The United States has had over one million gun deaths in the past four decades. There was no federal funding for research that could inform gun policy.

There have been mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas. The US Congress passed a bill that places some restrictions on guns. It was signed by President Joe Biden.

The law, which includes measures to enhance background checks and allows review of mental-health records for young people, is the most significant federal action on the issue in decades. There is no evidence that most gun policies will be effective in reducing the rate of firearm-related deaths.

Crifasi is the deputy director of the Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy at the University. There is some evidence that supports the effectiveness of gun policies in the US and abroad. There are a lot of unanswered questions.

The US gun lobby backed legislation in the 1990s that restricted federal funding for gun violence research. The National Rifle Association supported the Dickey Amendment, which prevented the CDC from using taxpayer dollars to conduct research with an exclusive goal of gun control. He says that the association has never opposed research into the dynamics of violent crime.

In the past few years, the research field has begun to rebuild, thanks to an influx of money and loosened restrictions. The field is smaller than it should be compared to the problem. We are decades behind where we would be if we answered questions.

Scientists are looking at the data they have and what data they need to evaluate the success of the new legislation and possibly guide stronger future policies.

Data gaps

The buying age for an assault rifle is not included in the new US law. Both the Buffalo and Uvalde attackers purchased their rifles at a young age. Crifasi says it has been difficult to make the case for minimum age policies. People didn't focus on them as a research question because of the limited research dollars.

There are gaps in basic data that make gun violence research difficult. Information on firearm ownership has not been collected by the US government since the mid-2000s. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives can't release firearm-tracing data. Researchers don't know the total number of guns in a study. "If we want to understand the rate at which guns become crime guns, or the rate at which guns are used in suicide, and which kind of guns and where, then we have to have that denominator."

Accurate counts of gun violence events are difficult to come by. The CDC provides solid estimates of gun deaths, but the agency hasn't historically provided important context, such as the kind of weapon used or the relationship between the shooter and victim The National Violent Death Reporting System is now fully funded. It's hard to study changes over time.

Most shootings do not result in death, but still have a negative impact on the people involved. CDC data on non-fatal firearm injuries are not included in the NVDRS. Researchers could have more power to evaluate the effects of state and federal laws if they were able to examine shootings beyond firearm deaths. A study that doesn't have enough data might conclude that a gun policy isn't effective.

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Catherine Strawn says the CDC strives to provide the most timely, accurate data.

Hospitals and police departments are the primary sources of gun violence data. Accidental gunshot injuries are often reported by hospitals. Roman says that people in the ER don't want to say it was an accident because they don't know if it was intentional.

Data on gun-related hospital care is collected under an agreement between the US Agency for healthcare research and quality, states and industry. States can charge for access to their data. Andrew Morral is the director of the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research at the RAND Corporation. Making data available for research is something the federal government could do better.

Police departments are important to the collection of gun violence data. Local law-enforcement agencies were required by the FBI to report crimes to the national system. Compliance among departments has been low because users are required to input more comprehensive data. According to Philip Alpers, a gun-violence researcher at the University of Sydney in Australia, there is very active data collection at every scene of traffic accidents. It is possible for law enforcement to collect information about guns. He and others suggest that a culture of gun rights among agency personnel could make them less likely to comply with the new system.

Nature asked the FBI about the reporting system, but they didn't reply.

Looking for lessons from abroad

There is no reason for gun controls to be delayed. Data from international studies on gun safety and from state and privately funded US investigations could be used to guide policymakers.

In Israel, policy changes made it harder for military personnel to bring their weapons home. The gun regulations were put in place after a mass shooting in Port Arthur, Australia. Over the next seven years, the country's gun homicides and suicides halved. There were no mass shootings in the 2 decades after the massacre, compared with 13 in the 18 years preceding it.

These successes may not translate to the US. I wonder if America could do what Australia did. It's not a chance. Alpers says you have too many guns in the US. America needs to be separated from the rest of the world. Increased sales are being seen at gun stores around the country because of the prospect of tighter regulation.

Roman believes that we can learn from other countries. That seems far away from a reasonable expectation of where US policy is going. The US needs more research.

Slow, belated progress

Since federal funding increased, data collection in the US has increased. The National Research Conference on Firearms Injury Prevention will be held later this year.

This renewed interest in gun safety research will bolster the sparse efforts across the country that rely mostly on state and private funds. California instituted a restriction on assault weapons in 1989 and has since added other regulations, such as universal background checks and red-flag laws that allow police, family members, employers and school employees to petition the court to temporarily separate a person from their firearms.

Garen Wintemute is an emergency medicine physician at the University of California, Davis. The overall rate in the other 49 states was higher than in California. The sum total seems to be working despite the impact of individual laws. Wintemute thinks that they acted together when one law wasn't effective.

The approach was successful in targeting US car crashes. Motor-vehicle accidents were the leading cause of death for young people for a long time. Investments in research and evidence-based regulations make a big difference to the numbers. Rebecca Cunningham is a gun violence researcher at the University of Michigan. The people got less drunk. There were many layers of public-health protection.

The legal drinking age was raised from 18 to 21. The legal age to buy a rifle could be raised.

The amount of money invested in traffic safety has been four times greater than for gun violence research. Gun violence was the leading cause of death for children and young adults in the United States in 2020.

We didn't do research on the health problem for 20 years. If that research had been allowed to continue, how many people are dead today?

The article was first published in July of 2022,