up where guns and hunting are part of family life vs. living where guns are integral to street violence. We respond differently to the assertion that guns don’t kill; people do. We weigh differently the Second Amendment, erosion of constitutional freedoms and the necessity of armed vigilance against tyranny.

Even so, we note that approximately two-thirds of Americans, higher since the Florida shootings, have favored a handful of popular and sensible reforms. But to tell the truth, we don’t know or even agree about whether any of those reforms might be effective. If we were to succeed in bringing about policies that many of us advocate for, are we certain they would even make a difference?

A public health perspective can help answer those questions. Public health practice is a three-legged stool of reason: effective interventions are supported by sound policies that in turn derive from good research. And so, public health as many other disciplines seeks to support “evidence-based practice.”  But when it comes to gun policy and interventions, we have precious little evidence to rely on.

Last week, Kathleen Rest of the Union of Concerned Scientists published an article “The Disturbing Facts of Gun Violence Research in the US” which pointed out that homicides, suicides, assaults, and unintentional shootings, albeit less visible than mass shootings, devastate families and communities nationwide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 96 Americans die every day from gun violence, with over 33,000 deaths per year. Various research studies have found that guns in the home increase the risk of completed suicides as well as deadliness of domestic violence.   In fact, women in the US are 16 times more likely to be killed by guns than in any other developed nation.  A 2016 analysis by the Associated Press revealed the startling data that among all countries, 90% of women, 91% of children aged 0 to 14, 92% of youth aged 15 to 24, and 82% of all people killed by firearms were from the United States.

Also last week, Rebecca Hersher of National Public Radio filed “Science Provides Few Facts On Effects Of Gun Policies” that reports findings of the RAND Corporation that some areas of research have revealed helpful data: policies meant to prevent children from getting to firearms — e.g. requiring guns to be stored unloaded, or locked away reduces suicide and unintentional injury. Laws prohibiting purchase by people diagnosed with mental illness reduce violent crime, but "stand your ground" laws lead to an increase in violent crime.

So, what works? Gun violence, as Kathleen Rest asserts, is a “complex problem that demands multi-faceted solutions.”  But many Americans may not know that for the past 20 years our ability to find answers to that complexity has been suppressed by restrictions on federally funded research on gun violence. In 1996 Congress adopted an omnibus spending bill that included the “Dickey Amendment” stipulating that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the [CDC] may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” The same political agenda that stalls action on modest reform while loosening restrictions on guns in the community has intended to prevent us from learning what works or does not.

But a hopeful sign opens a door. Alex Azar, the new Secretary of HHS, has reportedly said that gun violence research is now a priority for his agency, and media reports that eliminating the Dickey Amendment is one point of negotiation in Congress to arrive at bi-partisan gun measures.  So, here we are; among the ways we can stand with young people, as John Gibson urged so well in last week’s Monday Memo, is to tell your congressional representatives that you want to see the Dickey Amendment removed from appropriations bills, so that we the people can go about learning what measures will work.


Contact your Member of Congress: To find their information, visit:

Senator Donnelly: (202) 224-4814

Senator Young: (202) 224-5623

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