On Valentine’s Day, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. He killed 17 students and teachers and injured at least a dozen others. The Parkland shooting is currently the ninth deadliest single-day mass shooting on U.S. soil.
Like other recent mass shootings, the events in Parkland were quickly followed by a public outcry for increased gun control. On Feb. 19, Teens for Gun Reform hosted a “lie-in” in front of the White House to demand tougher gun laws. Others gathered in protest outside of the National Rifle Association headquarters on Feb. 16. Speaking at that event, Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., argued for an assault weapons ban, universal background checks and closing gun show purchasing loopholes.
Florida legislators are currently drafting a bill that would increase the minimum age for purchasing an assault rifle to 21 and impose a three-day waiting period for purchases. President Trump has called for regulations on so-called bump stocks that convert semiautomatic weapons to fully automatic machine guns, as used in the 2017 shooting in Las Vegas. But will these laws prevent another mass shooting? Is there a better policy option?
Unfortunately, the research we need to answer these questions doesn’t exist – and part of the problem is that the federal government largely doesn’t support it.
1. Why do we need research about guns?
Gun violence is a public health issue. It’s a leading cause of premature death in the United States, killing more people each year than diseases like HIV, hypertension and viral hepatitis.
While violent crime has generally been on the decline since the mid-1990s, the latest reports from the FBI suggest crime rates may be starting to increase. Gun crime has been a persistent problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 33,594 individuals were killed by firearms in 2014 alone. That’s only about 200 less than the number of people killed in motor vehicle accidents. In 2015, roughly 85,000 people were injured by firearms, including nearly 10,000 children.
In order to prevent gun injuries and deaths, we need accurate information about how they occur and why. While police reports and FBI data can provide some detail, they don’t include the thousands of cases that go unreported each year. Between 2006 and 2010, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that more than a third of victims of crimes involving a firearm did not report the crime to police. The National Crime Victimization Survey, which collects victimization data from about 90,000 households each year, helps to fill in this gap. However, even this survey has its drawbacks. It doesn’t collect data from youth younger than 12, it doesn’t include murder, and it doesn’t help us fully understand the offender’s motivations and beliefs.
Social scientists like me need more research in order to get the level of detail we need about gun crime. There’s just one major roadblock: The federal government won’t fund it.