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Law Enforcement Leaders Say Research Into Gun Violence Should Be Expanded

Engaging in research projects can help us understand the effectiveness of strategies for combating gun violence, group says in new report highlighting 9 key recommendations.

A bump stock device, right, that fits on a semi-automatic rifle to increase the firing speed, making it similar to a fully automatic rifle, is shown next to a AK-47 semi-automatic rifle at a gun store in Salt Lake City, Utah. (George Frey/Getty Images)

The federal government and private foundations should support high-quality research on evidence-based strategies for combating gun violence, and law enforcement agencies should work closely the research community to evaluate the effectiveness of their gun programs and strategies, say law enforcement leaders from across the country in a new report.

The Police Executive Research Forum outlined its recommendations in a report released last week, Reducing Gun Violence: What Works, and What Can Be Done Now. It was born of a 2018 conference where 175 police chiefs, sheriffs, federal agency executives, and subject matter experts discussed gun violence as four distinct problems with different causes and solutions: everyday” homicides and shootings stemming from gang violence, interpersonal disputes, robberies, or other crimes; domestic violence-related shootings; mass shootings; and suicides committed with guns.

The report’s nine recommendations, outlined below, reflect the thinking of leading law enforcement executives and were based on interviews with PERF member police executives, a review of the research literature on gun violence, and presentations and discussions at the conference. 

  • Dramatically expand gun violence research. For many years, the 1996 Dickey amendment was interpreted as banning the CDC from conducting research into gun violence. The amendment was actually intended to prevent the CDC from promoting gun control. In the decades since, the federal government has underinvested in gun violence research. PERF highlights the importance of law enforcement working with the research community to engage in research projects to understand the effectiveness of gun violence programs and strategies. The report also recommends that private foundations continue to support gun violence research and that the federal government supports high quality research on evidence-based strategies for combating gun violence. 
  • Deter people from illegally carrying firearms. PERF notes that many gun criminals have criminal histories but don’t face serious consequences until they commit a serious crime. It writes that swift, certain, and proportional punishments can change behavior among some offenders and prevent future, more serious crime” — as long as punishments are modest for first-time offenders to send a clear message but avoid driving mass incarceration. PERF also recommends law enforcement agencies work closely with state and local prosecutors to build strong, winnable cases and support victim and witness protection programs to guard against intimidation.
  • Keep guns out of the hands of people who are legally prohibited from owning them. A lack of data means the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, is not as effective as it could be — especially when it comes to applicants with a history of mental illness. In addition, private gun sales aren’t subject to background checks. PERF recommends strengthening the background check system by ensuring NICS data focuses on criminal convictions, drug abuse, and mental health, requiring background checks for all sales, providing more time for checks, and disqualifying those with a history of domestic violence. It also advises states to enact licensing or permitting systems for gun owners.
  • Ensure gun owners secure guns in the home and remove guns from homes where they pose an extreme risk. Unsecured guns increase the risk of domestic violence homicides and suicide and have been used to commit mass shootings. PERF recommends gun owners use gun safes and locks and that states reinforce the message with public campaigns. The report also recommends extreme-risk protection order laws that allow family members or friends to petition the courts to temporarily remove firearms from those at risk of harming themselves or someone else.
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  • Implement evidence-based policing strategies to target the small number of offenders who are responsible for the majority of the violence. Research shows that a small number of individuals commit the majority of gun crimes, and most of these crimes are concentrated in a few geographic areas. PERF recommends that law enforcement agencies focus on evidence-based strategies to prevent and combat gun violence — such as focused deterrence, hot spot policing, directed patrols, and problem-orientated policing — coupled with efforts to build trust between police and communities.
  • Fully utilize ballistic technology. PERF notes that the same weapon is often used in multiple gun crimes, and technology exists that makes it easier to connect weapons to crimes and trace them back to users. Because ballistics evidence can bolster the investigation and prosecution of gun crimes, PERF recommends that law enforcement collect ballistics evidence in all shootings and run all evidence through the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network.
  • Limit the availability of high-powered firearms. PERF says military-style weapons have become more common in everyday gun violence, increasing the chances of serious injury or death. PERF recommends limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines to 10 rounds and banning the sale and importation of military-style weapons and bump stocks that dramatically increase the number of fatalities.
  • Stop guns from entering the black market. Many guns enter the black market through straw purchases” or are stolen. PERF recommends that law enforcement investigate and prosecute individuals and gun dealers who engage in straw purchases. The report also recommends federally licensed firearms dealers be required to have strict physical security standards and individuals be required to report lost or stolen guns.
  • Assess threats to intervene in mass shootings. PERF emphasizes that most mass shootings are planned attacks, and offenders usually indicate their purpose in advance. The report recommends that law enforcement develop and use threat assessment protocols, school personnel be trained to look for signs of crisis and violence, and protocols be established for reporting and following up on those threats.

Read the full report here.