A new group brings together researchers, practitioners, and advocates in the gun violence prevention field to do what government has so far failed to do: build a better firearms data infrastructure to fill the yawning gaps in current knowledge.
The nonprofit organization Safe States Alliance has convened a working group to work with policymakers and carry out recommendations aimed at strengthening the data available through federal and state governments, the criminal justice system, and health care providers, reports Arnold Ventures, one of the supporters of the new initiative.
Current data does not account for 60% of all gun injuries, and policymakers and practitioners can’t answer basic questions: How many people are shot each year and survive? How do people get their hands on guns used in crimes? Which firearms dealers are selling the most guns used in crimes?
“It’s impossible to build relevant real-time solutions without data,” Ruth Abaya, senior director of health systems and community violence intervention integration for the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention. “The working group wants to make sure that we have really high-quality data that’s timely, responsive, and accurate from all these different sources in the violence prevention ecosystem. The real power will be in bringing that data together, integrating all those sources, and building toward a data infrastructure culture.”
Gun violence is the country's leading cause of preventable death, with more than 100,000 people in the U.S. killed or injured by firearms each year, including homicides, suicides, and accidents.
The lack of firearms data in the United States is not a new problem. In 2013, a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report found that basic information about guns is “limited, disorderly, and highly segmented.”
“Not much has changed since the NAS report,” says Asheley Van Ness, director of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures. “Firearms data infrastructure is limited, it’s opaque, and it’s not shared across state, local, and federal governments. Without systematic collection of data, it’s difficult to craft effective, constitutional policies that can reduce firearms deaths and injuries, whether from accidents, violent crime, or suicide.”
In 2020, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago convened an independent expert panel to create a "blueprint" for better firearms data infrastructure. The panel published recommendations in the 2020 report A Blueprint for U.S. Firearms Data Infrastructure, which serves as expert guidance for a set of policies to develop an improved firearms data infrastructure. It includes a prioritized list of future projects, providing empirical support for the public, researchers, and policymakers.
The goal of the Safe States Alliance’s working group is to raise the visibility of the recommendations in NORC’s blueprint and put them into practice nationally.
The NORC recommendations tackle data issues in both the criminal justice and public health systems. One priority is strengthening data reporting by law enforcement agencies to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS).
Another important step is strengthening the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which is used to determine if a person is eligible to purchase a firearm, and examining the timeliness and quality of criminal history data reported to the program. That move would help ensure that firearms are not sold to people who are ineligible to own them because of a criminal record or some other reason.
In the area of public health, a top priority is expanding the CDC’s Firearm Surveillance Through Emergency Rooms (FASTER) program. Currently funded in ten pilot sites, FASTER is an effort to rapidly track firearm injuries across the United States.
In general, NORC recommends that the federal government increase public access to federal data systems and improve opportunities for data linkage, sharing, and transparency — a step that would go a long way toward establishing a more coordinated system.
“We really think that the data is a nonpartisan way to get to the heart of this issue and engage people across the political spectrum,” Roman says. “Public opinion polls support gun safety policy, but this requires data and research. We could have much more reasonable and widely popular policy if we simply knew more.”