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Determining What’s Next for Assessing the State of Firearms Data

NORC expert panel releases first report on firearms data infrastructure

By Asheley Van Ness
Arnold Ventures
BY John Roman
NORC at the University of Chicago

In partnership with Arnold Ventures, NORC at the University of Chicago is putting data at the center of the gun violence policy discussion by convening an expert panel to produce practical recommendations for creating a firearms data infrastructure. The panel met in October 2019 and will meet two more times over the course of this year to exchange ideas, review systems science literature, and hear testimony from experts. 

The State of Firearms Data in 2019 report is the first of three documents to be generated by these experts in firearms and gun violence.

During the inaugural meeting, the 12-person expert panel reviewed existing data systems in firearms policy and heard testimony from subject-matter witnesses including Daniel Cork, Ph.D., Study Director from the Committee on National Statistics at the National Research Council, and Elizabeth Mumford, Ph.D., Principal Research Scientist at NORC, who discussed the measurement of past, present, and future firearms data in criminal justice, health, and public health.

One of the goals of the first convening and paper is to develop an assessment of the state of firearms data collection and infrastructure in three key substantive domains: criminal justice, health, and public health. This assessment includes administrative and survey data as well as compilations and systems of data integration. The purpose of this exercise is to determine for practitioners and policymakers what data is currently available and where gaps exist. For instance, current challenges include missing databases, missing data elements, and missed opportunities to link across data systems.

Among key findings from the report:

  • Due to the past restrictions on federal funding for firearms data and research, data compilations have emerged that are generally specific to a single substantive area and are developed for some purpose other than the particular study of firearms and violence.
  • These collections can be broadly divided into six substantive domains:
    • National crime and justice database
    • National public health database
    • Population-level survey data
    • Federal justice system survey data/​ancillary justice data collections
    • Nonprofit and private policy data, ancillary (covariate) data, convenience data and surveys
    • Integrated data
  • In general, the crime and justice data including firearms fall into two categories:
    • Collections that measure crime and violence in general
    • Surveillance systems for firearms ownership and use in crime
  • There is no single, integrated data collection with key outcome measures of firearms violence and risk and protective predictors of those outcomes.
  • The critical elements of the Knowledge Data Infrastructure’ components include:
    • Layering firearms data elements into existing criminal justice and public health administrative systems
    • Harmonization of firearms data across systems and levels of government
    • Data architecture (units of analysis: event‑, person‑, place‑, group-) to facilitate appropriate research designs
    • Development of innovative sampling frames for survey research
    • Strategies for organizational design that will facilitate uptake of these recommendations
    • Strategic communication to data users and stakeholders to facilitate broad engagement

The expert panel will reconvene in January and April 2020 in a broader effort to create a blueprint for the development of an objective and sustainable firearms data infrastructure for use by local, state, and federal policymakers and their constituents and the research community.