SOURCES OF DATA FOR RESEARCH ON FIREARMS VIOLENCE

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We may have some advantage, however, in understanding what consequences

flow from current levels of firearm availability and from efforts by

policy makers to alter those consequences. Or to state our task even more

humbly, we may be better than many other people in understanding what

the studies of these consequences may mean. A consequence of some action

is the concrete, practical reality that is caused by that action. But in the field

we address here, many if not most studies of consequences must make do,

not with direct knowledge of the altered reality, but with data that attempt

to measure that alteration.

The quality of these data is highly variable. We explain in this report

how limited is the knowledge of some of the basic facts. For example, we do

not know exactly who owns what kinds of firearms or how the owners use

them. Moreover, it may not be easy to improve this knowledge. Asking

people whether they own a firearm, what kind it is, and how it is used is

difficult because ownership is a controversial matter for one or more of

several reasons: some people may own a firearm illegally, some may own it

legally but worry that they may use it illegally, and some may react to the

intense public controversy about firearm ownership by becoming less (or

even more) likely to admit to ownership.

Of course these same problems accompany attempts to measure other

behaviors (e.g., illicit use of drugs) and yet ways have been developed to

address these problems in those instances (for a review see National Research

Council, 2001). While not perfect, many substantial resources have

been devoted to addressing the measurement issues that the collection of

sensitive data raises. As we discuss in this report, this has not happened in

the firearms area, in part, because of the substantial opposition to data

collection by interest groups resulting in legal restrictions on collecting

information about firearms ownership.2