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Mark Rosenberg: What Researchers Learned About Gun Violence Before Congress Killed Funding

February 28, 2013

ProPublica interviews the CDC's Mark Rosenberg about the data on gun control.

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Joaquin Sapien interviews Mark Rosenberg
By arrangement with ProPublica

President Obama has directed the Centers for Disease Control to research gun violence as part of his legislative package on gun control. The CDC hasn’t pursued this kind of research since 1996 when the National Rifle Association lobbied Congress to cut funding for it, arguing that the studies were politicized and being used to promote gun control. We’ve interviewed Dr. Mark Rosenberg, who led the agency’s gun violence research in the nineties when he was the director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

We talked to Rosenberg about the work the agency was doing before funding was cut and how it’s relevant to today’s gun control debate. Here’s an edited transcript.

Joaquin Sapien for ProPublica

ProPublica: There’s been coverage recently about how Congress cut funding for gun violence research, but not much about what the agency was actually researching and what it was finding. You were in charge of that. Tell us a little bit about what the CDC was doing back then.

Mark Rosenberg: There were basically four questions that we were trying to answer. The first question is what is the problem? Who were the victims? Who was killed? Who were injured? Where did they happen? Under what circumstances? When? What times of the year? What times of the day? What was the relationship to other events? How did they happen? What were the weapons that were used? What was the relationship between the people involved? What was the motive or the setting in which they happened?

What the research showed was not only did having a firearm in your home not protect you, but it hugely increased the risk that someone in your family would die from a firearm homicide. It increased the risk almost 300 percent.

The second question is what are the causes? What are the things that increase one’s risk of being shot? What are the things that decrease one’s risk of being shot?

The third question we were trying to answer is what works to prevent these? What kinds of policies, what kinds of interventions, what kinds of police practices or medical practices or education and school practices actually might prevent some of these shootings? We’re not just looking at mass shootings, but also looking at the bulk of the homicides that occur every year and the suicides, which account for a majority of all gun deaths.

Then the last question is how do you do it? Once you have a program or policy that has been proven to work in one place, how do you spread it? How do you actually put it in place?

ProPublica: So what were you were able to find before funding got cut off?

Mark Rosenberg: One of the critical studies that we supported was looking at the question of whether having a firearm in your home protects you or puts you at increased risk. This was a very important question because people who want to sell more guns say that having a gun in your home is the way to protect your family.

We also found that there were a lot of firearm suicides, and in fact most firearm deaths are suicides.

What the research showed was not only did having a firearm in your home not protect you, but it hugely increased the risk that someone in your family would die from a firearm homicide. It increased the risk almost 300 percent, almost three times as high.

It also showed that the risk that someone in your home would commit suicide went up. It went up five-fold if you had a gun in the home. These are huge, huge risks, and to just put that in perspective, we look at a risk that someone might get a heart attack or that they might get a certain type of cancer, and if that risk might be 20 percent greater, that may be enough to ban a certain drug or a certain product.

But in this case, we’re talking about a risk not 20 percent, not 100 percent, not 200 percent, but almost 300 percent or 500 percent. These are huge, huge risks.

ProPublica: I understand there was also an effort to collect data on gun violence through something called the Firearm Injury Surveillance System. What did that involve?

Mark Rosenberg: We were collecting information to answer the question of who, what, where, when, and how did shootings occur?

Does gun licensing and registration work to reduce firearm injuries and death? We don’t have the answer.

We were finding that most homicides occur between people who know each other, people who are acquaintances or might be doing business together or might be living together. They’re not stranger-on-stranger shootings. They’re not mostly home intrusions.

We also found that there were a lot of firearm suicides, and in fact most firearm deaths are suicides. There were a lot of young people who were impulsive who were using guns to commit suicide.

ProPublica: So if you were able to continue this work, what kind of data do you think would be available today?

Mark Rosenberg: I think we’d know much more information about what sorts of weapons are used in what sorts of firearm deaths and injuries.

Let’s say you look at robbery associated homicides, and you find that in those homicides certain weapons are used in almost all of them and that these weapons come from a limited number of sources and that those weapons are not used by people to defend their home or to hunt or to target shoot. Then you can say, “Here’s a type of weapon that seems to be only used in criminal enterprises and doesn’t seem to have any legitimate uses, and maybe we ought to find a way to restrict the sales or access to that type of weapon.”

I think it’s also important to look at what the impact of these data might be.

If you look at how many deaths have occurred between 1996, when there was this disruption to surveillance and research, and now, so that’s sixteen years, and if you assume that there are about 30,000 gun deaths every year, you’re talking about 480,000 gun deaths over that period of time.

If even a fraction of those deaths could have been prevented, you’re talking about a significant impact in terms of saving lives.

There are things we can do that will both reduce firearm injuries and protect the legitimate rights of gun owners and protect the children and their families.

ProPublica: Lawmakers are now trying to figure out what the most effective policies might be to curb gun violence, and how to implement them. What were you beginning to find on that?

Mark Rosenberg: The largest question in this category is what kind of larger policies work? Does it work, for example, if you have an assault weapon ban? Does that reduce the number of firearm injuries and deaths? In truth, we don’t know the answer to that. That requires evaluation.

Does gun licensing and registration work to reduce firearm injuries and death? We don’t have the answer.

The policies that make it easier to carry concealed weapons, do those reduce or do those increase firearm injuries and deaths? We don’t have the answer. Do gun bans like they have in the city of Chicago, work? We don’t have the answer yet to those.

These require large-scale studies of large numbers of people, over a long period of time to see if they work or don’t.

I don’t think those studies were fully funded or completed.

ProPublica: How do you think the gun control debate might be different today, if you had been allowed to continue that research?

Mark Rosenberg: I would like to think that we would have had answers to what works and what doesn’t work. I would hope that we know whether the kind of bans and restrictions that they have in Chicago really make a difference or don’t. I would hope that we would have had information about whether an assault weapon ban saves lives or doesn’t. Unfortunately, when you don’t have those data that really show you, scientifically, whether or not something works, then you end up with people making statements like the following, “Obviously, the assault weapon ban didn’t work, because Columbine happened.”

That’s kind of like saying, “Vaccines don’t work because someone got the flu.”

ProPublica: The Obama administration is asking Congress for $10 million to pursue gun-related research. If you had that budget and you had your old job, what would you use the money to look at?

Mark Rosenberg: I think we’d want to look at what the impact of different policies would be, both restricting and enabling policies.

The other thing that I would make sure we looked at is not just how do we prevent firearm injuries, but how do we also protect the rights of legitimate gun owners? I think it would be very important to look, for example, at legislation that restricts access by certain people to firearms. Let’s say these might be people who have committed felonies or people who have been adjudicated mentally ill.

People often think that there are maybe three things we should consider passing right now, something like an assault weapons ban, a ban on large capacity magazines, and background checks on all gun purchasers.

The truth is that there’s not going to be a simple, magic pill or even three pills that cure the whole problem. If you look at suicides and the whole range of homicides and firearm injuries, the answers are going to come, bit by bit, over time, incrementally.

It’s not one, two or even three things that are really going to solve the problem. They may salve our conscience, but they won’t solve the problem. The research is really, really important. We really need to find out what works, so that we can save more lives.

It’s been presented to people that research is going to hurt legitimate gun owners. That’s the threat and how the NRA leadership has often presented it to the NRA membership. “Any sort of research is only going to result in your losing all your guns.”

That’s a tactic of fear. It’s not at all the case. There are things we can do that will both reduce firearm injuries and protect the legitimate rights of gun owners and protect the children and their families.

Joaquin Sapien has focused on environmental issues since he joined ProPublica in May 2008. In 2009 he was part of a team whose work on natural gas drilling won the Society of Professional Journalists award for online non-deadline investigative reporting. From 2005 until 2008 he was a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, where he led a year-long investigative project, “Superfund’s Toxic Legacy,” which received the 2007 Society of Professional Journalists award for non-deadline online reporting. Before joining CPI, Sapien wrote for Environmental Media Services.

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