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Implementing more background checks and tracing guns more rigorously across the United States could reduce firearm fatalities by 90 percent, a new study claims. But some gun policy scholars say the research is flawed and biased.

Published Thursday in the Lancet, the study looked at how 25 different gun laws might impact mortality rates. Using a statistical model, the authors identified three laws that they say collectively have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives.

Requiring universal background checks for both gun purchases and ammunition, and creating a firearms identification system to make it easier to trace weapons could reduce the nation’s firearm-related death count from around 30,000 per year to just 3,000, the study found.


“For so long there’s been a very low quality of research,” said lead author Bindu Kalesan, an epidemiologist at Boston University. “We’re attempting to change it.”

But others researchers are quick to dispute the conclusions.


“If only firearm suicide and firearm homicide could be reduced so easily,” David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, wrote in an accompanying editorial.

Cassandra Crifasi, a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said there are numerous methodological problems with the study that call into question its findings.

“To put it lightly, I was surprised to see a paper of this quality, or lack of quality, in a journal like the Lancet,” Crifasi said.

Crifasi took exception with the way the researchers pulled data from different years — gun deaths in 2010 and gun ownership in 2013 — to build their statistical model.

And she noted that one of the laws touted as a potential national solution, firearm identification, was not being implemented in two of the three states where it was on the books in the years Kalesan’s team studied, making it hard to understand how it may have impacted gun deaths.

Maryland had a firearm identification program in effect, but it stopped adding complete data after 2007, a Baltimore Sun investigation found. And California had a law on the books, but it didn’t take effect until 2013. Only New York appears to have been enforcing such a law during the study period.

This law, according to Kalesan’s calculations, was associated with an 83 percent reduction in gun-related mortality.

“That makes me skeptical about any other result,” said Crifasi, “and leads me to believe there’s a huge confounder, something else that’s driving the changes in rates that wasn’t controlled for in the study.”

Kalesan defended the methods, saying that her research team looked at the laws on the books in 2009, at which point all three states had firearm identification laws. Of course, different states were at different stages of implementation, she said, but this doesn’t impact the model’s conclusions. Plus, she argued, gun ownership rates have not varied much since the mid-2000s, so the use of data from different years was appropriate.

“Data is what I do,” Kalesan said. “Most of the other gun violence researchers are just social scientists who don’t employ really good research methodology.”

Gun policy research occupies a difficult space. For years, Congress blocked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying gun violence.

President Barack Obama used his executive authority to empower the CDC in the wake of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn.; however, the CDC, which has no dedicated funding for gun-related studies, is still avoiding the research area.

Kalesan’s study received no financial support.

Dr. Timothy Wheeler, director of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, a project of the Second Amendment Foundation, took issue with the language Kalesan and her colleagues used in the study. He said that phrases like “assault weapons ban” and “large magazine ban” are “inflammatory, prejudicial language that has no place in a scientific paper.”

Instead of “assault weapon,” Wheeler favors “modern sporting rifle,” and “large magazine” should be replaced with a phrase describing how many rounds the magazine can hold, he said. (The appendix to the Lancet paper did define the terms used.)

Given the politicized climate, Crifasi said that it is especially important to be rigorous. If the scientific community is not careful, groups like the National Rifle Association will be quick to criticize any research, she said.

The NRA declined to comment.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misrepresented the way in which President Obama loosened restrictions on government-funded gun research.

  • Re: ” could reduce firearm fatalities by 90 percent”

    You could start by enforcing the laws already on the books and quit allowing people who use a gun illegally to plea bargain away the illegal firearms offense. . The feds are one of the worst offenders. Straw purchases and lying on the 4473 form you have to fill out for a background check to purchase a firearm is a felony punishable by 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine – yet in 2010 76142 people failed the background check, 4732 were deemed worthy of prosecution and only 62 were prosecuted. Another thing you could do since most of the gun homicides are caused by gangs or repeat offenders is to advocate for a law that would impose a mandatory death sentence on any recidivist with a violent criminal history that uses a firearm to commit a crime regardless of childhood upbringing, economic impoverishment, mental health, age, IQ or ethnicity.

  • Re: ” Plus, she argued, gun ownership rates have not varied much since the mid-2000s”

    Not true. Gun sales have skyrocketed under the Obama administration. As far as actual numbers of gun owners, you have no way of knowing that. There is no national registry of firearm owners and no gun owner I know is going to respond to surveys by strangers that ask if they own any firearms – especially in today’s environment. However it is estimated there are 109 million gun owners with 300 million guns and billions of rounds of ammunition – so if legal gun owners were a problem, you would know it.

  • Re: ” President Barack Obama used his executive authority to empower the CDC in the wake of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn”

    Yes – He did it with the intention of providing justification for more gun control. But what happened is that the study (“Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-related Violence”) estimated legal, defensive gun uses at somewhere between 108,000 to 3 million per year” in contrast to about 11000 gun homicides per year which includes those that are accidental or justified.

  • Re: ” firearm identification laws”

    In 1997 and 2004 the US DOJ did a study that interviewed criminals serving prison sentences to determine where they got their firearms. In that study 37.4% said they got their guns from private sales or transfers from “family and friends” which didn’t require a background check. This begs the question – what are the scruples of the family and friends of a criminal? I don’t know what new law you could pass to close a loophole that would force likely witting family members or criminal cohorts to run background checks on other criminals when all the parties involved will probably ignore any relevant laws. Note, in the same study, another 40.0% said they obtained their guns illegally (which obviously didn’t require a background check) while only 0.8% said they got their guns from gun shows. So if these guns are not on the books or used by criminals that don’t care about laws, how are these firearm identification laws supposed to work after the fact when the damage has already been done?

  • Re: ” Congress blocked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying gun violence”

    That is not true. There is not a ban on research but there is a ban on advocacy for gun control. Specifically the law states “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control” (Google public law 104-208 and look at page 245). An example of this “advocacy” that lead to this restriction is in the 1994 American Medical News interview with Dr. Katherine Christoffel, head of the “Handgun Epidemic Lowering Plan”, a CDC-funded organization who said: “guns are a virus that must be eradicated… They are causing an epidemic of death by gunshot, which should be treated like any epidemic…you get rid of the virus…get rid of the guns, get rid of the bullets, and you get rid of deaths.” Another example is from the then head of the CDC – Mark Rosenberg – “We need to revolutionize the way we look at guns, like we did with cigarettes. Now it [sic] is dirty, deadly and banned.”

  • Re: “reduce the nation’s firearm-related death count from around 30,000 per year to just 3,000, the study found”

    Not true. According to the CDC, in 2014 there were 33599 deaths from firearms and most were suicides while 10945 were homicides. If someone wants to kill themselves it’s a matter of individual choice where the person can pick the time, place and method and an argument can also be made that an individual’s life belongs to them exclusively and not you, the State or anyone else. Note also that the number of suicides committed with firearms (21334) is less than the number committed by other means (21439) so as long as there are other options, it’s not clear that restricting firearms would have any effect on the number of suicides.

    Homicides are a different story. 10945 people murdered by firearms in the US works out to about 29 people per day. These are the “word doctored” figures the news media and anti-gun folks like to publicize because people relate to the magnitude of those numbers and it sounds like a lot of people until you realize this is out of a population of 320 million Americans. In that context, it works out to about 1 person out of every 29,000 people being murdered by a firearm. Dwell on the magnitude of your individual significance next time you are in a stadium with 29,000 people. To me, 1 in 29,000 is an acceptable cost to help ensure the security of a free state and the right to own a firearm that has harmed no one. It is also estimated there are 109 million gun owners in the US which means on any given day 108,999,971 gun owners didn’t kill anyone yet because the news media magnifies these relatively isolated and infrequent events to the level of an epidemic, the anti-gun folks answer is to take the guns away from people who harmed no one. The number of firearm homicides will never be zero. So given the fact that deranged individuals and murderers are an intrinsic part of the human race and we currently live in a free society, what number of illegal firearm homicides would ever be acceptable to you to the point you would say “we don’t need any more restrictions on the private ownership of firearms”?

  • Re: “implementing more background checks”

    Currently, there are only 2 ways to legally sell a gun in the US to a private citizen. One is a private sale between individuals (typically like between family and friends) or by a gun dealer licensed with a Federal Firearms License (FFL) from the federal BATF. Only individuals with an FFL can run a background check through the government NICS database of prohibited persons. Private citizens cannot. Note that a person can purchase a firearm online, but the physical transfer of the firearm still must go through an FFL at the seller or an FFL local to the buyer. So anyone wanting to improve the process should encourage the federal government to do 2 things:

    1) Allow any small gun dealer to get an FFL without having a storefront. Currently, thanks to the Clinton administration’s effort to reduce the supply of guns, you can’t get an FFL if you want to sell guns only at gun shows (Google BATFE form 5310 FFL application and look at question 18a). As a result someone that wants to sell guns but can’t afford the inventory costs, zoning challenges and overhead of a storefront has to sell illegally or discretely at the edge of the law as a “private individual” and hence can’t run a background check. Rather than throwing these “kitchen table” sellers out of the system like Clinton did hoping they would go away, they should allow them to get an FFL and subject them to BATF rules, audits and oversight like they were before the Clinton administration let political anti-gun ideology get in the way.

    2) Give anyone free, public, anonymous online access to the NICS database. I don’t understand why a federal database of people prohibited from owning firearms can’t be available in the public domain like federal databases for s_x offenders. Unlike the s_x offender database, the NICS system is really a go/no go process and no useful information has to be displayed to facilitate phishing expeditions for identity theft other than what was already known by the user making the query. It’s certainly no more revealing than the FAA’s pilot and mechanic license query system, which provides more detailed information on presumably law-abiding citizens. Once this system is implemented, you then tell private sellers if you sell or give a firearm to someone and don’t retain documented proof that says you did a favorable NICS check on the buyer, you could be held liable if they commit a gun-related crime. This would effectively close the so-called private sale loophole and still preserve the anonymity of the parties involved the same way the current background check system does now. If a private sale firearm shows up at a crime scene, the BATF follows their current procedure of using the serial number of the firearm to contact the manufacturer and ultimately the last FFL that sold the firearm to a private citizen to obtain that citizen’s name and address from the ATF form 4473 the FFL is required to keep on file. That citizen is then contacted and produces the piece of paper from the NICS background check that identifies the second private citizen who is then contacted, and so forth.

    The real benefit of this proposal is how it can help identify the illusive killer with questionable behavior patterns or mental health issues that is causing so many problems. As it stands now there is no easy, fast, non-bureaucratic method for someone to determine if a suspicious person (client, neighbor, employee, student, etc) is a potential threat to society. If someone thinks an individual could be a threat, a query to a public NICS database would at least tell him or her in a few seconds if the individual could obtain a firearm. Then, armed with that information the appropriate authorities could be notified and they could decide if it was erroneous information or whether to investigate further. As it stands now, if you tell authorities you know a suspicious person they will probably ignore you, but if you tell them you know such a person and by the way according to the NICS database he can buy a firearm, they will probably be more inclined to investigate rather than risk embarrassment later if the worst happens. The same would be true if you see a suspicious acquaintance with a firearm when the NICS query says he’s prohibited from having one. It would also help provide piece of mind and a method for victims of violent crimes to ensure their assailants either on parole or still at large have not been excluded from the database because of some bureaucratic foul-up.
    Other specific public safety issues where it would be useful are:

     >Allow potential victims to vet known stalkers or acquaintances under a restraining order
     >Allow gun clubs to vet potential members
     >Allow shooting ranges to vet suspicious customers
     >Help prevent straw purchases by allowing FFL’s to vet all individuals involved with the purchase of a firearm as a gift
     >Allow mental health workers to vet troubled individuals like the Aurora Colorado theater killer
     >Allow resource officers and school officials to vet suspicious students like the Arapahoe High School killer in Colorado
     >Allow the family of the mentally troubled Lafayette, LA killer to verify he couldn’t purchase a firearm
     >Allow police officers to vet anyone they contact – (note the routine background checks performed by police often do not include information about firearms because they don’t directly access the NICS database)

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