Gun violence and gun control: What the research shows

I have been heartened by the response to yesterday’s blog post on gun violence and gun control.  The conversations that have arisen have been, for the most part, respectful and constructive.  In the course of those conversations, many respondents have cited the connection between gun violence and mental illness.  I agree that this connection is a vitally important component of the conversation.  Especially so, because in our nation and particularly in the State of Texas, we face a critical lack of mental health resources.

On a recent mental health resources report card, the National Alliance of Mental Health gave both the United States and Texas a grade of “D”.  With regard to Texas, the report states, “Lack of community services in Texas results in significantly overcrowded emergency rooms and inappropriate use of prisons as warehouses for people with mental illness.”  Indeed, the Harris County Jail is, by default, the largest mental health facility in Texas.  The lack of mental health resources is particularly acute in East Texas.  Whereas in Austin, there is one professional therapist per 1500 residents, in East Texas there is 1 therapist for every 10,000 residents.  It is an untenable situation.

In the absence of sufficient governmental funding for mental healthcare, two institutions on whose boards I’m proud to serve are making a difference.

  • The Beacon, through its Cathedral Clinic, serves the homeless and also intercepts mentally ill inmates as they are released from jail to provide psychiatric treatment and mental health counseling.
  • The Bishop Dena Harrison Fellows Program, launched just last night by the The Seminary of the Southwest and underwritten by a $3 million gift from the Episcopal Health Foundation, funds three-year internships for new licensed professional counselors (who train at the seminary) to serve in rural East Texas.

I encourage anyone interested in contributing to tangible, positive social change to support either (or both!) of these very worthy causes.

Turning specifically to the connection between mental illness and gun violence, in a 2014 interview Duke University professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences Jeffrey Swanson offers this:

“People with serious mental illness are 3 to 4 times more likely to be violent than those who aren’t. But the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent and never will be.  Most violence in society is caused by other things.  Even if we had a perfect mental health care system, that is not going to solve our gun violence problem. If we were able to magically cure schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, that would be wonderful, but overall violence would go down by only about 4 percent.

A 2001 study looked specifically at 34 adolescent mass murderers, all male. 70 percent were described as a loner. 61.5 percent had problems with substance abuse. 48 percent had preoccupations with weapons. 43.5 percent had been victims of bullying. Only 23 percent had a documented psychiatric history of any kind ― which means 3 out of 4 did not.”

Clearly the perpetrators of these crimes were mentally disturbed, but the challenge is that the vast majority were not diagnosably mentally ill.  Is there, then, no way to identify those at greatest risk of committing acts of violence using firearms?  Swanson says there actually is:

“If someone has a history of any kind of violent or assaultive behavior, that’s actually a better predictor of future violence than having a mental health diagnosis. If someone has a conviction for a violent misdemeanor…there’s evidence, they ought to be prohibited [from owning guns.] Things like a history of two DUI or DWI convictions, being subject to a temporary domestic violence restraining order, or convicted of two or more misdemeanor crimes involving a controlled substance in a five-year period.”

Shannon Frattaroli, an associate professor of health policy and management at the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University, agrees with Swanson. “Substantial research finds that the strongest predictor of future violence is past violent behavior,” she explains.  Beth McGinty, also a Johns Hopkins professor, adds another predictor: “Drug and alcohol abuse are also associated with increased risk of violence toward self and others.”

Swanson, Frattaroli, and McGinty are all members of the Consortium of Risk-Based Firearm Policy. The Consortium released a study in 2013 which addresses the risk factors for gun violence comprehensively.  Based upon their research, the Consortium also offers a set of recommendations for gun policy:

“The report calls for strengthening current policies banning access to firearms for people with histories of involuntary treatment for mental illness…[and] offers a new “risk-based” paradigm to supercede the long-established model of gun rights restrictions focused on mental health. The report calls for temporary restrictions of up to five years on the purchase and possession of firearms by individuals convicted of violent misdemeanors, domestic violence, or more than one drug or alcohol conviction within a certain period – all of which are behaviors that demonstrate an elevated risk of violence, even when not accompanied by a record of mental illness…In all instances of temporary restrictions, there should be a process for individuals to have their rights restored when they no longer pose a significant risk of harming themselves or others.”

It seems to me this is a good place to start.  The recommendations call for restricting firearms from those who demonstrably have shown a propensity toward violence, who, in fact, have broken the law.  People of good will disagree on many proposed gun control measures, but these recommendations provide a space for common ground that could appreciably reduce gun violence in our society.




Another week, another mass shooting.  As I’ve blogged recently, I am a hunter and gun owner.  I am not someone who believes the 2nd amendment should be repealed.  But I am someone interested in having a studied and generous national conversation about constitutional gun control measures that may decrease the number of gun-related deaths in this country.  I have also blogged on the issue of mental health and gun violence, sharing research that reveals past acts of violence to be far better predictors of future gun violence than is mental illness per se.

The ultimate purpose of those prior blog posts was to call for federally-funded research on how best to minimize gun violence.  In the absence of federally-funded research, the best we can do is rely on university and private-source research.  In the hope of furthering the conversation, here are some helpful studies for people of good will to consider:

Against the assertion that mass shootings have always been part of our societal life and are merely being more heavily reported today, there is this article on a 2014 FBI study, which demonstrates how such shootings have increased appreciably.  The article begs the question whether the types of weapons utilized in mass shootings should be considered, in Justice Scalia’s words, “unusual and dangerous,” and therefore restricted (which is constitutionally allowable).

Next are two studies that debunk a shibboleth commonly repeated by those opposed to all gun control, namely, that areas with the most stringent gun control laws have higher incidents of gun violence.  While this may be true in Chicago–related primarily to drug-related gang violence–it is not true overall.  The Huff Post piece looks specifically at gun homicide.  The Atlantic article article looks at gun deaths more generally, but it also hones in on the correlations between specific gun control measures and lower rates of gun violence, which is helpful (and also speaks to the question of whether restricting assault weapons might help reduce gun violence).  Richard Florida is a well-known urban researcher.  I’ve read his stuff over the years.

Then is a Stanford University study that concludes “right to carry” laws have contributed to an increase in the incidence of aggravated assault, gun homicide, and other violent crimes.

Finally, here is a Harvard study that compares the availability of guns with homicide rates.  While the researchers stop short of claiming a causal connection, they do control for the other primary contributory factors (the “usual suspects”), including poverty, unemployment, urbanization, and alcohol consumption.  The results make clear that the greater the pervasiveness of guns, the greater the homicide rate across all age categories.  The research was repeated to look at the years 2001-2003, with the same results.

Rather than merely repeating the mantra “gun control doesn’t work,” we ought, as a society, to consider the question on its merits through the best research possible.  Based upon that research, we should consider who ought not have access to guns, how best to prevent guns from falling into their hands, and what categories of guns are in every instance “dangerous and unusual” and therefore should be restricted from everyone.  And then we should ask ourselves the cost-benefit question: How many mass shootings are we going to accept before we pursue effective, constitutional firearm regulation?


4 thoughts on “Gun violence and gun control: What the research shows

  1. This is the most measured, unbiased and common sense article that I have ever read on the subject. Continue on and push it Barkley. We are thankful for people like you. Bill

  2. Perhaps a starting point would be to update and pass a 2016 version of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban passed in 1994 with the support of Republicans Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford and Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Cinton.

    This is a video made by a retired policeman and responsible gun owner:

  3. A new study by the US Centers for Disease Control has been completed in 2016. This was ordered by President Obama.

    Here are some key findings from the CDC report, “Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence,” released in June along with quotes:

    1. Armed citizens are less likely to be injured by an attacker:
    “Studies that directly assessed the effect of actual defensive uses of guns (i.e., incidents in which a gun was ‘used’ by the crime victim in the sense of attacking or threatening an offender) have found consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies.”

    2. Defensive uses of guns are common:
    “Almost all national survey estimates indicate that defensive gun uses by victims are at least as common as offensive uses by criminals, with estimates of annual uses ranging from about 500,000 to more than 3 million per year…in the context of about 300,000 violent crimes involving firearms in 2008.”

    3. Mass shootings and accidental firearm deaths account for a small fraction of gun-related deaths, and both are declining:
    “The number of public mass shootings of the type that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School accounted for a very small fraction of all firearm-related deaths. Since 1983 there have been 78 events in which 4 or more individuals were killed by a single perpetrator in 1 day in the United States, resulting in 547 victims and 476 injured persons.” The report also notes, “Unintentional firearm-related deaths have steadily declined during the past century. The number of unintentional deaths due to firearm-related incidents accounted for less than 1 percent of all unintentional fatalities in 2010.”

    4. “Interventions” (i.e, gun control) such as background checks, so-called assault rifle bans and gun-free zones produce “mixed” results:
    “Whether gun restrictions reduce firearm-related violence is an unresolved issue.” The report could not conclude whether “passage of right-to-carry laws decrease or increase violence crime.”

    5. Gun buyback/turn-in programs are “ineffective” in reducing crime:
    “There is empirical evidence that gun turn in programs are ineffective, as noted in the 2005 NRC study Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review. For example, in 2009, an estimated 310 million guns were available to civilians in the United States (Krouse, 2012), but gun buy-back programs typically recover less than 1,000 guns (NRC, 2005). On the local level, buy-backs may increase awareness of firearm violence. However, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for example, guns recovered in the buy-back were not the same guns as those most often used in homicides and suicides (Kuhn et al., 2002).”

    6. Stolen guns and retail/gun show purchases account for very little crime:
    “More recent prisoner surveys suggest that stolen guns account for only a small percentage of guns used by convicted criminals. … According to a 1997 survey of inmates, approximately 70 percent of the guns used or possess by criminals at the time of their arrest came from family or friends, drug dealers, street purchases, or the underground market.”

    7. The vast majority of gun-related deaths are not homicides, but suicides:
    “Between the years 2000-2010 firearm-related suicides significantly outnumbered homicides for all age groups, annually accounting for 61 percent of the more than 335,600 people who died from firearms related violence in the United States.”

    8. Many are quoting the CDC’s finding that, “The U.S. rate of firearm-related homicide is higher than that of any other industrialized country: 19.5 times higher than the rates in other high-income countries.” However, if figures are excluded from major locations with the strictest gun control laws such as Illinois, California, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., “The homicide rate in the United States would be in line with any other country.”

  4. Thank very much for this, Brian. I’ll look forward to reading the study. More and more, I’m coming to believe–and the research is bearing out–that past history of violence (rather than mental illness) is the best predictor of future bad action using guns. I’m hopeful that this consensus may be a point upon which most people of goodwill can agree. Using it as a focal point for regulation would save lives and not infringe upon anyone’s 2nd Amendment rights.

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