Usa-Pyon/shutterstock

Usa-Pyon/shutterstock

Recent mass shootings have once again brought calls for stronger laws to regulate firearms. But while the need for such legislation may seem like common sense to many Americans, there is a surprising void of knowledge and evidence to inform policymaking. Although it is a leading cause of death in the U.S., research on gun violence is, to put it mildly, underfunded. Historically, there has been little federal funding for gun violence research, and the 1996 passage by Congress of the Dickey Amendment virtually dried up what little there was.

Now philanthropy is doing more to change that. Most notably, the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida—which killed 17 students and school staff members—prompted Arnold Ventures to commit resources toward gun violence research.

Earlier this year, we reported on Arnold’s backing for a new research initiative focused on U.S. gun violence. The foundation launched the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research in 2018 with a five-year, $20 million gift. The RAND Corporation, which has operated a gun violence research initiative since 2016, is administering the effort.

Recently, the collaborative took a big step forward, awarding nearly $10 million in grants for a series of gun violence research studies, on subjects ranging from gun safety and suicide to school violence and officer-involved shootings.

An Avalanche of Research Proposals

Researchers across the U.S. are keen to drill deeper into gun violence. Overall, the collaborative reviewed more than 200 applications submitted in response to its RFP issued in January, selecting 17 of those proposals for funding.

Arnold Ventures is well known as a staunch advocate of evidence-based public policy—in criminal justice, education, and other areas. One of the funder’s founders, retired hedge fund operator John Arnold, has expressed concern in the past about gaps in knowledge about gun violence. In a tweet, he wrote: “I’ve been surprised by two things: how little causal evidence exists linking specific policies to a reduction in harms, and how many high-quality research proposals exist that are worthy of funding.”

Although Arnold provides the funding for the collaborative, it does not play a role in choosing research projects to fund. An advisory committee of policy experts, law enforcement officials, academics, and medical professionals make those decisions. Arnold and RAND leadership decided to keep researchers off the advisory committee to prevent the appearance of researchers awarding funds to other researchers.

Hearing From Stakeholders

Before choosing projects for funding, the collaborative heard testimony from a range of stakeholders on where they think new research is most needed. These included the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the National Rifle Association, March For Our Lives, Everytown for Gun Safety, the American College of Emergency Physicians, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, and the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association.

The projects chosen for funding by the collaborative include:

  • A randomized study evaluating a program that trains police officers to assess high-stakes situations.
  • A second randomized study assessing a national program for reducing school violence, including violence with guns.
  • A study of criminal background check and permit-to-purchase policies to estimate their efficacy in reducing gun violence. The research also will examine how the design and implementation of these policies may affect their effectiveness.
  • A study involving interviews with 750 young people in Baltimore, Detroit, Las Vegas, New York City, and New Orleans to gain greater insight into urban youths’ experiences with guns and their decisions on whether to carry them.
  • A survey to understand the extent to which child access prevention laws and counseling by health care providers on safe storage affect the storage practices of gun owners.
  • A study using hospital data to understand the effects of changes in concealed carry laws on gun-related deaths and injuries.
  • A California study assessing the risks and benefits of gun use for people who do not themselves own firearms but live with someone who does. The study will integrate gun sales and registration data with data on suicides and homicides.
  • An evaluation of the role of threats and intimidation involving guns on the experiences of female domestic violence victims. The study will involve more than 400 subjects recording in daily diaries.

A full list of funded projects can be accessed via the collaborative’s website. Projects chosen for funding include four dissertation awards. Grant awards per project range in size from $25,000 to $2.1 million, according to the collaborative.

Building a New Base of Knowledge

Arnold and the collaborative hope the selected projects will advance national understanding of gun violence through new ideas, data sets, and interventions. “America needs evidence-based answers on the causes of gun violence and how to prevent it,” Andrew Morral, the collaborative’s director, said in a news release. “These research projects, selected first and foremost for their rigor, will generate evidence for informing policy that protects the public and preserves the rights of responsible gun owners.”

To ensure rigorous research, the collaborative follows procedures designed to ensure transparency and replicability. Researchers must post analysis plans on a research transparency website, where they must describe hypotheses and measures in advance. They also must share their data and analysis code on the same site so that findings can be reviewed by others.

“Everyone agrees that we want to end gun violence, but the shortage of rigorous, impartial research has fueled polarization in discussions of gun policy,” said Frank Clark, chairman of the collaborative’s advisory committee, in a news release. “Research is a key step in the way forward. These projects will help us get beyond politics and ideology to determine what works and what doesn’t.”

While bipartisan agreement has begun to emerge in some areas of criminal justice policy, such as mass incarceration, that spirit has not yet penetrated the issue of gun violence and the appropriate response to it. One incessant point of friction in these debates is over what policies might actually be effective in lowering the body count from guns. By offering answers to key questions, trusted and rigorous new research could help pave the way for advances in policymaking, especially at the state level where polarization on gun issues is often less intense.

Despite the importance of the collaborative’s work, so far Arnold is presently its sole funder.

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