A New Attempt To Understand Gun Violence. Will It Work?

              Here we go again. Yet another group concerned with gun violence has discovered that they are dealing with a ‘public health’ problem and are putting together a research agenda that will seek to reduce this threat to community safety and health. In this case the researchers,in King County, WA (that’s Seattle and environs) want to analyze “the relationships between victims, witnesses and perpetrators of gun violence the same way an epidemiologist studies the spread of contagious disease,” the goal is “to find ways to intervene in the lives of the most vulnerable individuals….”  

              The research to be conducted follows from earlier research done by the gun-violence scholar group at the University of Washington led by our friends Ali Rowhani-Rahbar and Frederick Rivara, which found that victims of gun violence came back to the hospital with another gun injury much more frequently than people who were admitted for non injury reasons or the overall population at large.  This study covered the entire state in 2006-2007 and clearly established that the victims of gun violence were involved in a culture of violence which kept repeating itself in terms of future violent events.

              The new study will only cover Kings County, but will engage all 40 law-enforcement agencies operating within the county, hopefully leading to results that could be used to develop a comprehensive intervention strategy.

              Before I raise my usual concerns about this approach, let me make it clear that I have always supported the efforts by researchers to develop coherent explanations for the causes of gun violence leading to remedies for same. My problem with so much of the research, in particular research which is based on a public- health perspective, is that the way in which the research plan is developed often seems to be a case of using accessible data to develop a question which needs to be answered, rather than the other way around. 

              Why do 75,000 individuals, overwhelmingly males between the ages of 16 and 35, choose to inflict a serious injury on someone else by using a gun, when probably 1.5 million or more individuals in the same age cohort decide not to use a gun to engage in the same behavior?  After all, if you smash someone’s head in with a baseball bat, you’ll face the same homicide charge that you’ll face if you put a bullet between their ears. And folks, don’t kid yourself into believing that only 75,000 kids and young men who want to beat the s*it out of someone else can get their hands on a gun.  The friggin’ guns are all over the place, particularly in neighborhoods where violent assaults are frequent events.

              If the King County researchers have granular access to the actual criminal and health data on gun violence, I only hope they can gain access to the same kind of data covering the many more violent attacks where guns aren’t used. Because if we are ever going to figure out how to really make a dent in gun violence, it’s not going to happen by telling someone who bought a gun legally to engage in a 4473 transfer when he wants to sell the gun to someone else. It’s also not going to make much of a difference to lock all the guns away because I never heard of anyone getting shot with a gun that was locked in a safe.

              Know why we don’t know much about gun violence? Because the data on the gun violence which accounts for more than 70% of all gun violence happens to be non-fatal assaults, for which the CDC admits its numbers may be off by as much as 30 percent. Hopefully the data being examined in King County will help us figure out why some people commit violence with guns, but many others don’t. I’m still waiting for the answer to that one.

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