In the United States, firearm violence is a destructive public health threat that results in approximately 35,000 deaths per year. Many contend that political action is required to address this challenge, with several states implementing laws that place restrictions on owning and using firearms. Universal background checks, permit to purchase, extreme risk protection orders, and firearm storage laws represent some of the legislative actions states have taken to curb the threat of gun violence.
Despite the promise of these statewide laws, measuring their actual efficacy has been difficult because of barriers in the availability and accessibility of firearm violence data. Studies on the effectiveness of gun safety policies are also hindered by the lack of state-level representative data on firearm ownership and storage. While proxies for state-level firearm ownership have been developed by researchers to overcome this barrier, these proxies do not provide a direct examination of gun ownership.
However, the availability of data on firearms can provide important insight into mortality risk. In California, researchers found that handgun purchases in the late 1990s were associated with a substantial increase in suicide risk the week after purchase. Researchers in Washington state also identified a long-lasting increased risk for violent death associated with the legal purchase of a handgun. The only state that provides data on firearm purchases to researchers is California. Handgun purchase data in Washington state, for instance, are not accessible to researchers and have not been since 1995.
From the 1980s to 1990s, researchers used firearm tracing data to identify the effect of firearm policies and the association between gun ownership laws and violent crime. However, in 2003 the Tiahrt Amendment was signed into law, prohibiting the release of data related to the National Tracing Center of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ firearms trace database to academic researchers.
According to authors of a Viewpoint piece in JAMA, improving availability of firearm tracing data “could enhance understanding of firearm trafficking, practices of specific retailers, and the influence of policies on reducing the circulation of illegal firearms as well as their effects on firearm injury and death.”
Rowhani-Rahbar A, Bellenger MA, Rivara FP. Firearm violence research: improving availability, accessibility, and content of firearm-related data systems [published online October 11, 2019]. JAMA. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.16286