The Science of Guns and Violence in America


I read a Nature News article recently about gun control in the USA that horrified me so much that I now have to write a bit about this horrifying topic myself.

It goes without saying that there is a huge problem in America that stems from people who should never have access to guns being able to get access to guns. In many states, people with criminal records can get a gun. People with mental health issues can get a gun. Parents can get a gun, and don’t have to prove that they have a locked location to keep it secured from young, inquisitive minds.

Out of all the developed countries, the USA has the most firearms per person, and the highest number of gun murders. But perhaps the most gut-churning revelation, seen in the graph below, is that the number of deaths caused by firearms is now the same as the number of deaths caused by car accidents. While supporters of guns might gnash their teeth at this, giving out responses like, “cars cause deaths but we still drive them”, well, yes, that’s all very well, but cars aren’t machines that were ultimately designed for the purpose of killing.


Here’s another startling fact: that research into improving gun handling, reducing gun accidents and squashing levels of gun crime is currently being performed by just a handful of scientists, and almost none of it is coming from a public health angle. To make matters worse, since 1996, scientific research into gun violence has been prohibited by law from receiving funding from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention if it advocates or promotes gun control. In 2012, this funding blockade was extended to include the much bigger US Department of Health and Human Services. The lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association, or the NRA, was instrumental in putting this legislation in place, and appears to have had a substantial influence on the policies of the American government.

That such organisations can still set political agendas is despicable. Policy-making has to be driven by evidence. Plugging up research into gun control dries up the supply of evidence, and implies that there is no interest in making the USA, and the American people, safer.

If you’re interested to learn more, you might want to look up Dr. Garen J. Wintemute, who has been researching the public health issues surrounding the presence of firearms in America. You can read a short and handy list of his key findings here, or read his brilliantly written review, ‘Tragedy’s Legacy‘. You can also sign this petition from Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which asks members of congress to take action against gun violence.

Wintemute GJ (2013). Tragedy's legacy. The New England Journal of Medicine, 368 (5), 397-9 PMID: 23268646

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3 Responses to The Science of Guns and Violence in America

  1. jonolan says:

    Research into this can’t really be done due to societal and political pressures. When 12% of the population accounts for 50% of the “gun deaths” and that 12% is Black, no “public health” research is going to get anywhere because there’s a whole bunch of agendists and their useful idiots who would decry it as racist.

    On the other hand, it’s damn good to see that “car deaths” are on the decline, seeing as how that will save a lot more innocent people.

  2. “improving gun handling, reducing gun accidents and squashing levels of gun crime is currently being performed by just a handful of scientists, and almost none of it is coming from a public health angle”

    There is a massive firearms training community as well as volumes of literature available on safe gun handling and reducing firearm accidents.

    • Thanks for your comment. It goes without saying that such a training community is a good resource for gun owners, and a common sense strategy to minimise accidents. Yet despite such schemes, there were still 31,000 deaths from firearms in the USA in 2011. Clearly, something else needs to change to improve this appalling situation.

      The public health gun research that is currently grossly underfunded and undermanned is looking at things like: how children shoot children, if buyers of handguns with prior misdemeanours, such as assault, are more likely to be charged with firearms crimes (they are), how to better assess the mental health competency of handgun buyers and how seizing guns bought legally by people who go on to commit violent crime affects re-offender rates.

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