Monday, May 4, 2015

The Scientific Consensus on Guns

An article with that title recently appeared in the Los Angeles Times, written by David Hemenway, who is a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. He was motivated by a conversation with a journalist who told him that the media only abandoned their balanced coverage of a controversial scientific issue--like global warming--"when objective findings indicated that the overwhelming majority of scientists thought climate change was indeed happening, and that it was caused by humans." So Hemenway decided to "determine objectively, through polling, whether there was a scientific consensus on firearms." The results, he found, "won't please the National Rifle Association."

Accordingly, his first step was to compile "a list of relevant scientists," who had published articles on firearms in a peer-reviewed scientific journal within the past four years. Most of the qualifying scholars came from the disciplines of political science, criminology, economics, public policy, or public health. His graduate assistants eventually identified 300 such people and found more than 280 email addresses. Beginning last May, they began sending them short, monthly surveys composed of three basic questions. The first asked how much the respondent concurred with a specific claim related to firearms, while the other two asked them to rate the quality of the scientific research and to state their level of familiarity with the scientific literature on that particular topic.   

One question asked whether having a gun in the home increased the rate of suicide--84 percent of 150 respondents answered YES. This result squares with the findings of numerous area-wide studies that "the differences in rates of suicide across the country are less explained by differences in mental health, suicide ideation or even suicide attempts than they are by differences in levels of household gun ownership." It also agreed with a 2014 meta-analysis conducted by researchers at the University of California at San Francisco, and with a 2012 study by the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention from the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. Ditto a report by the Surgeon General which concluded "firearm access is a risk factor for suicide in the United States."

Responses to other Hemenway questions: 72 percent agreed that a gun in the home increases the risk that a woman residing there will be the victim of a homicide; 64 percent concurred that a gun in the home makes it a more dangerous place to be (only 5 percent said that it made the home safer); 73 percent agreed that guns are used more frequently in the commission of a crime than in self-defense; 62 percent conclude that more permissive gun carrying laws have not reduced crime rates; 71 percent, on to the contrary, agree that stronger gun laws reduce homicide. 

While acknowledging that scientific consensus on any topic is not necessarily always right, he concludes that they are" our best guide to understanding the world." Hemenway concludes with a reasonable request: "Can reporters please stop pretending that scientists, like politicians, are evenly divided on guns. We're not.         

For a closely related Op-Ed Piece, see Robert J. Spitzer, "Stand Your Ground Makes No  Sense," in the May 4 edition of the New York Times.


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