In the early 1990s, gun violence reached unprecedented levels. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 1994 the number of Americans killed by firearms peaked with 39,595 deaths. Another 104,390 people suffered non-fatal injuries. While the annual number of gun-related deaths has decreased to approximately 30,000, the loss of life remains a chilling reality across the United States.
To help curb the devastation, Joyce launched a program in 1992 aimed at preventing gun violence through improved public policies. Since that time, a cornerstone of the Gun Violence program’s grant making has been funding for research to inform the policy of gun violence prevention.
Historically, public debate concerning firearms framed the issue as one of criminal justice—using stiff penalties and rigid laws to help stop gun violence. Joyce forged a different path and approached the issue from a public health perspective, with a focus on violence prevention. The Foundation has worked to expand the body of knowledge on gun violence prevention by funding critical analysis of the issue.
For example, Joyce supported a series of studies conducted by Harvard Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard University School of Public Health, which examined the relationship between access to firearms and the risk of firearm violence. Research indicated states with a higher level of gun ownership also had a higher level of gun homicide and suicide. The correlation between gun availability and state homicide rates applied to men and women across all age groups.
In addition to studying firearm homicides, Joyce supported further investigation into suicide, a leading cause of death among Americans 40 years old or younger. Harvard researchers conducted case-control studies that indicated a strong link between a gun in the home and an increased risk of suicide. The data also revealed that easy access to a firearm in the home not only heightened the suicide risk for the gun owner, but for the owner’s spouse and children as well.
Beyond the emotional toll gun violence takes on individuals, families, and communities, Joyce sought to examine the economic stress of gun deaths and injuries. Researchers from Duke University and Georgetown University published Gun Violence: The Real Costs (2000), which calculated that gun violence costs Americans approximately $100 billion each year. In addition to surveying direct expenses, such as emergency medical aid and loss of job productivity, the research team also employed extensive survey data to measure the subjective costs of living in a society where there is risk of being shot or losing a loved one to gunfire.
Additional research supported by Joyce helped build a body of evidence on effective law enforcement strategies to reduce gun violence. Research conducted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research discovered that undercover stings, lawsuits, and in some cases, prosecution of licensed gun dealers, led to significant reductions in the flow of new guns to criminals in Chicago and Detroit. In West Milwaukee, a crackdown on one single gun dealer led to a 44 percent reduction in the flow of guns into the illegal market citywide. In addition, studies by University of California-Davis have highlighted the particular role gun shows play as a venue for illegal trafficking.
“For too long, policies surrounding firearms have been developed based on assumptions, not facts,” said Stephen Teret, professor of health and public policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. “The expansion of public health research will help policy makers make informed decisions about preventing gun violence.”
Since the Gun Violence program’s inception in 1992, Joyce-supported research has played a central role in most of the major gun violence prevention policy debates across the country. For example, research on the risk posed by firearms, and on the cost of firearm violence, was considered by the Supreme Court in two pivotal cases addressing the scope of permissible gun regulation under the Second Amendment. Advocates and attorneys cited this work in briefs submitted in Heller v. District of Columbia (2008) and McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010). It is anticipated that the research will continue to inform policy makers as states and municipalities work to address local gun violence and implement public safety measures that comply with the Supreme Court’s decisions.
Joyce-supported research has also been referenced in recent efforts to crack down on illegal gun trafficking. For example, using data on gun shows and other private sellers, Joyce grantees in Illinois and Wisconsin are currently working to control secondary market abuses by requiring all firearm transfers to go through licensed dealers. The studies also have been used to support a proposed federal policy to regulate private sales at gun shows, and also to demand stricter oversight of licensed dealers selling firearms at gun shows. Likewise, research by Johns Hopkins School of Public Health is informing the work of law enforcement in targeting corrupt gun dealers who supply the illegal market.
Improving access to data and research on gun violence has also been a priority for Joyce. The Foundation continues to support efforts to expand the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS). As part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NVDRS collects violent death data from a variety of law enforcement and medical sources in order to develop a comprehensive portrait of homicide and suicide. NVDRS now collects data from 18 states with the goal of nationwide expansion so that this critical information will be available to develop violence prevention policies across the country.
To increase access to information, the Harvard Injury Control Research Center recently unveiled a new tool for those who study, review, or develop gun policies. The Firearms Research Digest is a public, online clearinghouse of academic research on firearms violence for use by law enforcement, public health officials, policy makers, news media, and others concerned with issues of gun violence.
“There is a wealth of data for use in the policy arena,” said David Hemenway, PhD, of the Harvard School of Public Health. “Already the studies we have collected can help those concerned with gun violence find new and smart approaches grounded in research and science.”