What Does The Research Say About Preventing Gun Violence And School Shootings?

May 22, 2018

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott started a series of roundtable discussions today, aimed at coming up with ways to address school shootings.

We asked for your questions about guns and schools in Texas. We wanted to find a common set of facts before the debate over what to do — if anything — really starts. A common theme in the first questions we got was about research.

In the wake of the 1996 Dickey Amendment, has there been any serious and/or nonpartisan research into the causes of gun violence in general and school shootings in particular? And if so, when was it conducted and what was the result (if any is/was known)?

—    Bill Crawford

Let’s start with what the Dickey Amendment (also called the Dickey rider) is.

In the 1996 federal spending bill, Congressman Jay Dickey (R-Arkansas) inserted a clause as part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention section that said “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control."

This was widely seen as a de facto ban on gun violence research by the CDC, though perhaps mostly for political, rather than policy reasons.

The National Rifle Association lobbied for the amendment in response to a 1993 study that found guns in the home were associated with an increased risk for gun violence in that home.

The amendment cut off funding for perhaps the biggest potential source of scientific study of gun violence in the U.S. Other government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and the Justice Department, continued to fund some studies around guns, as did some private organizations.

But — due to the Dickey Amendment — the research into gun violence has been limited since the mid-1990s.

After the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, President Barack Obama instructed the federal government to restart research on gun violence. In 2013, the CDC funded a study to establish research priorities. It also funded a 2015 study on gun violence in Wilmington, Del.

“It is possible for us to conduct firearm-related research within the context of our efforts to address youth violence, domestic violence, sexual violence, and suicide,” a CDC spokeswoman told The Washington Post at the time. “But our resources are very limited.” 

Other agencies, such as the FBI and Department of Education did do some research specifically about school shootings in the late '90s and early 2000s.

Gun advocates attend an open carry firearm rally at Dallas City Hall during the National Rifle Association's 147th Annual Meeting.
Credit Lynda Gonzalez/KUT

Earlier this year, a study by the RAND Corp., a California-based research organization, synthesized the available research to figure out which public policy proposals might lead to a reduction in gun violence. Looking at the totality of the available evidence, however, researchers found it hard to come to solid conclusions.

“With a few exceptions, there is a surprisingly limited base of rigorous scientific evidence concerning the effects of many commonly discussed gun policies,” the authors wrote. “This does not mean that these policies are ineffective; they might well be quite effective. Instead, it reflects shortcomings in the contributions that scientific study can currently offer to policy debates in these areas.”

The study examined the effects on gun violence of specific public policies, including background checks, bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, child-access prevention laws and minimum age requirements. The report found strong evidence that child-access prevention laws reduced accidental injuries among children and reduced self-injuries. There was some evidence that such laws reduced gun suicides.

"With a few exceptions, there is a surprisingly limited base of rigorous scientific evidence concerning the effects of many commonly discussed gun policies."

There was also some evidence that prohibitions on gun ownership in cases of mental illness reduced overall homicides and suicides.

But if you look at the evidence for the public policies studied by RAND, you see that there is “inconclusive” evidence that any of them have an effect on mass shootings. Again, that doesn’t mean those policies don’t have an effect — it’s just that there is not enough scientific evidence to prove it, either way.

(It’s important to note here that mass shootings are a unique and relatively uncommon element of the larger gun violence picture in America, so taking action based solely on these events may be misguided, as this FiveThirtyEight article pointed out.)

Now, this lack of scientific study might be changing.

In March, Congress approved a new spending bill which, while it still includes a prohibition on the CDC advocating for gun control, does clarify that the agency can conduct research on gun violence. Some researchers are skeptical that anything will actually change, though. 

"There's no funding. There's no agreement to provide funding. There isn't even encouragement. No big questions get answered, and there's nothing here, yet, of significance for the research community," Dr. Garen Wintemute, an expert on gun violence at the University of California, Davis, told NPR in March.

For his part, former Congressman Jay Dickey (who died in 2017) said he regretted that his amendment stood in the way of gun research. He was interviewed by Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep in 2015.

INSKEEP: Did you intend to cut off all research on the effects of guns or gun ownership in society?
 

DICKEY: We didn't think about that. It turned out that that's what happened, but it wasn't aimed at that. And it wasn't necessary that all research stop. It just couldn't be the collection of data so that they can advocate gun control. That's all we were talking about. But for some reason, it just stopped altogether.

INSKEEP: Why do you think that was?

DICKEY: I don't know, but that's where my regret is. I was on to other things and worrying about my constituents. And I didn't follow through and say, we need - still need to do research. I didn't do that.

Do you have a question about guns, gun violence or school shootings in Texas? Ask it in the form below.

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