Using Data to Stem the Tide of Gun Violence in the U.S.

Gun violence and firearm-related deaths are surging in the U.S. since 2020. This paradoxically may lead some people to think that owning a gun is a good idea and indeed gun sales in the U.S. have also been surging since the coronavirus pandemic began. Most gun owners in the U.S. say they own their guns for protection and that they make them feel safer.

         The data on gun ownership actually show quite the opposite. Numerous studies have demonstrated that the presence of a gun in the home increases the risk that a household member will die by firearm-related suicide or homicide. A new study published in April in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that homicides were twice as high among people who lived in households with a gun owner as those who lived in households without guns. The concluding statement from the paper is important:

Homicides and suicides account for 97% of the nearly 40 000 firearm-related deaths in the United States each year. It is implausible that gun access decreases suicide risk, and every rigorous study that has examined this relationship has found a positive association. Nonetheless, if firearm ownership enhanced personal safety in other ways, as many gun owners reportedly believe, tolerating some elevated risk for suicide might be considered a worthwhile tradeoff. This study adds to mounting evidence that no such tradeoff exists, because a gun in the home is associated with higher—not lower—risk for fatal assault. People who do not own handguns but live with others who do bear some of that risk, and the amount they bear appears to be substantial.

More Policing Not Correlated with Violent Crime Reduction

         Believing that owning a gun offers protection is a form of science denial, because the evidence we currently have is clear that it does not. Apparently, owning a firearm does exactly the opposite of what most gun owners believe: it increases the risk that the gun will be used to harm owners themselves or their families. Another belief that many people have is that more policing is a potential solution to stemming the rising tide of gun violence. A recent Brookings Institute report helps us consider if there is evidence to support that claim.

         The report indicates that there is little correlation between increasing police funding and decreasing crime. Even if there were, the report notes that municipalities would still have “to weigh the negative effects that accompany adding more police officers, such as increasing arrests for low-level crimes which contribute to mass incarceration and disproportionately affect Black communities. Exposure to the criminal justice system itself can perpetuate underlying issues that contribute to violent crime and recidivism, such as low socioeconomic status and unemployment, homelessness, and poor mental health.”

         According to the Brookings report, “One of the most evident social factors correlated with violent crime is mental health.” High levels of poor mental health at the community level in aggregate, reflected by measures like overall community levels of depression and anxiety, are correlated with increased rates of violence. Efforts to improve community-level mental health may reduce violent crime. The report notes that “An estimated 20% of police calls are for mental health and substance use crises.” 

         This of course does not mean that most individuals with mental illness are prone to commit violent acts; we know that even though overall people with mental illness are somewhat more likely to to commit violent acts than people without mental illness, the great majority of people with mental illness are not violent. Rather, it suggests that poor overall community mental health and lack of access to mental health care increases the risk for violent crime, including gun-related violence. Furthermore, it begs the question of whether most police officers are properly trained and prepared to deal with the staggering number of calls that involve mental health disturbances.

Police Are Not Prepared for Mental Health Emergencies

         These data suggest that owning a gun is clearly not a solution to dealing with increasing gun-related violence in the U.S. Nor is simply spending more money on policing likely to address the problem. In addition to stricter gun control legislation and addressing the social factors that increase the risk for gun violence, the data indicate that improving access to mental health care facilities may have an impact. Also, we need to develop and evaluate alternatives to standard police responses to mental health emergencies. We have heard people scoff at the idea of “having a social worker respond to a police call,” but in fact there is little evidence to suggest that having police officers respond to calls that involve a person in the midst of a mental health crisis is an effective intervention. Whether police officers can be better trained to respond to mental health emergencies or in fact we should be deploying behavioral health professionals for these calls is an empirical question that critically needs exploring.        

Scientific data alone cannot be the basis for all public policy decisions; these require careful consideration of social needs, politics, and economic realities. But we believe that public policymakers should always ask if there are data relevant to their decisions or if more studies could be useful. Available data tell us that liberalizing gun ownership laws and spending more money on policing are unlikely to lead to meaningful and acceptable reductions in gun violence in the U.S. Rather, we need to consider factors that are known to increase the likelihood for gun violence and design interventions to address them. One of those factors seems clearly to be poor community mental health. Thus, any attempt to reduce gun violence in the U.S. should consider the evidence and include an approach that addresses our police and overall community responses to mental health needs.

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