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Spring 2005 Vol. 5 No. 1

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Weak Data on Guns and Violence Thwart Sound Policy-making

Current research on guns and violent crime often misses the mark, leaving unanswered the questions that most people have. The science base is too weak to settle policy disputes or to support clear-cut positions about what can be done to prevent or control gun violence, says a new report from the National Research Council.

S ome of today's most pressing policy questions regarding gun use simply cannot be answered because existing data and research methods are inadequate. Take, for example, studies of "right-to-carry" laws, which allow eligible adults to carry concealed handguns. To date, nearly three dozen states have enacted such measures, but existing studies that use similar methods and data to gauge their effects yield conflicting results. Certain studies indicate that these laws reduce violent crime. Other studies show negligible effects, while still others suggest an increase -- making it impossible to draw strong conclusions from available evidence, said the committee that wrote the report.

Those inconclusive and contradictory findings are a recurring theme in the committee's assessment of the scientific literature in this area. If criminal-justice and crime-prevention policy is to have a sound basis, a comprehensive research program on firearms is needed, and the federal government should support such an effort, the report says.

The committee was asked to evaluate the quality of scientific data and research on firearms injury and violence. It found a scientific foundation that is shaky and full of holes. The report identifies information that is needed not only to strengthen that foundation, but also to inform decision-making.

The inadequacy of data on gun ownership and use is a critical barrier to better understanding gun violence, the report says. Furthermore, many studies have design flaws or offer contradictory evidence. Assessing the potential of several ongoing national surveys to provide useful data on firearms should be a starting point. Also, a key research question is whether ownership data can be accurately collected while protecting privacy. And to conduct more rigorous and comprehensive studies, scientists need appropriate access to federal and state data on gun use, manufacturing, and sales.

How brisk is the gun trade overall? It is difficult to say because information on gun markets is virtually nonexistent. In addition, research should be carried out to investigate any potential links between firearms policies and suicide rates. Also needed are much better studies on the benefits and costs of policing and other criminal-justice interventions, the report says. And to amass reliable and accurate data about violent injuries and deaths, the development of a National Violent Death Reporting System and a National Incident-Based Reporting System should be a priority.

Many violence-prevention programs intended to steer children away from firearms receive, at best, an incomplete grade. There is almost no evidence that these initiatives have had any effects on youths' behavior, knowledge, or attitudes regarding guns, the report says. Thorough evaluation of the programs should be standard practice.

Firearms violence is a serious problem in the United States. The report's call for better data and research reflects that reality.
  -- Vanee Vines

Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review. Committee to Improve Research Information and Data on Firearms, Committee on Law and Justice, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2004, 340 pp.; ISBN 0-309-09124-1, available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $47.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Charles F. Wellford, professor, department of criminology and criminal justice, University of Maryland, College Park.

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Copyright 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences