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The many challenges of researching gun violence

Criminal Justice professor and researcher Lacey Wallace on what we know—and don’t know—about gun violence.

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

Lacey Wallace, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Penn State Altoona, says it's abundantly clear that gun violence is a public health issue.

“If you look at the leading causes of death in the last few years in the U.S., you’ll find that the number of people killed by guns basically rivals the number of people killed in motor vehicle accidents,” Wallace says. (The data from the National Center for Health Statistics backs her up.) “It’s a really startling number, especially when you look at the number of these cases that involve kids who aren't supposed to have access to guns in the first place.”

The American Public Health Association and American Medical Association agree with Wallace that gun violence is a public health issue—yet as researchers in the field know, there’s shockingly little data about why incidents of gun violence occur. It’s difficult, for a number of reasons, to actually conduct research related to guns—though there’s hope that may be changing.

dscout recently sat down with Wallace to talk about her work and what has to transpire for researchers to get the data we need to inform policy and action.

dscout: A major issue when it comes to gun violence prevention is that we know so little about why incidences of gun violence occur—in part because it's difficult, for a host of reasons, to engage in any in-depth research. What are some of the biggest roadblocks to getting the information we need?

Lacey Wallace: Funding is a big one—one of the major sticking points right now is that a lot of researchers are stuck with limited funding and limited time. We can run local studies or smaller nationwide studies, but that makes getting an accurate picture of what’s really going on very difficult. If we were able to put money towards a very well thought-out and fairly large nationwide study, we could actually get a much, much clearer estimate of what’s really happening in terms of gun ownership in the country, and we could look at regional differences and other factors. But it’s been years since a large nationwide study like that has been done, at this point—in part because the federal government hasn’t been willing to fund it.

Is private funding an option?

It's an option.

One of the challenges when you’re talking to people about guns is trust. You want people to be honest, and so part of running a successful study on something like gun violence is you have to really reassure people that nothing they say is going to get out or be used against them in any way. Basically the less someone knows a person, the less likely they are to talk to them about guns.

Basically the less someone knows a person, the less likely they are to talk to them about guns.

Lacey Wallace

Their feedback has to be anonymous. And so people generally respond best when they see that a study is administered by an organization, whether it's a government entity or another organization that has credibility and name recognition, so that when people see the name, they think “Oh this is an entity I can trust. This is legitimate.” It’s something I’ve actually studied specifically, how comfortable people are talking about guns with others—family members, friends, doctors, police, teachers, etc etc. So if you're an unknown researcher or coming from an unknown organization, people aren't going to want to talk to you about their guns or their feelings about guns.

So when you are able to do studies, what kinds of things are you asking people to get a better understanding of what's really happening?

We always want to ask about gun ownership, because we certainly want to know who owns guns and why, and where they're concentrated in the country. Some countries actually require all gun owners to register with the government, so that they can track how many guns there are and who owns them. The U.S. doesn’t do that—there are actually federal and state laws that say we're not allowed to keep that information. So as researchers, the only thing we can really do is send out surveys and hope people fill them out and hope they're honest about how many guns they have and what kinds, so we can get kind of a ballpark estimate of what's out there. Mental illness is something that we definitely want to ask about, especially given how often that’s brought up by the media in the conversation around mass shootings.

One thing we haven't really asked enough about in previous research are gun accessories. Understanding those better would help quite a bit. Before the recent debate about the bump stock ban, I don’t think it’s something most researchers even really thought to dig into. And gun storage is always something we're interested in, because we want to know how kids get their hands on guns.

That seems like a really crucial point, and one that’s come up more and more nationally in the wake of school shootings—people who have access to guns aren't always the gun owners. So even if you are able to connect with a gun owner for research purposes, you aren’t necessarily speaking with everyone in the household who uses the gun or has access to it. How can you try to understand the attitudes of people who aren’t technically gun owners but may have access to guns?

I think you have to get creative in how you ask questions. For instance, ask a hypothetical. Say: “If you wanted access to a gun within the next week, how would you get it? Would you try to purchase it? Would you ask a friend or family member?” Then you can start to see who are the people that folks turn to when they need or want a gun. That would help us build a map of who the primary sources are that people turn to. We know family and friends are a big part of that equation but we don't know how much that varies, or exactly which type of friend or family member people turn to in those situations. But it’s tough, in part because any time you're asking about someone else in the household, you're asking people to guess a little bit. Your information gets less reliable than if you're asking someone direct questions about their personal attitudes, so I tend to focus on the individual and their perceptions. I worry about the reliability of the data when you start asking people too much about what other people they live with might think.

You mentioned mass shootings, which are obviously a devastating problem in the U.S.—and according to a recent FBI study, “active shooter” incidents are happening more and more frequently. And when they do occur, the media coverage is widespread, and guns become the focus of the national conversation in a major way. But do people’s personal feelings about guns really change in the wake of those events?

One thing that mass shootings do is drive up gun purchasing for at least a little bit afterwards, so you have that fear factor playing into both fear of the violence, and for some folks it's fear that some sort of gun control legislation is coming down the line so they rush out to purchase a gun or some sort of accessory that they think they might not be able to get in another year or six months.

Does that happen nationwide, or is it regionally based?

It depends on how big an incident it is. If it's a shooting that gets a ton of media attention across the country, it's a nationwide effect. If it's something that's getting less attention, it doesn't tend to have that much of an impact. So a lot of it's about that media attention. How much press is it getting?

What about politics? That seems like another challenge because so much of the conversation surrounding guns and gun ownership is connected to politics. Is there a way to get people to divest their opinions from their political beliefs when they’re answering research questions?

I don’t think it’s possible. For a lot of people, gun ownership is kind of wrapped up with their political beliefs and their self-identity. So to ask them to leave politics out of it is really challenging and, in some cases, just shuts people down. When it comes to guns, some people just don’t know how to talk about guns without bringing in politics.

You've also studied how feelings about guns manifest in families, and in particular what influences teenagers in their attitude towards guns.

Yes. We’ve found that genetics isn’t a big factor when you look at weapon-use. People’s feelings about guns are much more directly related to their environments. If multiple siblings have weapon-carrying or weapon-use problems, the reason they're similar is because they're in the same school environment, the same neighborhood.

Peers, especially, are a huge influence, especially when it comes to teens. If kids’ peers carry guns or have access to guns, they're much more likely to do the same. And unfortunately, we also find that teens see other kids who carry guns as more socially desirable. So the kids who have access to guns or carry guns can actually be a little bit more popular than other kids with similar characteristics.

Is there a correlation between how people perceive guns in their youth and how they perceive them as adults?

That’s something I’m actually looking at right now, with several students—a study looking at how people’s opinions may have been influenced by the kind of exposure they had to guns in their youth. We’re looking at people who've seen traumatic things, but also people who go hunting and shooting with their families, to try to understand where peoples' gun views come from and how they change as they grow up. It's something that’s missing from the research that's out there.

We just assume that people grow up with guns and that’s where their views come from, but we don’t know what kinds of interactions with guns matter in terms of shaping those views.

Lacey Walalce

We just assume that people grow up with guns and that's where their views come from, but we don't know what kinds of interactions with guns matter in terms of shaping those views.

Is there evidence that certain milestones in people’s lives affect how they feel about guns? Are there points in life when people are more or less likely to buy guns? When they have kids? Or when their kids are out of the house?

We don't have great research on that, unfortunately. We know that most gun owners are on the older side rather than the younger side, and that a lot of gun owners do have kids. But there hasn’t really been a comprehensive study that’s followed people over time to try and understand when and how those feelings change. That’s something that would definitely require government funding, in part because people move around, and so studies like that become expensive. Tracking people down gets really, really hard. But that’s the kind of study we would need to try and answer the question about how people’s attitudes toward guns change over time, either over a long period of time or a short period.

One thing that seems to have been very consistent over the last few decades is the reason people give for why they own a gun.

Yes—basically the polls tell us the same information on that year after year. The number one answer is always self-defense. The second most common answer is hunting or shooting sports.

Is that consistent with what we see in terms of reports of gun violence?

In terms of how often guns actually get used in self-defense, that is a really, really highly contested debate. Some studies say there's a very high number; some studies say there's a very low number. And we actually don't have good information on that. Part of the reason is we're relying on victimization surveys for that, and if you defend yourself with a gun, sometimes people don't see themselves as a victim because they were able to stop the situation. So we're not getting an accurate answer for that. And sometimes people are just afraid to say, “Oh, I used a gun to defend myself,” because they don't want to get in some sort of trouble. So you run into that honesty issue again.

It seems like another place where less of a barrier between law enforcement and the research side of things would be incredibly helpful.


Most of the data that exists about why people own guns has come from Gallup—it’s based on quantitative surveys. Is there something you would change in how you’d ask people about why they own guns?

I would probably probe to see, “Okay, of the reasons you just gave me about why you own a gun, which one is the most important to you?” Because there are multiple reasons why people own a gun, but if there’s one really driving you, that's important. I would also want to know what your reason was for buying a gun in the first place, because it may be that they own a gun for self-defense now, but maybe they initially purchased it for some other reason, and maybe that's changed over time.

What about accounting for geographic differences? Gun laws famously differ from state to state. But when you’re looking at things like the correlation between stricter gun laws and lower crime rates, one argument that often comes up is the context argument. The idea that you can’t just look at a city’s crime rate in connection with its gun laws, because that doesn’t account for things like how close it may be to a neighboring state that has vastly different laws, and where people can more easily purchase guns.

Strangely what I've found is that there isn’t a lot of regional variation in terms of people’s attitudes toward guns. There's often a divide between people who live in rural areas versus urban areas, but not so much region to region. I sometimes wonder how much that gets overplayed by the media.

What are the major differences between rural and urban gun owners?

Rural gun owners are much more likely to own guns for sport or hunting, whereas urban gun owners might be more likely to have a handgun. And when we talk about gun control restrictions and crime reduction, we’re often focused on handguns. So for a lot of rural gun owners, when they hear the discussion about gun restrictions pick up in the wake of media coverage of shootings or crime-related gun use, there can be a disconnect. They’re using their guns for hunting or shooting sports, and they feel grouped in with other gun owners that they don’t necessarily feel like they have a lot in common with. And they don’t want their activities to be limited by what they’re seeing the media cover on television, which they feel is really far removed from how they’re using guns.

Is that something you’ve asked gun owners about—their feelings about different types of guns?

I've focused almost exclusively on handguns, since that's where a lot of the debate is. But, for example, in one survey I asked people: “If you see someone with a gun in public, what worries you?” And a number of people said that it depends on the type of gun. If they saw one type of gun they weren’t worried, because they would know it was being used for such and such a purpose. But if it’s another type, that's a different scenario. So you can see people dividing in their minds what each type of gun means for them and how they react to people with those types of guns.

Are there other factors that people bring up as concerns if they see someone with a gun?

A lot of people bring up the mental illness issue. Does this person seem calm and rational? Are they in a place I would expect them to be with a gun? Those are two really common ones that come up.

What about things like age, gender, race, perceived social class?

People don’t typically bring that up when I ask them to imagine seeing a person on the street, but if you look at the quantitative data, you’ll see some of it. The people who are most comfortable seeing people with guns are people who are used to being around guns, who tend to be older, white males. Females, crime victims, and racial or ethnic minorities are much less comfortable with seeing people with guns.

You’ve also looked at the unintended effects of policy on gun ownership. What are those?

One is mass shootings, and that gun purchases tend to increase after mass shootings. Another is the Castle Doctrine laws, which were all the rage a few years back, which basically protect people legally who use guns in self-defense. Essentially, those laws drew attention to gun ownership for self-defense, which also seemed to make people more comfortable with the idea of gun purchasing at that time. So people went out and purchased guns. The reason I study things like that is, sometimes when we pass laws, there's the effect we expect, and the effect that happens that we weren't quite looking for. And sometimes we do see some of those surprises come up.

What about for you personally, as a researcher in this area? Are there things that come up that you haven’t expected? 

It’s research that comes with risks. Even with the small-scale studies that I've done, I've received threats. I got two angry emails from random strangers this week. And the bigger your study gets, the more press it gets, the greater the risk there is. And that goes for the researcher, as well as whoever is funding it.

Is there reason to hope things might change on the research front when it comes to guns?

One major push has come from the outcry for change following the school shooting in Parkland, FL. Unlike prior shootings, the movement's leaders are kids themselves. Several states have actually made legislative changes in response, and several big box retail stores have changed their policies as well in terms of selling guns. Along with that, the restrictions on CDC funding for gun research have eased somewhat. While that is a small step, it is possible that other federal agencies will follow suit. A public more open to debating gun violence may also be more willing to fund the research on why it happens.

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

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