Does Public Health Research Really Explain Gun Violence?

 Before I get into the body of this column, let me make one thing very, very clear. Mike the Gun Guy™ has not decided to switch sides and begin promoting the false narratives about gun violence used by my friends in the NRA. I do not believe that having a gun around is more of a benefit than a risk; I do not believe that civilians, trained or not, should be walking around with guns; I do not believe that when Mike Bloomberg, et. al., takes away all the guns, that only the ‘bad guys’ will have guns. 

On the other hand, the fact that I do not subscribe to the most hallowed beliefs of Gun-nut Nation doesn’t mean I am willing to accept the basic assumptions or arguments about gun violence promoted by the gun-control side. And the reason I cannot accept the current gun-control narrative is that it is based on public health research by scholars at first-rate institutions like Johns Hopkins and Harvard, and I find most of this research to be fundamentally flawed.

Public health gun research does not lead to substantive advances in firearm regulation for three reasons: (1). The researchers know absolutely nothing about the industry which they believe needs more effective regulation; (2). the research never focuses on the behavior of individuals who commit 85% of all intentional gun violence by picking up a gun and shooting someone else; (3). the research uses data which is chosen to promote an answer to the problem of gun violence rather than to figure out how to understand the problem itself.

Along with raising these concerns about the value and validity of public health gun research, I want to raise one more issue which is the most troublesome of all. To put it bluntly: I have never (read never) encountered a field of academic research in which the researchers are as unwilling and/or unable to engage in critical, public discussions about their own work. If these scholars consider that the absence of such a critical dialog helps them better understand both the possibilities and the limits of their research, then all I can say is that this field of academic research fundamentally differs from every other academic field, including other research done by public health.

Yesterday I attended a presentation about a new strategy for diagnosing autism that is being tested at the Harvard School of Public Health. The lecture was presented before a room of clinicians and medical students who were encouraged to ask serious questions about the methods and findings of the strategy itself. Do any of the scholars who conduct gun violence research ever appear before audiences other than various gun-control groups who already agree with what they are going to say? They don’t.

Here’s an example of how seriously flawed gun research can be and how such flaws take us further, rather than closer to solving the public health crisis caused by guns. David Hemenway has made an international reputation for himself by arguing that the United States suffers an inordinately high level of fatal violence because we have so many guns. He has made this argument in numerous articles as well as in his formative book. 

In the book (2nd edn., page 2) he compares gun homicides in the U.S. with homicide rates in other ‘frontier’ countries (Canada, Australia, New Zealand) and finds that the overall U.S. rate is  6.1 (for 1999 – 2000) while in the other countries it is 1.7 or 1.8. That difference is because we have twice as many households with guns, even though rates of non-fatal violent crimes in those other countries (burglary, robbery, rape) are either higher or the same.

I don’t recall the last time I listened to a public discussion about gun violence or looked at a gun-control website that I didn’t see reference to this argument again, again and again. But what I find most interesting about Hemenway’s approach is not what he says, but what he doesn’t say. Because the fact is that the non-gun homicide rate in the U.S. is more than twice as great as the non-gun homicide rate anywhere else. And while Hemenway gives us those comparative numbers, he ignores what they really mean.

Because if you think the imbalance in violence between the United States and other advanced countries started when the NRA or John Lott began promoting a gun culture, think again. In fact, we were killing people at a much faster rate than other advanced countries all the way back to the decades prior to World War I.

It’s one thing to argue that we are a violent society because we own so many guns. But are there other, equally compelling explanations that might inform us as to why the United States may be a more violent society pari passu? I’m not saying that Hemenway’s argument is totally wrong; I am saying that it is, at best, incomplete. And I am still waiting for anyone in the public health research community to consider that using incomplete arguments as a guide to public policy just doesn’t work.

If any of my public health research friends want to submit a response, I’ll be happy to post it here.

30 thoughts on “Does Public Health Research Really Explain Gun Violence?

  1. I am a public health researcher. I do not prescribe to the hallowed scripts of Hemenway. The first ship that landed in the New World carried guns. Guns made and shaped America. Historically it takes quite a few years for every society to move from violence to peace and cooperation. It takes time. Human beings are innately programmed to fear and act out of fear. America is a fledgling country and the inherent fear for the people near one another is evident even in casual
    Settings when a simple smile is doubted. We haven’t even scratched the surface on understanding gun ownership. Currently the answer is prescribed without a deeper understanding. Let’s fix the problem of guns with laws is merely a childish tantrum.
    Gun violence is a complex multidimensional problem in the US which varies in population subgroups and geospatial areas.

    • America may be a fledgling country, but age old countries in Europe have undergone equivalent or deeper tantrums of hate and violence. Nazi Germany? Modern right wing and anti-immigrant movements? European anti-semitism or ethnic cleansing? Post WW I slaughters in E. Europe (The Vanquished, by Robert Gerwath). Even jolly old England, where my Indian spouse (from U.P.) was called a N—er and where that recent movie Blinded by the Light comes to mind.

      Mistrust of The Other is in the genetic code. Firearms combined with ugly social media, personal misfortune, or hate are a toxic combination. But you are spot on that passing a law does little. We are still fighting the War on Drugs, for example. Anyone want to pass another drug law?

    • @Bindu Kalesan

      “Currently the answer is prescribed without a deeper understanding. Let’s fix the problem of guns with laws is merely a childish tantrum.”

      Here’s the deeper part. First let me quote Eric Monkonnen: “For centuries murder rates in the US have differed so much from those in Europe, in both level and trend, that the search for explanations has to be conducted with care. (…) TO ASSUME THAT AN ABSENCE OF GUNS WOULD BRING ABOUT PARITY WITH EUROPE IS WRONG.”

      Now let’s cut the the chase. Comparing the US to countries that have had historically low rates of homicides is very misleading.

      1) Great Britain’s current homicide rate is actually higher than it was before the strict ban on most types of firearms was imposed.

      2) In 1913 London with a population of +7 mln, recorded 9 murders. Chicago, one-third the size of London, in the same year had 105, nearly 12x London’s total.

      My point is this: England’s strict firearms laws were never responsible for a low level of violent crime. The level of violent and armed crime was extraordinarily low before gun controls were introduced in 1920. During the 19th and early part of the 20th century anyone, respectable citizen, criminal or lunatic, could walk into a gunshop and buy any firearm he wanted. Guns were freely available and, for example, officers in the armed forces provided themselves with pistols which they retained when they left.

    • Bindu, here’s the problem. It’s true that we haven’t scratched the surface on understanding gun ownership. (Most gun owners, myself included, are not the problem.)
      But the same can be said about motivations to commit acts of terrorism, like the hi-jacking of planes. That doesn’t stop us from hardening airports.
      Gun violence kills way more people than terrorists in this country. We need to harden our gun laws.

      • Of course, Brent, note that the TSA has a horrible detection rate when tested by security professionals, and their searches are blatant violations of the 4th Amendment…..and it generally makes flying considerably less enjoyable for the public, with virtually no benefit to public safety.

        Kinda like gun control laws.

      • So Tom, you would feel perfectly secure flying out of an airport with no security checks, the way folks did in the 60’s?

      • I’ll just say airports aren’t any safer (at least as far as boots on the ground security) are no safer today as they were in August of 2001.

        But boy they are a whole lot worse for the travelers.

      • Interesting,Tom..Interesting. i would think that airport security measures are effective, but frankly, I have no evidence of it. But then, I haven;t actually studied the issue.
        However,what I like about background checks and safe gun storage is that they throw serious obstacles in the path of those who fill the illicit gun pool.

      • Brent, every year the government audits the TSA, that’s a good place to start.

        There are also studies on how criminals serving time for weapons and violence got their guns, and Bloomberg background checks and safe storage (you may have better ideas, but Bloomberg is the ONLY game in town for law writing, so any use of an Everytown term without further qualifications should be read as the Bloomberg endorsed laws) won’t have much effect in the criminal population, but will add a disproportionate burden to those who don’t pose a problem in the first place.

      • Tom, you’ve given me an idea for a new PowerPoint presentation on this gun violence issue. I did one a few years back for a GVP meeting but, looking back on it, it was too long & covered too much stuff.
        I’m going to do another one that will stick closer to the point by reviewing the BATFE websites stats and just a few other sources.
        I’ll have some time on my hands in the next week, or so, to kick it off dead-center.

    • Nobody but the fistful of people who leave comments here read Mike’s drek. Hell I don’t even read the articles here anymore they’re so poorly written and boring, I just scroll down to the comments, mostly to see what you and Brent are writing, plus the handful of pro-gun people who Mike hasn’t banned yet for disagreeing with him.

      • The only people who have ever been banned on my website are people who use profanity or direct personal insults at others. This website also happens to be the only website on the internet that welcomes and publishes blogs from both gun-control advocates and pro-gun advocates, and in the case of the latter, I always provide a link to their websites which often promote the sale of various guns and gun products. So Tom, why don’t you stop your childish nonsense, get serious and contribute something of interest to the site? Who knows, you might even get people to think seriously about your point of view.

      • You want me to write an article for an anti-gun website that nobody reads?

        Thanks for the invitation, but I’ll decline.

      • I didn’t ‘invite’ you to write anything. I simply said that anyone is free to say anything here as long as they don;t use profanity or indulge in personal insults. As to my small audience, I guess the more than 5,000 people who get a notice of every column which goes up on this website is just a ‘handful’ for you, right? Particularly since only 300-400 read what is posted every day.

      • I have not done it for a while but I used to look at the place in magazines where they mention the editors names and say they are not responsible for unsolicited manuscripts. I tried doing that for this magazine and found nothing. Sort of hard to submit articles when people do not know where to send them isn’t it? Did I miss something?

      • You can send whatever you would like published to my email: It can be in any format although I prefer Ms-Word. Nobody else seems to have had a problem publishing on this site but I’ll make a point of putting this information on the Contributing Editors page. Thanks.

      • Yes it is, Mike. And as I said it’s probably why most peer reviewed scholars don’t come here. A) They simply are unaware of your blog and B) the effort to make a point here for the tiny impact really isn’t worth it.

  2. All good points, guys. But I have absolutely no doubt that comprehensive, tightly written federal background checks will cut a big chunk out of our gun violence statistics. So will mandated safe gun storage.
    I can go into my reasons, if anyone wishes.

    • A Fed UBC would have to entail tracking, i.e. some form of registration in order to provide some means to enforce and know who is exchanging what. Unless its on the honor system.

      Otherwise, those hundreds of millions of guns, many of which have not been tracked, can be exchanged with impunity. For example, anyone interested in an Ithaca Mod. 37 my old man bought used for me in 1970?

      (by the way, I’d never part with that gun).

      • it COULD be done with a receipt system. You simply keep a bill of sale on your background check, and by divorcing it from gun make model and serial number (which the Moment ANY federal form has those it does become a registry), and not having a penalty for running a check when a transfer isn’t done (ie you could run a check on a friend before you took them to the range, or the local gun store just to make sure there aren’t any suprises, OR you could run a background check on employees, babysitters, boys who want to date my daughter etc…..or just run a check on your buddies just to add noise to a system and preclude a registry) it would do much of the needed things without being able to be used for many of the evils the anti-gun forces have admitted to.

      • For the BC and safe storage laws to function at top efficiency, thus reducing gun violence to European levels, something akin to a registration system, at least for handguns, would be required.
        That’s true.
        But most people, being law-abiding and also in fear of violating federal weapons laws, would obey them without such a system – and most people is good enough to make a noticeable dent in gun crime.
        Example: People tend to obey stop signs in the wee hours of the morning when they’re on the road all alone because that’s human nature. And that’s merely to avoid a traffic violation (even when there’s no police around)., not a federal gun law.
        We have to see our gun problem, in part, as a materials flow problem. Our job in that regard is to drain a pool flooded with illegal guns – pool with both constant influx of new weapons due to gun law weaknesses that sadly balances the constant eflux effort of law enforcement.

      • I once had an M37 in 20-bore that my Dad bought for me. Like a doofus I did sell it.

  3. I am 88 years old. As I see it, problems that we used to settle with fists on the South side of Chicago where I grew up, are now settled by guns. If you’re depressed and have a gun in the house bang, bang, problem settled. As you have pointed out,” if you carry a gun, sooner or later it’s going to go off”.
    My solution; A national database registering all semiautomatic weapons, excluding hunting rifles etc.Don’t register, go to Jail! Note the Australian experience. A registry reduced the # of guns in circulation as well as gun deaths. I do believe that “It’s the guns stupid, it’s the guns.”, does have validity

  4. Dr. Jim Webster is right that fists are obsolete and now things are settled for keeps with 9mm hole punch machines, both in Chicago and places like Albuquerque. But that is a culture that developed in the S. side of Chicago and Albuquerque, not in relatively peaceful areas of the US. Heck, the N. side of Chicago has a homicide rate two orders of magnitude lower than the S side. Maybe we need to study how to put that genie back in the bottle.But Jim, unlike most of us, has street cred in that he was a trauma surgeon in Chicago and saw the blood everywhere.

    Australia had a very low homicide rate compared to ours before the 1996 Port Arthur law. The trend continues downward, perhaps with an inflection in 1996 but not a major change. My read is that major mass shootings got rare. Its a different culture.

    Perhaps registering semiautos will force those gang bangers in S. Chicago to go back to revolvers? In that case, those cartridge case imprinting laws will be useless because revolvers don’t eject spent cases. But there is truth to that: as gun technology advanced, everyone wants a better gun, good guys and bad guys alike. Everyone ups the ante.

    There are 300-400 million guns in the US, for better or worse. The vast majority of guns in the U.S., semiauto or otherwise, are owned safely and never cross paths with the law. If the GVP community concentrated on identifying and interdicting gun misuse rather than the usual practice of scattershot accusations, there might be something to discuss. I suggested a tax break on gun safes and earned a major league put down from Dan Webster, who curtly replied that taxpayers shouldn’t pay to make gun owners safer. I guess taxpayers shouldn’t have paid big bucks to lower my CO2 profile either when I put a whole array of solar ev panels on the roof. Maybe Prof. Webster is a Republican…

  5. Sorry folks, but here’s a tidied-up version of my previous comment which I did not sufficiently proofread.

    For U.S. BC and safe storage laws to function at top efficiency, thus reducing gun violence to European levels, something akin to a registration system, at least for handguns, would be required.  That’s true.
    But most people, being law-abiding and also in fear of violating federal weapons laws, would obey these laws without such a system – and most people is good enough to make a noticeable dent in gun crime.
    Example: People tend to obey stop signs in the wee hours of the morning even though they’re on the road by themselves, with nary a cop anywhere.  It’s human nature to follow laws and strive be an upright citizen. And that’s merely to avoid a traffic violation, let alone violate a federal gun law.
    As an engineer, I see our gun problem, in part, as a materials flow issue. Our job in that regard is to drain a pool flooded with illegal guns – a pool with a constant influx of fresh weapons (via weak gun laws) that presently overcomes a constant eflux (via law enforcement’s’ crime gun removal effort).  

  6. You do realize that the first guest poster is the vice president of ‘Gun Violence Survivors Foundation’? It’s a 501(c) 3 charity that doesn’t seem to be listed by Guide Star or Charity Navigator.
    I’m rather curious as to this and checked her social media presence and found that she is an advocate for gun control. Imagine that?

    What I did find is her organization seems to have another name: ‘Victim’s Vacation Fund, Inc’.

    I will ask her why such lack of clarity in what ought to be the lord’s charitable work?

    I also have to ask: “Let’s fix this problem with guns is merely a childish tantrum.”

    What then do you propose? Based on your social media profile, you seem to be an ardent fan of draconian laws that will disarm the law abiding. Is that the case?

    Seriously, every time I scratch the surface I find a dung heap with these people.

  7. @Brent Thomas Gurtek

    “thus reducing gun violence to European levels”

    I’ve been trying to get people to understand this stuff for years: look at how homicide rates trend over time in response to changes in gun policy. Go back about 50 years, and most other developed (code name for 90-99% white or asian) countries had gun laws much more on par with those in the US. Those other developed countries also had homicide rates about 4-5 times lower than the US.

    “For centuries murder rates in the US have differed so much from those in Europe, in both level and trend, that the search for explanations has to be conducted with care. (…) TO ASSUME THAT AN ABSENCE OF GUNS WOULD BRING ABOUT PARITY WITH EUROPE IS WRONG.” – Eirc Monkkonen (“Homicide: Explaining America’s Exceptionalism”)

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