OUR TASK

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Given the importance of this issue and the continued controversy surrounding

the debate on firearms, the need was clear for an unbiased assessment

of the existing portfolio of data and research. Accordingly, the National

Academies were asked by a consortium of both federal agencies—the

National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—

and private foundations—the David and Lucile Packard Foundation,

the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and the Joyce Foundation—to assess

the data and research on firearms.

The Committee to Improve Research and Data on Firearms was charged

with providing an assessment of the strengths and limitations of the existing

research and data on gun violence and identifying important gaps in knowledge;

describing new methods to put research findings and data together to

support the design and implementation of improved prevention, intervention,

and control strategies for reducing gun-related crime, suicide, and

accidental fatalities; and utilizing existing data and research on firearms

and firearm violence to develop models of illegal firearms markets. The

charge also called for examining the complex ways in which firearm violence

may become embedded in community life and whether firearmrelated

homicide and suicide become accepted as ways of resolving problems,

especially among youth; however, there is a lack of empirical research

to address these two issues.

The task of the committee was not to settle all arguments about the

causes and cures of violence but rather to evaluate the data and research on

firearms injury and violence. Over the past few decades, there have been

many studies of the relationship between access to firearms and firearm

violence, family and community factors that influence lethal behavior, the

extent and value of defensive firearm use, the operation of legal and illegal

firearms markets, and the effectiveness of efforts to reduce the harms or

increase the benefits of firearm use. We have evaluated these data and

studies. In doing so, we have:

• Assessed current data bases so as to make clear their strengths and

limitations.

• Assessed research studies on firearm use and the effect of efforts to

reduce unjustified firearm use.

• Assessed knowledge of illegal firearms markets.

This report presents the committee’s findings.

GUN CONTROL AND THE SECOND AMENDMENT

Many people reading this report will ask whether the committee favors

or opposes gun control, accepts or rejects the right of people to own guns,

and endorses or questions the conflicting interpretations of the Second

Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (“the right of the people to keep and

bear arms shall not be infringed”).

Resolving these issues, though important, is not the task the committee

was given. We were asked to evaluate the data and research on firearm

violence to see what is known about the causal connection, if any, between

firearms on one hand and violence, suicide, and personal defense on the

other. In carrying out this task, we have tried to do what scholars are supposed

to do—namely, assess the reliability of evidence about the ownership

of firearms and discern what, if anything, is known about the connection

between firearms and violence. This involves looking at not only how many

firearms are owned and who owns them but also the complex personality,

social, and circumstantial factors that intervene between a firearm and its use

and the effect, if any, of programs designed to reduce the likelihood that a

firearm will cause unjustified harm.1 It also includes investigating the effectiveness

of firearm use in self-defense. It does not include making judgments

about whether individuals should be allowed to possess firearms or whether

specific firearm control proposals should be enacted.

Questions of cause-and-effect and more-or-less are not how many

Americans think about firearms. Some individuals believe that firearm ownership

is a right that flows directly from the Second Amendment or indirectly

from every citizen’s right to self-defense. Others believe that there is

no right to bear arms, and that firearms play little or no role in self-defense.

1A harm is unjustified if it involves a homicide, an accident, or a suicide. It is justified if it

involves the reasonable use of force by law enforcement personnel or by people defending

themselves against crimes. It is difficult, of course, to count justified and unjustified harms

accurately and even harder to discover whether a program intended to reduce unjustified

harm has actually done so and, if it has, whether it did so in ways that have not inappropriately

reduced justified harms. For a more detailed discussion of the definition of these terms,

see Black’s Law Dictionary (Gardner, 1999).

These competing beliefs are important and will inform the decisions

political leaders have to make. America did not, after all, suddenly become

a gun-owning nation. The private possession of weapons has been

an important feature of American life throughout its history. But important

as these beliefs are, they are not questions that can be easily resolved

through scientific inquiry. Committee members have no special qualifications

for deciding who has what rights or what the Second Amendment

may mean. If the Supreme Court had spoken out clearly on this part of the

Bill of Rights, the committee could assume something about what rights,

if any, it confers. But the Court has not spoken so clearly. It has allowed

Congress, for example, to ban the sale of sawed-off shotguns, but only on

the narrow grounds that no one had shown that having a weapon with a

barrel less than 18 inches long would contribute to the maintenance of a

“well-regulated militia.” And the Court has accepted restrictions on the

sale of firearms to felons. But so far, the Court has held that the Second

Amendment affects only federal action, presumably leaving states free to

act as they wish. (For a review of holdings on the Second Amendment, see

Appendix C.)

Our report is not for or against “gun control.” (We put gun control in

quotation marks because it is so vague: “gun control” can range from

preventing four-year-old children from owning guns to banning their ownership

by competent adults.) Knowing how strongly so many Americans

feel about firearms and various proposals to control or prevent controls on

their ownership, we here state emphatically that our task is to determine

what can be learned from existing data and studies that rely on them and to

make recommendations about how the knowledge base could be effectively

improved. Readers of this report should not be surprised that the committee

often concludes that very little can be learned. The committee was not

called into being to make policy about firearms. Political officials, responding

not only to data and studies but also to widely held (and often passionately

opposed) public beliefs, will have to make policy. They should do so,

however, with an understanding of what is known and not known about

firearms and violence.