On May 24, at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, 19 children and two teachers were killed by a shooter. Just 10 days earlier, a white gunman was accused of a racially motivated shooting in a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., that left 10 Black people dead. These tragic incidents are among the latest mass shootings to rattle the United States, the only country with more civilian-owned firearms than citizens.
Sadly, mass shootings — the definitions of which vary — are just a fraction of the story. In the United States, gun violence incidents are on the rise. In 2021, nearly 21,000 people were killed by firearms (not including suicides), according to the Gun Violence Archive, an online database of U.S. gun violence incidents. That’s a 33 percent increase from 2017, the year that firearm-related injuries usurped motor vehicle crashes as the most common cause of death among children and adolescents.
In that same time frame, active shooter incidents nearly doubled. The FBI designates an active shooter as “one or more individuals who are engaged in killing or attempting to kill in a populated area.” In 2021, 61 such incidents in the United States killed 103 people. In 2017, the number of incidents was 31, though deaths totaled 143.
“I can’t think of an issue that requires more urgency and attention,” says Sonali Rajan, a school violence prevention researcher from Columbia University. “Gun violence is a solvable problem.”
In 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health awarded a combined $25 million in grants for research on gun violence prevention, ending a 25-year paucity of federal funding in the field (SN: 5/3/16). During that decades-long financial drought, research on gun violence prevention relied on funds from private foundations and state grants.
One of the few state-funded institutions in the country is the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers University in Piscataway. The center conducts interdisciplinary research on the causes and prevention of gun violence, including homicides and suicides. Richard Barnes, the center’s assistant director, manages research projects that focus on suicide prevention and how social disparities relate to violence in Black and brown communities
Science News spoke with Barnes and Rajan about U.S. gun violence, ways to help reduce it and what research is needed. The following conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
SN: What recent trends in gun violence in the United States stand out to you?
Rajan: Gun violence as a problem has only gotten worse over the past several years. There are on average about 100,000 Americans who are shot with a firearm every single year and an estimated 40,000 of those individuals die from their firearm-related injuries. [These numbers include suicides.] In the last couple of years, that number has gone up.
Barnes: In the last two years, during the pandemic, there was a significant surge in gun purchasing. And we’ve seen increasing rates of homicides and interpersonal violence in our cities across the country. 2021 was a record-breaking year, with the most gun deaths period, including suicide. It was also record-breaking in the sense that a lot of Black and brown communities throughout the country experienced a significant increase in gun violence. [According to the CDC, the nearly 35 percent increase in overall firearm homicides from 2019 to 2020 – rising from 4.6 to 6.1 deaths per 100,000 people – hit Black communities particularly hard.]
This American problem of gun violence is significant, and I’m hoping soon that we are able to distance ourselves from this trend of increased gun violence, which is so devastating.
SN: Why is gun violence so much worse in the United States than in so many other countries?
Barnes: We have to consider our unique difference in terms of gun ownership. We have way more guns than a lot of other countries. And where you have a lot of firearms, you are going to have more gun violence.
SN: What does research suggest can help reduce gun violence?
Barnes: Again, where there are more firearms, there is more gun violence. So the first thing to consider is access to firearms. I’m not advocating that we shouldn’t have firearms, but that’s one way.
We also have violence interruption organizations (SN: 11/4/19). Their role is to work locally with other organizations — a lot of times they work with law enforcement — to gather information about the effectiveness of outreach programs and do their best to prevent and intervene in those skirmishes that might lead to gun violence. We know that when those organizations run right, they can have an impact on reducing gun violence. It really focuses on and encourages investment in public safety within those communities. That’s not a cheap course of action, it takes resources. And it’s been really difficult to get those needed resources for folks in the community, and also the research.
SN: Does increasing police presence help quell gun violence?
Rajan: Increasing police is not a solution to gun violence. There is no evidence that that works. In fact, I think it’s important to underscore that police violence is a form of gun violence. Rather than increasing funding to the police, there are a number of things that we could do, such as investing in communities and in schools in ways that are far more effective at deterring gun violence.
SN: In the wake of the Texas school shooting, there’s been talk about increasing campus security and arming teachers. Is that effective?
Rajan: There’s actually evidence that shows that criminalizing a school space [by increasing police presence] is hugely detrimental both for children and their learning outcomes, and it also disproportionately impacts children of color in very negative ways. That to me is a really good example of our school districts investing lots of money into practices that are not doing anything productive, and may in fact be having unintended negative consequences.
In the context of schools, there are a lot of things that actually have no evidence to support their effectiveness: metal detectors, zero tolerance policies, anonymous threat reporting systems and arming teachers with firearms. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that any of these kinds of safety strategies are actually effective at deterring gun violence in a school.
SN: What kind of research is needed to reduce gun violence?
Barnes: [At the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center], we’re speaking to people who have owned a firearm illicitly within the last five years. Our question is very different from the criminal question, which is where you get your firearms from. That question is fine, but we’re aiming to better understand the lived experience of illicit firearm owners, to better understand why they own guns. What is it about where they live, how they live and why they think they need a firearm?
I think a lot of times, people discount the lived experience, because they start and end with the question over whether it’s legal to own guns. They don’t ask the question of whether you should own a firearm. But if you’re living in an area that’s dangerous, where people get shot, how are you going to protect yourself, your family, your loved ones? So, we’re trying to answer that question, in hopes of being able to suggest: Here’s some meaningful things that can be done.
SN: What other kinds of information can help prevent gun violence?
Barnes: Social determinants of health are the factors that either contribute or hinder communities from thriving [such as economic stability, social support, education and health care access]. There are so many similarities among communities that are struggling the most from gun violence. I think the conversation around gun violence has to include questions around how much [these social determinants] contribute to or impact what we understand about gun violence. And in particular, the increase or uptick in gun violence.
SN: What is a major misconception in gun violence prevention?
Rajan: That the solution to gun violence is entirely based on gun laws. The gun laws are an extremely important part of the gun violence prevention puzzle. But it is not the only part. We need to think about all of the ways in which we are attending to the health and well-being of children and adults. Like, why would a 14-year-old choose to carry a firearm to begin with? They fundamentally don’t feel safe and we as a society are failing our children. What are the big systemic factors that are driving this level of violence? We need to reimagine what gun violence prevention looks like.
SN: What challenges do gun violence prevention researchers face?
Barnes: Funding is the biggest one, but also having partners on the ground is important.
We’re a research institution, so there’s a lot of distrust that needs to be overcome when we enter a community. A lot of Black and brown communities feel like they’ve been poked and prodded, they’ve seen this before. We need to have relationships on the ground that start with trust, to figure out how we can get at some of the questions that may lead to recommendations and prevention methods that work.
To do that, organizations on the ground need to be funded as well. Because if they go away, it makes it nearly impossible for us to penetrate those communities that have a well-reasoned fear of outsiders, in particular researchers. That’s the only way that you really get under the issue of gun violence in the community.