How can mass shootings be prevented? Research shows some principles can help

Protesters join a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Uvalade and Buffalo massacres on May 25 in Fairfax, VA.

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Allison Bailey / Reuters Connect


Protesters join a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Uvalade and Buffalo massacres on May 25 in Fairfax, VA.

Allison Bailey / Reuters Connect

Every mass shooting in the United States calls for better policies to prevent such tragedies. Field scientists say there is evidence that certain types of legislation can reduce deaths from mass shootings – but alternatives to this policy are not usually discussed in light of these events.

Michael Anesthes, executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers University, notes that research scientists need to draw from a limited body. “Mass shooting research is a very small part of gun violence research,” he says.

That’s because less than 1% of the nearly 40,000 people killed by gunfire in this country each year are responsible for mass shootings, Anastasia explained. “These are awesome, these are all very common, and yet, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, isn’t it?”

Researchers who study gun violence tend to focus on violence, such as suicide, which is most commonly associated with death, but he adds that the whole field of gun violence research has long been neglected and under-funded.

“There’s money out there, but it’s really down a lot where it should be given the amount of injuries and deaths and the economic costs associated with gun violence,” Anastasis said. “It’s just disproportionately low funding.”

Even so, owning one is still beyond the reach of the average person.

Such a study has taken advantage of the fact that in the United States, gun laws vary from state to state. “It’s, honestly, less than ideal from a public safety perspective, but it gives researchers a chance,” said Daniel Webster, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.

He and a number of colleagues recently analyzed more than 30 years of data on shootings in the United States that involved four or more victims. They compared the states in an attempt to quell the impact of different gun laws. “I have to admit that this is really a difficult and frank science,” Webster said.

Despite these limitations, he said, “we have found two policies that have had a significant protective effect in reducing the rate of deadly mass shootings.”

One was a requirement that a gun buyer must go through a licensing process. “The licensing process requires someone, you know, to apply directly and be involved with law enforcement agencies, sometimes with security training and other requirements,” Webster said.

Another approach that seems to reduce the death toll from mass shootings is the state ban on the purchase of large-capacity magazines or ammunition feeding devices for semi-automatic weapons.

Webster says this is intuitive, as these items allow a shooter to fire multiple shots in a short period of time without interruption. If a shooter had to stop and reload, the prey could flee or fight.

Another study of mass shootings has shown that such laws appear to have a protective effect. David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, has been working with colleagues to examine the effects of banning large-capacity magazines on mass shootings in various states for nearly three decades.

“The states that had the ban have done much better in firing fewer shots, and the shots that have been fired are far less lethal in terms of the number of people killed,” Hemenway said.

In the wake of a mass shooting, people often argue for the need for a massive background check, Webster says. He supports that policy, but says his research does not show that it is associated with a reduction in such fatalities.

An additional general break after mass shootings, he said, was the call for a policy that makes it easier for people to carry guns so they can defend themselves. “Okay, guess what, the data doesn’t carry that at all,” Webster said. “If anything, it shows a high rate of deadly mass shootings in response to weak regulations on concealment by civilians.”

And while school systems may try to respond to the threat of mass shootings by placing police officers on site or using student drills, “as far as I know, there is no strong research on any of these issues,” Hemenway said.

Keeping guns away from young people, through age restrictions on safe storage or purchase of firearms at home, would be expected to have a protective effect, Webster said.

The public health risks associated with young people drinking alcohol have led to a ban on drinking under the age of 21, he said. But the Uvalade shooter was able to legally buy a semiautomatic rifle after his 18th birthday.

While it is admirable that age restrictions can make it harder for young adults to access weapons capable of producing a mass shot, Anastasis says, but “do we have the big data-driven resources to evaluate those policies? No, we do.” No. “

An emerging policy alternative that has some preliminary evidence behind it is to allow police officers to temporarily remove guns from people who appear to pose an impending danger. A study in California that looked at how the process was used in that state over a two-year period found 21 incidents when it was done in response to a mass shooting threat – several of these threats involved schools.

It is unknown at this time what he will do after leaving the post. A 2017 study found that guns kill nearly as many people each year as sepsis, a fatal response to infection, but funding for gun violence research was about 0.7% for sepsis.

“There’s a lot to study in the gun area, and we haven’t studied nearly enough in 25 years,” Hemenway said. “Once you scratch the surface right now about what is known, we know very little.”

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