Few have looked at links with mental health, peers, and guns
Too many days in the United States, a young man enters a public space, heavily armed. Shots are fired. Sometimes the killer takes his own life. Over the next few days, television news, newspapers and websites carry a photograph of the alleged gunman (they’re usually male), with a disturbing expression on his face and an accompanying that discusses his possible mental instability.
But what do we know about these people? What motivates them toward high-performance assault weaponry? Does mental illness cause this? How can this end? Unfortunately, these questions were not adequately answered by researchers because of a ban on gun use research that had been in effect since 1996.
That ban was lifted this year by the White House, in the wake of still more shootings in Colorado and Connecticut. Previously, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the National Institutes of Health were barred from conducting research and “advocated or promoted” gun control.
The gun research ban has stunted the understanding of a huge public health problem. While 31,000 people in the United States die each year from gun-related violence (20,000 from suicide, about 11,000 from murder), only 20 American academics are studying the problem.
And research can solve the problem, as evidence by one of the most prominent gun-use researcher, Garen Wintemute of the University of California, Davis. Wintemute is known for much of what we know about patterns of gun violence, but one particular study stands out. He exposed a family of companies around Los Angeles, California, that made cheap handguns that were easily available for committing a wide range of crimes. In fact, the “Saturday Night Special” constitute more than a third of all handguns made in the United States, before Wintemute’s studies banned the handguns and shut most of the companies down. But Wintemute and others like him need more funding if more results like this can come to fruition.
While the lifting of the grant ban was good news for gun use researchers, funding hasn’t moved beyond a trickle, leading some to more creative sources. Bisakha Sen, an economist at the University of Alabama, for example, has taken to online crowdfunding to provide research resources. Sen is now looking at possible relationships between gun laws mandating background checks, allowing concealed weapons permits, and limited permission for deadly force and death rates from homicides, suicides and accidents. While this may seem an obvious connection, it has not been well-researched, and other scientists warn about making causes out of correlations. After all, shootings occur in Connecticut and California, two states with relatively strict gun laws.
But what also isn’t known is how well gun laws are followed. Domestic violence is another fertile ground for shootings (in fact, more so than the massacres that make headlines), but researchers at Johns Hopkins University found the judges’ orders prohibiting gun ownership or possession aren’t followed very much. In fact, their study found that only 12 percent of victims studied reported that their abusive spouse surrendered their firearms or had them confiscated.
Gun violence also isn’t as uniquely an American problem as many Europeans hope. After the 1999 shooting massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, at least 40 similar shootings have occurred worldwide, German and US researchers found. Looking at two shootings in Finland, the Finnish Youth Research Network found that the students were fascinated with the Columbine massacre, while at the same time school officials were missing opportunities to prevent bullying and other abuses of the two students.
Meanwhile, back in the US, the Institute of Medicine issued a report outlining what it believes are fruitful avenues for understanding the foundations and causes of gun-related violence. These include:
- Do point-of-purchase background checks actually deter people who are forbidden from owning firearms
- How effective are current policies and laws at preventing gun sales to people with specific psychiatric diagnoses
- Do safety technologies like iris scans and gun-activating magnetic-stripe badges, actually reduce gun injuries and fatalities
- Is there a relationship between media violence and firearm violence
The basic-ness of these questions illustrates how much we don’t know. And what we don’t know can hurt us.
Sources: Nature, Science Magazine, Institute of Medicine
Photos: Flickr (top), Boston Herald
Kiilakoski T, & Oksanen A (2011). Cultural and peer influences on homicidal violence: a Finnish perspective. New directions for youth development, 2011 (129), 31-42 PMID: 21491571
Bondü R, Cornell DG, & Scheithauer H (2011). Student homicidal violence in schools: an international problem. New directions for youth development, 2011 (129), 13-30 PMID: 21491570
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