Politics

For Gun Violence Researchers, Bipartisan Bill Is a ‘Glass Half Full’

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Jeffrey W. Swanson, a sociologist at Duke University, is no stranger to Washington’s gun laws debate. He has been studying violence and mental illness for more than 30 years, building a scientific case for policies that might reduce gun deaths.

He has presented findings to members of Congress showing that so-called red flag laws, which allow the authorities to temporarily remove guns from people deemed dangerous by a court, save lives. He has stood side by side with researchers whose studies found that licensing laws and bans on large-capacity magazines sharply reduce gun violence deaths.

Dr. Swanson is part of a small community of American academics — about two dozen in all — focused exclusively on studying gun violence and how to prevent it. Washington has often stood in their way; for 24 years, Congress effectively barred the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from funding their work. Federal law still prevents the government from giving them access to gun-tracing records that would be extremely helpful to their research.

For years, they have felt that Washington was not listening to them, and they had better luck with state lawmakers. But now that President Biden has signed the most significant revision to the nation’s gun laws in decades, America’s gun violence researchers are taking a bit of a victory lap — despite viewing the bipartisan legislation as imperfect and last week’s Supreme Court decision expanding gun rights as a countervailing setback.

“I’ll settle for a glass half full,” said Garen J. Wintemute, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of California, Davis, who has studied gun violence for 40 years.

America’s gun violence research community includes psychiatrists, epidemiologists, law professors, emergency room doctors and social policy experts. Their interest is not purely academic; they want to use science to make change. They are mindful of the political realities of Washington, and many have deeply personal connections to the work.

Dr. Swanson, who specializes in studying red flag laws — formally known as extreme risk protection orders, or ERPOs — has lost family members to suicide. One, he said, would have been a “poster person for an ERPO if people around him knew he felt this way.”

Charles Branas, an epidemiologist and director of the Columbia University Center for Injury Science and Prevention, saw the results of gun violence up close while working as a paramedic. Now he is examining the effectiveness of school safety tactics, from locking doors to arming teachers — work that might feed into a federal clearinghouse, created by the Senate measure to gather and disseminate research on “school safety evidence-based practices.”

Cassandra Crifasi, a researcher at Johns Hopkins, is a rarity in the field: an avid gun owner and sport shooter. Her examination of nine states that require people to obtain permits before buying a gun has found “robust evidence,” she said, that licenses are “associated with reductions in homicides, including mass shootings and suicides.” She now has a grant from the C.D.C.

These researchers say the new law is informed by evidence. But it is also notable for what it leaves out. It does not ban high-capacity magazines, which allow shooters to fire repeatedly without pausing to reload. Studies suggest doing so would significantly reduce death tolls in mass shootings. It makes no mention of gun storage safety locks, which a study published in 2000 found were associated with a 17 percent reduction in unintentional gun deaths of children. And although gun homicides disproportionately affect people under 21, the law does not raise the legal age for buying semiautomatic weapons to 21, from 18.

A provision giving authorities up to 10 business days to review the juvenile and mental health records of gun purchasers younger than 21 will be difficult to enact, experts say, because juvenile court and mental health records are typically private and inaccessible.

Visitors at the National Rifle Association’s convention in Houston last month. The Senate’s new gun legislation is the most significant revision of national gun laws in decades.Credit…Mark Abramson for The New York Times

The bill’s expansion of mental health resources in communities and schools is welcome, they say, but unlikely to result in fewer mass shootings or less interpersonal gun violence. More than half of gun deaths are suicides. Expanding access to mental health care might reduce firearms deaths, Dr. Swanson said, but mainly by preventing people from taking their own lives. Many people struggle with mental illness, and only a small percentage of them are violent.

“Fixing mental health is a great slogan for a totally different public health problem that intersects with violence just on the edges,” Dr. Swanson, a professor in Duke’s department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, said in an interview in his home office here. “If we were to succeed, wildly succeed, in fixing the mental health care system and cure schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, our violence rate would go down by about 4 percent.”

The measure does take steps to close the so-called boyfriend loophole, by including serious dating partners in a federal law that bars domestic abusers from purchasing guns. Studies suggest that step could reduce intimate partner homicides. But experts say it does not address a major shortcoming in the original law, which applies only to people convicted of domestic abuse and not those subject to restraining orders.

Still, Dr. Swanson takes particular satisfaction in the bill. One of its central provisions — language directing $750 million toward helping states implement red flag laws — is rooted in his research.

In much-cited papers, Dr. Swanson studied the effects of red flag laws on suicides in the first two states to enact the laws: Connecticut, in 1999, and Indiana, in 2005. By examining death records, matching them to gun removals and using statistical modeling, he calculated that for every 10 to 20 people who had guns taken away, one life was saved. To those who say that number sounds small, Dr. Swanson likened the situation to a doctor treating a patient with a terminal illness.

“If they have a treatment for a really bad, fatal condition and they can offer this treatment to 10 people and save one life,” he said, “that’s considered a very good treatment.”

After the Senate voted to advance the legislation last week, he reached out to Josh Horwitz, a director of the Center for Gun Violence Solutions at Johns Hopkins University, and asked what Mr. Horwitz thought.

“Well,” Mr. Horwitz replied after a pause, “I think we changed the world.”

There were 45,222 firearms deaths in the United States in 2020, according to an analysis by the Center for Gun Violence Solutions, based on data from the C.D.C. and other sources. Suicide accounted for more than 24,000 of the deaths. About 500 deaths were unintentional; another 600 involved law enforcement. Homicides accounted for more than 19,000.

A makeshift memorial outside of Robb Elementary School, where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers in May. The law signed Saturday does not ban high-capacity magazines, a step that studies suggest could reduce deaths in mass shootings. Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

The RAND Corporation, which evaluates the effectiveness of gun policies, said that “surprisingly few” have been subjected to rigorous scientific methodology. Its “gun policy research review” uses words like limited, moderate and inconclusive to describe the strength of evidence for particular interventions.

But Andrew Morral, the behavioral scientist guiding the project, said it was unreasonable to expect definitive evidence.

“That’s sort of like saying our standard for passing laws is a criminal standard — beyond all reasonable doubt,” Dr. Morral said. “I think we should come into these discussions with a civil standard: Where does the preponderance of the evidence lie? Is there reason to think that the proposed legislation might be better than what currently exists?”

Before the Senate voted on the bill, gun policy researchers delivered a letter to each senator, signed by more than 1,200 leaders in public health and medicine, detailing specific policies rooted in scientific evidence. The recommendations included “taking action on large-capacity magazines as a way to significantly lower deaths in mass shootings.”

They did not recommend a revival of the assault weapons ban that was in effect from 1994 to 2004, in part because some felt more research was needed but also because they knew that such a move was too polarizing and would never pass.

“We wanted to speak from science and what was actually possible,” said Dr. Branas, an author of the letter.

In 2019, Congress authorized funding for gun violence research for the first time in decades: $25 million a year, to be split between the C.D.C. and the National Institutes of Health.

Cassandra Crifasi, a researcher at Johns Hopkins and an avid gun owner, is now receiving funding from the C.D.C. for her research.Credit…Shuran Huang for The New York Times

The money is “a tiny trickle,” said Dr. Mark Rosenberg, who helped establish the C.D.C.’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control but said he was fired in the late 1990s under pressure from Republicans who opposed gun research. When similar numbers of people were dying in car accidents, he said, Congress allocated $200 million a year for research — “and that was in 1970.”

Dr. Rosenberg argued that gun violence prevention and gun rights are not at odds with each other. It is possible, he said, to come up with policies that protect both the rights of gun owners and public health. Dr. Swanson believes red flag laws are just such a policy. The push for them has been 10 years in the making.

In January 2013, just weeks after a gunman killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Daniel Webster, a pioneer in the field of gun violence research, convened a two-day summit on reducing gun violence.

Along with Mr. Horwitz, Dr. Webster directs Hopkins’ Center for Gun Violence Solutions. Mr. Horwitz runs advocacy, while Dr. Webster oversees academic research. The goal of the summit, Dr. Webster said, was to put together evidence-based “recommendations for what policymakers should be doing to address gun violence in America,” and publish it quickly, to influence congressional negotiations.

But the resulting book — including chapters by Dr. Swanson and Dr. Wintemute — failed to move members of Congress, who passed no new laws.

Two months later, Mr. Horwitz convened a research consortium, he said, “to really think through how to deal with this issue of firearms, mass shootings, suicide, without stigmatizing people with mental illness.”

Soon, Dr. Swanson, Mr. Horwitz and others in the consortium began traveling the country, promoting evidence-based policies, including red flag laws, to state legislators. In 2014, California became the first state since Indiana to adopt a red flag law. Today, 19 states and the District of Columbia have them.

There is emerging evidence from Dr. Wintemute and others that the laws may prevent mass shootings. Dr. Wintemute dug into the court records surrounding 201 “gun violence restraining orders” issued in California and found that 58 of them — nearly 29 percent — involved mass shooting threats. Other research by April M. Zeoli of Michigan State University has echoed his findings. Her examination of gun revocations that involve mass shooting threats found that the most common threats were aimed at K-12 schools.

That is not absolute proof that the laws prevent mass shootings — it is a correlational finding, not one that proves causation — but it is “compelling anecdotal evidence,” said Dr. Morral, of RAND.

But red flag laws gained little traction in Washington until the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. In the aftermath, Dr. Swanson, Dr. Wintemute and Dr. Zeoli were invited to make their case before dozens of members of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force.

Days later, the House, with backing from Mr. Biden, passed the Federal Extreme Risk Protection Act, a measure creating a federal red flag law, and offered incentive to states. The language creating a federal law did not make it into the Senate’s Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which does include the state assistance and which Mr. Biden signed on Saturday after both chambers passed it. Dr. Swanson can live with that.

“This might be the one square inch of common ground between people who really care about gun rights and people who really would like to see more sensible regulations to reduce gun violence,” he said. “Maybe it’s a little beachhead that we can build on, but let’s start there.”

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