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Q&A

America Knows Surprisingly Little About Firearms Usage. A New Expert Panel Sets Out To Fix That.

Arnold Ventures convened an expert panel facilitated by NORC at the University of Chicago to study the problem of firearm data infrastructure—and how to improve it.

Today the Arnold Ventures–funded NORC Expert Panel on Firearms Data Infrastructure released Blueprint for a US Firearms Data Infrastructure, a major report detailing recommendations for improving the collection and sharing of data about American firearms usage. Until recently, research into firearms was limited by lack of federal funding and lack of data infrastructure. The new report sets out a series of recommendations that will give policymakers and the public a roadmap on improving firearms infrastructure in order to reduce gun violence in the country.

Arnold Ventures recently spoke to members of the Expert Panel about their findings.

John Roman is a senior fellow in the Economics, Justice and Society Group at NORC at the University of Chicago.

Clarence Wardell is the Vice President of Solutions at Results for America

Nancy Potok is the CEO of NAPx Consulting and the former Chief Statistician of the United States.

Asheley Van Ness is the Director of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures.

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Arnold Ventures

Why is firearms research in the United States so limited?

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Asheley Van Ness

For decades, basic questions about how to prevent gun violence have gone unresearched. We don’t know where the guns used to commit gun violence come from. We don’t know which laws and policies are most effective at curbing gun violence. We don’t have those answers because the federal government, which is the country’s biggest source of research funding, has significantly underinvested in this topic. That’s disappointing, because gun violence is one of the leading causes of death in America. Last year, Congress did approve one year of gun violence prevention research funding, providing $25 million to the CDC and the NIH. New federal funding is welcome and needed, but there is still enormous ground to be made up to build the evidence base needed to support fair and effective gun policies.

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John Roman

If we think about gun violence as a public health problem, we spend far less studying it than other major public health issues. We spend orders of magnitude more money studying other similarly serious public health problems.

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Arnold Ventures

Why is it important to have more comprehensive data about firearms ownership and usage?

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Clarence Wardell

That data underpins so many issues in our society. Gun violence is one of the leading topics of conversation in our country, but there’s been a persistent lack of data to support the discussion, making it very difficult to move toward evidenced-based solutions. We find ourselves going in circles because we don’t have the data to answer some basic questions. Most folks assume that someone, somewhere is collecting this information, and they’re shocked when they find out it isn’t being collected.

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Nancy Potok

Even if particular communities are collecting this information and acting locally, there isn’t really the ability to compare communities because there’s a lack of standardized data. The local, state, and federal government all have an important role in data collection. Without basic information that can be compared, it’s hard to do anything about gun violence.

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John Roman

If we don’t have the data, we can’t recognize our successes and we can’t avoid our failures. We can’t observe trends, we can’t observe hotspots, we can’t observe correlations. We can’t develop policies to reduce gun violence, and we can’t even identify how big of a problem it is.

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Arnold Ventures

Why did Arnold Ventures decide to fund an independent expert panel at NORC to look into firearms data?

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Asheley Van Ness

Because there’s just a complete absence of data infrastructure. Either the data is lacking, data collection systems are incomplete, or the data is inaccessible. Our hope is that Arnold Ventures can play a role in elevating the need for better research to inform policy discussions. NORC is a nonpartisan organization and approaches all of its work with deep technical expertise and a commitment to scientific integrity, which is critical when you’re dealing with a subject as complex as gun violence.

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Arnold Ventures

What are the biggest gaps in our knowledge of firearms ownership?

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John Roman

We know very little about gun injuries. We have pretty good systems to monitor when people are killed by firearms, both in the criminal justice and public health realms, but it’s much harder to track injuries. That’s important to determine how the lethality of weapons is changing and how effective our hospitals are at treating gunshot wounds.

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Asheley Van Ness

We don’t even know whether the number of people who have been shot has gone up or down over the last ten years. Each estimate is based on different sources of data. Not even the FBI tracks the total number of nonfatal gunshot wounds. We know how many people die, but not how many people get shot and survive.

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John Roman

I think we underestimate the damage that is experienced by people who suffer gunshot injuries. A study from the University of Michigan recently estimated that between 15 and 20 percent of people who suffer gunshot injuries experience a permanent disability. That could be a spinal injury, a traumatic brain injury, or an injury that requires victims to need dialysis for the rest of their lives.

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Arnold Ventures

What are the principal recommendations of the report?

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John Roman

There’s a set of recommendations at the federal level for new and expanded data collection—things like expanding the way we collect data on nonfatal firearms injuries, and expanding data on how people obtain firearms that they use in criminal acts. Then there are recommendations for how to fix and standardize overlapping data. On the local level, there are 18,000 local law enforcement agencies. They all report into separate systems. We provide recommendations on how they can work together with the federal government to better collect and standardize their data.

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Nancy Potok

It’s not just about collecting more data, it’s about how the data are used to understand some very complex dynamics. That requires more than one data set from one agency. It requires that health data, demographic data, crime data, and other data be brought together. The Foundations of Evidence-Based Policy Act, which passed Congress in 2018, puts strong protections around that data and makes it available to researchers. Our report builds on that new statutory authority, and takes a holistic approach. Gun violence doesn’t have a single dimension—it’s complex.

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Arnold Ventures

How do you make progress when the interests on both sides of the gun violence debate are so entrenched in their positions?

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Asheley Van Ness

Arnold Ventures has built a strong reputation for relying on data to guide our philanthropic efforts. That’s another reason we chose NORC to carry out this research—they have a reputation for high-quality, objective nonpartisan research. We don’t approach this effort in the hopes of confirming any preexisting positions; we simply want to understand more about the causes of gun violence, and the potential solutions. Political posturing and entrenched positions are a big reason why America has failed to make progress in addressing this crisis.

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Clarence Wardell

We have to be outcome-oriented and solution-driven. If there’s a chance at bringing people into alignment, it’s usually around a common goal. We need to show folks that it doesn’t harm anyone to share this data.

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John Roman

The great thing about research is that you often find facts that are surprising to people with entrenched positions. If you tell someone that if they buy a gun their son is more likely to shoot himself with it than you are to shoot an intruder—and you have the data to prove it—that can really change the way they think about their decision.

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Arnold Ventures

Is gun violence a criminal justice issue, a public health issue, or both? How will better data help us reduce gun violence?

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Nancy Potok

It’s a law enforcement issue, a public health issue, and also a broader societal issue. That’s why many different types of data need to be brought to bear on the subject. Looking at it through a single lens is insufficient to understand the dynamics of gun violence in diverse communities across the country, whether you’re looking at suicides or homicides.

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John Roman

It’s definitely a bigger societal issue, not just a criminal justice and public health issue. The U.S. differs in major ways from the rest of the world as a result of having so much more gun violence. The fear of being randomly victimized drives so many gun sales. There are something like 15 million new guns in circulation since the Covid-19 pandemic started. What’s driving that is fear. We can address that fear with better data.