On May 24, a primary school in Uwalde, Texas, killed 19 children and two teachers. Just 10 days earlier, a white gunman was charged with a racially motivated shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, which killed 10 blacks. These tragic incidents are among the latest mass shootings to shake the United States, the only country with more firearms owned by citizens than citizens.
Unfortunately, mass shootings – whose definitions vary – are only part of the story. In the United States, cases of gun violence are on the rise. In 2021, nearly 21,000 people were killed with firearms (excluding suicide), according to Archive of gun violence, an online database of incidents of gun violence in the United States. This is an increase of 33 percent compared to 2017 firearms injuries usurp motor vehicle accidents as the most common cause of death in children and adolescents.
In the same period, incidents with active shooters almost doubled. The FBI defines an active shooter as “one or more homicides or attempted homicides.” in 2021 61 such incidents 103 people died in the United States. In 2017, the number of accidents was 31, although a total of 143 deaths.
“I can’t think of a problem that requires more urgency and attention,” said Sonali Rajan, a researcher on school violence prevention at Columbia University. “Gun violence is a solvable problem.”
In 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health awarded a combined $ 25 million grant for research into the prevention of gun violence, ending a 25-year shortage of federal funding in this area (SN: 5/3/16). During this decades-long financial drought, research into the prevention of gun violence relied on funding from private foundations and government subsidies.
One of the few state-funded institutions in the country is the Center for the Study of Gun Violence in New Jersey at Rutgers University in Piscataway. The center conducts interdisciplinary research into the causes and prevention of gun violence, including murder and suicide. Richard Barnes, assistant director of the center, leads research projects focusing on suicide prevention and how social disparities are linked to violence in black and brown communities
Scientific news talk to Barnes and Rajan about gun violence in the United States, ways to reduce it, and what research is needed. The following conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
SN: What recent trends in gun violence in the United States stand out for you?
Rajan: Gun violence as a problem has only worsened in the last few years. There are an average of about 100,000 Americans who are shot with firearms each year, and approximately 40,000 of these people die from their gunshot wounds. [These numbers include suicides.] This number has increased in the last few years.
Barnes: In the last two years, during the pandemic, there has been a significant jump in gun purchases. And we are witnessing rising levels of murder and interpersonal violence in our cities across the country. 2021 was a record year with the most firearms deaths, including suicides. This was also a record in the sense that many black and brown communities across the country suffered a significant increase in gun violence. [According to the CDC, the nearly 35 percent increase in overall firearm homicides from 2019 to 2020 – rising from 4.6 to 6.1 deaths per 100,000 people – hit Black communities particularly hard.]
This American problem with gun violence is significant, and I hope we will soon be able to distance ourselves from this trend of intensified gun violence, which is so devastating.
SN: Why is gun violence so much worse in the United States than in so many other countries?
Barnes: We must take into account our unique difference in gun ownership. We have many more weapons than many other countries. And where you have a lot of firearms, you will have more gun violence.
SN: What research suggests can help reduce gun violence?
Barnes: Again, where there are more firearms, there is more gun violence. So the first thing to consider is access to firearms. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have firearms, but that’s one way.
We also have organizations to end violence (SN: 11/4/19). Their role is to work locally with other organizations – many times working with law enforcement – to gather information on the effectiveness of outreach programs and to do everything possible to prevent and intervene in these conflicts that may lead to gun violence. We know that when these organizations work properly, they can have an impact on reducing gun violence. It really focuses on and encourages investment in public safety in these communities. This is not a cheap way of action, it requires resources. And it was really difficult to get those necessary resources for the people in the community, as well as the research.
SN: Does increasing police presence help suppress gun violence?
Rajan: Increasing the police is not a solution to gun violence. There is no evidence that this works. In fact, I think it is important to emphasize that police violence is a form of gun violence. Instead of increasing funding for the police, there are a number of things we can do, such as investing in communities and schools in ways that are far more effective in deterring gun violence.
SN: After the shooting at the school in Texas, there was we are talking about increasing campus security and arming teachers. Is this effective?
Rajan: In fact, there is evidence to show that the criminalization of school space [by increasing police presence] is extremely detrimental to both children and their learning outcomes, and also disproportionately affects colored children in many negative ways. This is a really good example for me of our school districts, which invest a lot of money in practices that do nothing productive and can actually have unintended negative consequences.
In the context of schools, there are many things that do not actually have evidence to support their effectiveness: metal detectors, zero tolerance policies, anonymous threat reporting systems and the arming of teachers with firearms. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that any of these types of safety strategies are actually effective in deterring gun violence at school.
SN: What kind of research is needed to reduce gun violence?
Barnes: [At the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center], we are talking to people who have owned illegal firearms in the last five years. Our question is very different from the criminal question of where you get your firearms. This is a good question, but we are trying to better understand the life experiences of illegal firearms holders in order to better understand why they own firearms. What is it where they live, how do they live and why do they think they need firearms?
I think many times people reject the experience because it starts and ends with the question of whether it is legal to own a weapon. They do not ask whether you should own a firearm. But if you live in an area that is dangerous, where people are shot, how will you protect yourself, your family, your loved ones? So, we are trying to answer this question, hoping to be able to suggest: Here are some meaningful things that can be done.
SN: What other types of information can help prevent gun violence?
Barnes: Social determinants health are factors that either contribute to or hinder communities from thriving [such as economic stability, social support, education and health care access]. There are so many similarities between the communities that fight the most from gun violence. I think the conversation about gun violence should include questions about how much [these social determinants] contribute to or influence what we understand about gun violence. In particular, the increase or increase in gun violence.
SN: What is the main misconception in the prevention of gun violence?
Rajan: That the solution to gun violence is based entirely on gun laws. Weapons laws are an extremely important part of the puzzle to prevent gun violence. But this is not the only part. We need to think about all the ways we take care of the health and well-being of children and adults. For example, why would a 14-year-old choose to carry a firearm as a start? They essentially do not feel safe and we as a society are failing our children. What are the major systemic factors driving this level of violence? We need to rethink what it means to prevent gun violence.
SN: What challenges do researchers face in preventing gun violence?
Barnes: Funding is the biggest, but it is also important to have partners on the ground.
We are a research institution, so there is a lot of mistrust that needs to be overcome when we enter a community. Many black and brown communities feel as if they have been pushed and pushed, they have seen it before. We need to have relationships in place that start with trust in order to understand how we can get to some of the issues that can lead to recommendations and prevention methods that work.
To do this, on-site organizations must also be funded. Because if they disappear, it makes it almost impossible for us to penetrate those communities that have a well-founded fear of outsiders, especially researchers. This is the only way to really get into the topic of gun violence in the community.
Mass shootings and gun violence in the United States are increasing