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The surprising history of gun laws in America
11:30 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Rosanna Smart is an economist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and co-leader of its Gun Policy in America initiative to understand the effects of gun policies. Andrew R. Morral is a senior behavioral scientist at RAND; co-leader of the initiative; and director of the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research, a private philanthropy that funds gun violence prevention research. The views expressed in this piece are their own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Barely through January, America has this year already experienced 63 incidents with four or more people shot and more than 4,200 firearm deaths.

These statistics do not come from official governmental sources, but are rather the result of information compiled and disseminated publicly by a small non-profit organization, the Gun Violence Archive, funded primarily by a single private donor. Our government collects no official data on mass shootings – and has no comprehensive data collection system tracking nonfatal firearm injuries – despite intense public concern about these events and the direction they may be trending.

The federal government does collect data on firearm deaths, although complete nationwide data that link whether individual deaths occurred in the same incident is not yet available. And finalized data is always a year or so delayed. By comparison, federal data on poultry slaughter across the country lags by only a couple of weeks.

What’s more, federal data collection on other aspects of gun crime and violence is abysmal.

How many people are shot in each state each year?

This seems like a pretty fundamental statistic we should know, or at least have some decent estimate of. Measuring only firearm deaths and not all injuries may underestimate the prevalence of firearm violence by a factor of two to three, showing only a skewed subset of firearm violence. Because firearm assaults and police shootings often result in nonfatal injuries, federal data systems track only a portion of these incidents that disproportionately affect Black Americans.

Building a surveillance system for nonfatal firearm injuries would be difficult and expensive. In 1994, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) funded efforts to support such a system in seven states, but the project ended after just three years when Congress cut the CDC’s budget in response to its firearm violence research. It took more than two decades for Congress to approve federal funding to research gun violence.

We need reliable state level estimates of firearm violence

Now, a previously unreliable nonfatal firearm injury surveillance system is being redesigned with the goal of producing moderately precise national estimates of firearms injury hospitalizations by 2024. That’s a start, but what really may be needed is reliable state-level estimates to understand how laws and other prevention efforts affect firearm violence.

The Firearm Injury Surveillance Through Emergency Rooms (FASTER) program, a 10-state pilot project launched by the CDC in September 2020, will test whether the National Syndromic Surveillance Program, which helps track urgent crises like the Covid-19 pandemic and opioid overdoses, can be used to monitor firearm injuries.

The federal government could make important contributions to firearm injury prevention efforts by ensuring that funding for data collection and maintenance through FASTER or another system is sustained moving forward and creating straightforward mechanisms for researchers to access deidentified individual-level data with geographic indicators.

Unfortunately, data quality on other aspects of gun violence is deteriorating. For decades, the FBI has compiled and disseminated information from local law enforcement agencies on aggravated assaults and robberies involving firearms. This system was retired in 2021. As a result, the federal government has been unable to provide comprehensive state or national estimates on important crime trends for the past two years.

While a more detailed (and theoretically improved) system replaced the prior one, the rollout of this FBI System has not gone smoothly. In 2021, the FBI’s new data system collected crime information from just over 60% of law enforcement agencies nationwide, resulting in uncertainty about whether murder in 2021 was up 17% or down 7% from the year before.

This crumbling of the nation’s crime data infrastructure, even if temporary, could be an urgent problem for any effort to proactively intervene to respond to emerging crime trends.

A historical lack of data

Although the Federal government uses large-scale surveys of Americans to understand trends in health and risk behaviors – such as consumption of drugs and alcohol, use of seatbelts, exercise habits, and even sexual practices – questions about ownership, storage, and use of firearms have been notably absent from national versions of these surveys for almost two decades.

Indeed, one of the CDC’s flagship health behavior surveys included questions on gun ownership, but removed that question from the core module after 2004. As a result, many studies of the effects of gun violence prevention that need information on state firearm ownership rates must use data that are almost 20 years old.

Similarly, although the government’s 50-state National Survey on Drug Use and Health asks respondents aged 12 to 17 about handgun carrying behavior, no such questions are asked of adults, despite evidence linking gun carriage policies with firearm violence.

Other important questions also are omitted from these surveys, such as defensive gun use, firearm storage practices, safe handling practices and training and safety perceptions.

How to improve data collection

The lowest hanging fruit to improve our data collection could be to remove statutory barriers that prevent researchers from using important data that the federal government is already collecting, such as information on guns used in crimes. Since 2003, the Tiahrt Amendments have prohibited the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from sharing disaggregated crime gun trace data with researchers.

Removing these blanket restrictions, or even providing more detailed aggregate statistics on crime gun possessors, sources and prior transactions, could help provide better understanding of diversion of firearms from legal to illegal markets, risk factors related to “straw-purchasing” (buying a gun for somebody legally prohibited from possessing it), and the flow of firearms between states with different gun law regimes.

Other missing data from federal collection efforts include reliable information on police shootings, mass shootings, legal defensive firearm homicides, firearm sales and many other such data.

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    Although everyone wants to see reductions in firearm violence in this country, specific proposals are often controversial, sometimes because there are no data demonstrating their effectiveness. If those data were collected, this would no longer be an excuse. Better evidence on the effectiveness of different policy or community interventions may rely on access to data that is not being collected now.

    The federal government has many of the requisite tools in place to do this, and it does it well on a wide range of other problems. Shying away from measuring this problem may also make it more difficult to fix it.