Gun violence: one of the top five causes of death in the US for people under the age of 65.

Spoiler alert: This isn’t a discussion about gun ownership or the second amendment or gun control. It’s about the importance of data in making good policy decisions.

Firearm violence kills more than 30,000 people a year in the US. By the numbers alone, that makes gun violence a significant public health problem. And whether you believe gun control measures are a solution to the problem or not, it’s hard to ignore the fact that we are dying from gun violence in large numbers.

If we knew more about the problem, we’d be able to do more to solve it. But good data and research are hard to come by, because in 1996 Congress banned research to advocate or promote gun control, and the Centers for Disease Control have decided that means not funding any research at all on preventing gun violence.

It takes a little work to tease out data on gun violence deaths, but here are some things we do know from the most recent data (2012):

  • In 2012, there were 32,288 deaths from firearm violence in the US.
  • Since 2000, the death rate from gun violence has remained pretty much the same.
  • Firearms were used in almost three out of four homicides in 2012.
  • Most deaths from firearm violence are suicides, not homicides—nearly two out of three deaths from firearm violence were suicides in 2012.
  • Black males are at highest risk for firearm homicide.
  • White males are at greatest risk for firearm suicide, and the numbers are increasing.

We also know that gun ownership, alcohol and drug use disorders, and prior history of gun violence are predictors of gun violence. Contrary to popular belief, having a mental illness is not a predictor for firearm homicide; however people with some mental illnesses are at risk for firearm suicide.

According to the experts, beyond these basic statistics, we don’t really know much about how to prevent gun violence short of simply banning guns altogether (not an option) and possibly keeping guns out of the hands of people who are at high risk for using them (background checks are already in place in some states). This may come as a surprise, but we don’t have a deep, science-based understanding of the nature and prevention of gun violence, and that is just what we need.

As one researcher noted, if we really conducted research on preventing gun violence, “guns themselves would be treated as a risk factor for many types of violence or injury — just as mosquitoes would be treated as a risk factor for contracting malaria, for example.”

For example, a recent study found that violence among teenagers spreads through networks of friends, just like a virus: adolescents, research found, were much more likely to commit acts of violence if their friends have done so. But that wasn’t specific to gun violence, and it was only 12-18 year-olds who were studied.

It’s hard to get excited about scientific research about public health issues, but that’s what we really need if we’re going to change policy and reduce the number of gun deaths.

Alison Webb

About Alison Webb

Alison Webb is a public health consultant with over 20 years experience in community outreach, grassroots organizing, implementing and evaluating evidence-based programs, and advocating for healthy policies at the Maine State Legislature. Alison is especially interested in what science tells us about promoting health and wellness and how we can apply that to live well in Maine. The blog describes recent public health research and give readers insights into how to use that knowledge to lead healthy lives.