Mass Shootings: Public Face of a Much Larger Epidemic

gettyimages gun illustration

Americans have witnessed repeated mass shootings. The carnage in Texas and Ohio last weekend claimed another 31 lives and has left the nation stunned and angry.

Many are demanding that members of Congress pass tougher gun-control laws; others blame mental health and violent video games for the rampant shootings.

Stanford Health Policy’s David Studdert — an expert on the public health epidemic of firearms violence — acknowledges that mass shootings are on the rise in the United States.

“It’s been a horrific weekend,” said Studdert, a professor of law at Stanford Law School and professor of medicine at Stanford School of Medicine. “Experts now generally agree that mass shootings are becoming more common — and that a common thread is disaffected young men who have access to high-caliber, high-capacity weapons.”

Both suspects in the Dayton and El Paso shootings fit this profile.

Studdert notes, however, that while mass shootings have become the public face of gun violence, they account for less than 1% of the 40,000 firearm deaths each year.

“So as a public health researcher, I do care about mass shootings and I am interested in understanding and their causes — but the focus of my ongoing research is the other 99 percent.”

Largest investment in firearms research in two decades

It’s that focus the Studdert will be pursuing in a recently-awarded $668,000 grant from the National Collaboration on Gun Violence Research. The private collaborative’s mission is to fund nonpartisan, scientific research that offers the public and policymakers a factual basis for developing fair and effective gun policies.

Studdert, Yifan Zhang, a statistician with Stanford Health Policy, and Stanford political scientist Jonathan Rodden are working with colleagues at UC Davis, Northeastern University and Erasmus University Rotterdam on the Study of Handgun Ownership and Transfer, or LongSHOT.

The team is following several million Californians over a 12-year period to better understand the causal relationship between firearm ownership and mortality. They launched in 2016 with the initial goal of assessing the risks and benefits of ownership for firearm owners.

“The implications of firearm ownership for owners is important because they usually are the ones making the decision to purchase and own,” Studdert said. “But we knew from the beginning that this was only part of the picture. The presence of a firearm in the home may also have health implications for the owners’ family members.”

In the new study, the researchers will identify the cohort of adults in California who live with firearm owners but are not themselves gun owners, and then compare their risks of mortality to a group who neither own weapons, nor live with others who do.

Surprisingly little is known about the “secondhand” effects of having guns in the home.

“Existing studies don’t differentiate between owners and non-owners within households, and that is something we have the ability to look at,” Studdert said. “And a very large proportion of non-gun-owners who are living in homes with guns are women — so this is a group that has really been understudied.”

There is already substantial evidence that a gun in the home is associated with increased risks of suicide. But it is not clear how particular subgroups, such as women who don’t own guns, are affected.

“Because our cohort is so large,” Studdert said, “we will also be able to explore whether gun ownership confers certain benefits, as gun-rights advocates often claim, such as enhanced safety in dangerous neighborhoods.”

Studdert said a better accounting of the risks and benefits that firearm ownership poses for non-owners could help inform decisions regarding gun ownership and storage, as well as policies aimed at improving gun safety.

The politics of federal funding for firearms research

The National Collaboration on Gun Violence Research is funded through private philanthropic donations. It was seeded with a $20 million gift from Arnold Ventures and intends to raise another $30 million in private funding for firearms research.

“It’s the biggest investment in firearms research since the late 1990s,” Studdert said.

Research on the impact and causes of firearm violence was dealt a huge blow in 1996 when the so-called Dickey Amendment was passed by Congress. The law has been interpreted as prohibiting the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting firearms research.

Studdert said that the growth of research funding from philanthropies like the Arnold Foundation and Joyce Foundation is a welcome development, but that it will take a large and sustained investment to move the science of firearm violence forward.  

“The core funder of large-scale research essentially vacated the space for 20 years,” he said.  “It’s going to take some time to recover. Developing a generation of researchers with expertise will take give to 10 years. But it has to be done — the size of the social problem demands it.”