Jan. 23 2023

Columbia Researchers Organize Landmark Conference on Firearm Injury Prevention

Columbia University researchers helped organize and participated in the nation’s largest academic conference on firearm injury prevention research, which took place in late 2022, in Washington, D.C. During the conference, Columbia professors were named to top leadership posts of a new research society dedicated to advancing scientific research on the subject.

In 2022, nearly 45,000 Americans died at the end of a barrel of a gun, whether by homicide or suicide—a near-record high. In the days leading up to the conference, the country was rocked by high-profile mass shootings in Virginia and Colorado.

The three-day National Research Conference on Firearm Injury Prevention, the only large conference of its kind, was attended by more than 500 researchers, representing roughly 250 institutions nationally and internationally. Following the reversal of a decades-long halt on federal dollars being allocated to this field of study, firearm injury prevention science has grown significantly in recent years.

The conference was co-organized and supported by the Columbia Scientific Union for the Reduction of Gun Violence (SURGE), which Charles Branas, chair of epidemiology, and Sonali Rajan, associate professor of health education of Teachers College, co-founded with Columbia colleagues—together with researchers at the University of Michigan Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention; the RAND Corporation; and the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research. Several federal and philanthropic sponsors provided support for the conference.

Rajan, a leading school violence prevention expert who holds a secondary faculty appointment in epidemiology at Columbia Mailman, was named 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. Branas is among 12 researchers named to the society’s Board.

The new society aims to promote and advance scientific research on firearm-related harm prevention across the U.S. and internationally. In doing so, it will validate and establish this field as a viable career path and nurture the next generation of researchers in this field. The group has committed to growing opportunities and support for researchers from communities and populations affected by firearm-related harms and from underrepresented populations.

Branas, a leading authority on research into gun violence prevention, co-chaired the conference’s Executive Planning Committee, along with Rebecca Cunningham of the University of Michigan and Andrew Morral of RAND.

Branas said: “The outpouring of interest for this historic gun violence research conference and the new society of gun violence prevention scientists far exceeded expectations and clearly shows that there’s been a pent-up need for this work on behalf of the nation. All of the many scientists who coordinated the conference were enthusiastically in unison that Sonali Rajan was the obvious choice as the inaugural leader of the society. The nation is lucky to have her taking this on.”

Research Findings and honorees

The conference featured over 260 presentations detailing work from more than 20 disciplines, including medicine, public health, anthropology, business, economics, criminal justice, law, sociology, social work, political science, and engineering. 

Columbia faculty and students were among those presenting their findings.

Christopher Morrison, assistant professor of epidemiology, presented research on the flow of firearms between states and its relation to gun crimes—focusing on the Iron Pipeline, the route used to smuggle weapons from the South to the Mid-Atlantic and New England. Nathan Aguilar, a PhD student at the School of Social Work, presented on community violence interruption strategies.

Ariana Gobaud, a PhD student in epidemiology, presented a poster on gun shows and universal background check laws across state lines. Sariana Alavi, a student at Teachers College, presented a poster on education and youth development frameworks for gun violence prevention.

Seth Prins, assistant professor of epidemiology, and Sonali Rajan, took part in a symposium on evidence-informed solutions to the prevention of school gun violence.

Among other topics covered in the conference were firearm injury prevention policies, including whether or not legally removing firearms from prohibited persons prevents harm; suicide prevention; preventing intimate partner violence; mental health; and equity and disparities.

In all, the conference honored 23 researchers for their contributions in categories including innovation, translational science, equity of justice, multidisciplinary science, and scientific impact. Among the many projects honored were a student on promising approaches to ending community violence in Chicago, research on the link between tree canopy coverage and lower shooting incidence in Philadelphia, and community engagement and coalition-building as a means to promote safety and prevent veteran firearm suicide.