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9 Questions About Gun Violence That We May Now Be Able to Answer

9 Questions About Gun Violence That We May Now Be Able to Answer
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Among the 23 executive actions President Obama announced on Wednesday to try to curb gun violence, there was one particularly wonky new policy that could have major implications for urban gun violence – or, more specifically, for what we know about it. Obama has directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research the causes and prevention of gun violence, a seemingly simple proposal that has long been opposed by the National Rifle Association.

This one move could go a long way toward changing how we think about gun violence in American communities, recasting it as a problem of public health. But it would also for the first time enable researchers to answer some fundamental – but until now unknown – questions about who has guns, how they get them and the ways in which they're misused. These unknowns are particularly relevant for cities given, as Richard Florida has written, that almost 60 percent of firearm homicides in the U.S. occur in the country’s 50 largest metros.

"We know virtually nothing about the relationship between guns and crime because that whole research agenda has been basically shut down for years," says John Roman, a senior fellow with the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Congress (at the prodding of gun-rights groups) has repeatedly blocked public agencies like the National Institutes of Health from funding research into gun violence. As a result, for example, the NIH has funded three such studies in the last four decades. This chart comes from a letter written Jan. 10 to Vice President Biden casting our dearth of gun research in near-ridiculous terms, comparing major NIH research awards from 1973-2012 to the cumulative morbidity associated with each condition:


The University of Chicago Crime Lab

In President Obama's memorandum this week to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, he directed the agency to "begin by identifying the most pressing research questions with the greatest potential public health impact." We already have several questions in mind because, well, there are so many obvious ones that we don't have the answers to. Here are our top 9:

1. How many guns are there? There is plenty of good data on the number of gun incidents per year at the city, state and national scales. But we don't have a number for how many guns exist. Most current estimates peg the number nationally at about 300 million, but this is hardly a reliable count. We'd also be curious to know how gun figures differ by city and region.

2. How do guns get into the hands of people who use them to commit crimes? More specifically, do most criminals obtain those guns illegally? Through loopholes? Were the people who obtained them subjected to background checks? Also, many guns are used in more than one crime, explains Jeffrey Fagan, a law professor at  Columbia Law School, and often by more than one person. How do guns move through neighborhoods and social networks?

3. Who should be excluded from owning a gun? Media reports often make the assumption that the mentally ill in particular should be screened from gun access. But there is no real research, for instance, on the link between schizophrenia and the likelihood of committing gun violence.

4. Do magazine limits actually work? New York state passed a law just this week limiting the number of bullets legally allowed in a magazine to seven, and President Obama has proposed federal legislation setting that number at 10. Will such policies have an impact, particularly in the cases of incidents involving a lone, active shooter?

5. Why do people own guns? This seems like an obvious question, but we'd love to know more: For most people, is it a question of personal safety? Hunting? Politics? Are there policies we could implement that would reduce the need many people feel to keep firearms handy? Do people own guns in cities for different reasons than they own guns in rural areas?

6. Is there a relationship between levels of gun ownership and levels of crime? The NRA says we can only stop bad people with guns by deploying more good people with guns. But surely we could develop research to actually answer this question. Does gun violence generally rise as gun ownership does in a given community, or is the opposite true?

7. What percentage of the entire universe of gun owners commits gun crimes? We're guessing this is a pretty small number, and that most moderate gun owners would like to have the answer out there in the public domain.

8. How are gun crimes and gun ownership spatially distributed? Within cities, do gun owners cluster? Why are some neighborhoods hotbeds for gun violence, and what distinguishes those places from others?

9. How do guns move from producer to consumer? Where are people legally buying guns? And how do guns leak into the black market? How many guns go missing and what are the implications?

Right now, we don't even know what we don't know. So what other questions would you want answered?

Amanda Erickson contributed reporting to this piece.

Top image: Zhukov Oleg/Shutterstock

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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