How much research is done on gun violence in the US?

Bibliometric data suggest there should be more scholarship on the topic, but academics still make key contributions to debate

October 19, 2017
American with giant gun
Source: Getty

The mass shooting in Las Vegas earlier this month has inevitably reopened the debate in the US not only on gun control, but also on how much academic research is carried out into gun violence.

In a statement released the day after Stephen Paddock killed 58 people attending a music festival in the city, the American Educational Research Association reiterated calls for laws restricting federal funding for gun violence research to be changed.

The restrictions date back to 1996, when Republicans in Congress, with the backing of the National Rifle Association, pushed through legislation stopping the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the main public body that funds research into public health issues, from funding anything that “may be used to advocate or promote gun control”.

Ever since, and particularly since the mass shootings at a Connecticut elementary school in 2012 and an Orlando nightclub in 2016, there have been countless calls and attempts to lift the restrictions while attempts have also been made to get round the ban.

These have included gun violence research being added to wider public studies or funding being made available by private organisations or states (for instance, California has invested $5 million (£3.8 million) in a new firearms research centre at the University of California, Davis).

But just how much research is there on gun violence in the US and how does it compare to other areas of scholarship?

Data from Elsevier’s Scopus database show that, worldwide, the amount of research on the topic is relatively low, although the data also suggest that attempts in recent years to persevere with study into the topic have prevented it being wiped out completely.

From 2012 to 2016, the number of publications featuring the keywords "firearms" and "death" was 171 in the US, making it by far the leading country for research output (Brazil, another country with a high death rate from gun violence was second, with 25 publications over the period).

However, to put this into some kind of perspective, there were more than 300 pieces of research over the same period in the US featuring the keywords "motor vehicle" and "death" and a similar number for scholarship into deaths from opioid overdoses. Both road crashes and opioid overdoses cause similar death rates in the US to firearms (between 30,000 and 40,000 a year).

For both the opioid and road crash topics, the CDC was the institution with the highest research output, responsible for 38 publications on opioid deaths and 26 on road deaths. For firearms deaths, the figure was 14.

Much of the research into the issue of gun violence takes place in the social sciences, where sources of funding are much more likely to be private organisations and where the academics may be less reliant on public grants.

On the topic of firearms deaths – where medical research is more prevalent – 24 publications were actually in the social sciences. And when a topic like “gun control” is analysed, this figure jumps up to 128, far higher than the output from medical researchers.

Robert Spitzer, author of five books on gun policy and distinguished service professor at the State University of New York at Cortland, said government funding was “often key in promoting research on many subjects”.

“There are private universities that have centres to research...gun violence at places like Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Pennsylvania, but the absence of government funding is a problem.”

However, he said that despite the lack of funding and the polarised political environment, academics in the US had still “made significant contributions to the national gun debate, especially in the last 30 years or so”.

The problem was that the gun rights lobby “generally reject these findings as the work of liberals who hate guns, without addressing the merits of the arguments and evidence presented”.

Alongside the NRA's influence on stemming federal funding for gun violence research, Professor Spitzer said that for decades it also backed legal scholarship into the Second Amendment – the section of the Constitution that relates to gun-owning rights.

Joseph Blocher, professor of law at Duke University and a scholar of the Second Amendment, said most of this research “advocated a broad reading of the right to keep and bear arms”. Much of it was then cited in a landmark Supreme Court decision in 2008 that has cemented an individual’s right to gun ownership, he said.

The NRA has even endowed professorships: its foundation gave $1 million in 2003 to endow a professorship at George Mason University’s law school.

But how has the NRA been so successful in having such an influence on academic research?

Professor Spitzer said normally other pressure groups in the US either “favour government research into their areas of specialty, or do not focus on a topic as narrow and specific as gun policy”. 

Meanwhile, Andrew Wroe, senior lecturer in American politics at the University of Kentsaid the “open structure” of the US political system made it easier for single-issue groups to have a voice and that was amplified for those with more resources and a passionate membership.

Groups “able to mobilise have a louder voice than groups that find mobilisation more difficult”, he said. “The anti-gun lobby finds it difficult to motivate its members in the same way that the NRA can motivate gun owners.”

Top US universities for research into gun control by scholarly output, 2012 to 2016

Institution Scholarly output, 2012 to 2016
Duke University 8
Yale University 4
Harvard University 4
George Mason University 4
State University of New York 4
Johns Hopkins University 3
Duquesne University 3
Florida State University 3
University of Florida 3

Source: Elsevier/Scopus. Those with the same output sorted by field-weighted citation impact.

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