Webinar Examines the Future of Gun Violence Research
As recently as a decade ago, research on the prevention of gun violence in the United States was nearly non-existent, even in the face of escalating deaths and injuries from firearms, including tragic mass shootings like Columbine and Sandy Hook. While more research into preventing gun violence is taking place today, speakers at a recent webinar on gun violence science said much more is needed to address the severity of the problem. (Watch the video below.)
The webinar organized by Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and the Columbia Scientific Union for the Reduction of Gun Violence (SURGE) brought together experts from around the country for a discussion on the availability of research funding and their vision for the future of the field. The event was introduced by Charles Branas, chair of the department of epidemiology, and Ted Alcorn, a journalist and epidemiology instructor. Panelists included Rebecca Cunningham of the University of Michigan, Ali Rowhani-Rahbar of the University of Washington, Timothy Daly of the Joyce Foundation, and Sonali Rajan, a professor at Teacher’s College and Columbia Mailman.
Not long ago, researchers were discouraged from studying gun violence science due to the lack of mentorship, funding, and research avenues. Even a few years ago, “the number of career scientists working on this topic could fit around a conference room table, and now there is a whole conference full of scientists focused on firearm-related harms,” said Alcorn, who teaches a course on gun violence at Columbia Mailman. Today’s research climate looks very different, and Cunningham noted, “scholars and trainees and early faculty are pouring into the field.”
As one notable example, last fall, Columbia researchers helped organize a landmark conference on firearm injury prevention. At the conference, Rajan was named the inaugural president of the Research Society for the Prevention of Firearm-Related Harms—the first multidisciplinary professional society dedicated to the science and study of firearm violence and its impacts on communities and individuals. Currently, she is co-leading a National Institutes of Health-funded study of gun violence in schools. She explained federal funding is “allowing us to do this work…where we’re actually collecting data from hundreds of schools.” This increasing federal support is also evidenced by recent inauguration of the federal Office of Gun Violence Prevention.
But any hoped-for tipping point hasn’t happened yet. Research funding has increased, but so too has gun violence. Rebecca Cunningham, vice present of research at the University of Michigan, drew parallels between the current gun violence crisis in the U.S. and the prevalence of automobile accidents in the 1950s and 1960s. “We were losing so many young people and so many of our generation to car crashes, the research community and federal community responded by generating new knowledge,” she said. Ali Rowhani-Rahbar added that “the sheer burden of the problem is so huge that we need much more resources.”
“The need to develop good quality data to answer these very practical questions that impact so many kids and schools and families is so critical,” said Rajan. These data can inform policies. As one example, research findings indicate that voluntarily storing a firearm outside the home creates “time and space” between gun access and those who may pose a threat. “In terms of impact and translation of this work into policy and action, it’s very exciting because it is very much doable,” said Rowhani-Rahbar.
Much of this progress is driven by early trainees, whose energy and dedication push research initiatives forward despite funding and political headwinds. Cunningham noted, “It is really an exciting time to be a young researcher because there are so many questions yet to be answered … when we find those answers [they] can be immediately put in action, they can immediately start to work on saving lives.”