Between 2011 and 2015, 21,241 young people in America died with bullets in their bodies, according to a new study published today. Some of those deaths were suicides. Some were homicides. Some were accidental shootings. All of the victims were under the age of 21. The study found something else: a remarkable correlation between those deaths and another factor—the relative strength of gun legislation in the states where they happened.
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, compared pediatric gun fatality rates against states’ scores on the Brady scale, which assigns states a score out of 100 based on how strict their gun laws are. (The Brady system is a bit complicated: lenient states can actually achieve a negative score, so the researchers increased all scores by 40 to prevent negative results.) After adjusting for several variables, the researchers found that for every 10 point increase in Brady score, a state’s expected firearm-related mortality rate in young people decreased by four percent. It also compared the same mortality rate against the presence of three key gun control laws—universal background checks for firearm purchases, universal background checks for ammunition purchases, and identification requirements for firearms—absent a Brady score. States that had those laws in place for more than five years showed drastically lower firearm-related mortality rates.
This study tells us two things: It appears to be very easy to save the lives of children by limiting their access to firearms. Correction doesn’t equal causation, of course. But a correlation this strong is begging for further research. If other states enact their own gun laws and see similar results, we’ll have even more data building toward the growing consensus that proactive gun legislation can stem the tide of violence gripping every state in the country.
It also tells us that we desperately need more studies. There are few easy fixes to the problems currently plaguing America, but right now, gun violence stands alone as the one for which the solutions are barely even discussed. Each of the 2020 Democratic candidates for president are eager to stand up on stage and profess how much they hate gun violence, but almost none of them are able to accurately describe the problem. They opine about assault weapons bans or the legislation du jour and ignore the fact that the vast majority of gun fatalities in America involve a handgun. They are hopeless on this issue, in some part due to the fact that research on gun violence is one of the most under-funded and neglected fields of study in public health.
We do have some studies: ones that tell us the U.S. leads the world in child gun deaths, ones that tell us an increase in children dying is associated with increasing handgun ownership, ones that tell us that guns kill twice as many children as cancer. We need more. The NRA has, for decades, been deliberately suppressing and hindering research into gun violence because it would likely hurt the sales of the gun manufacturers that support it. Nearly every study that makes it through reinforces the emerging consensus that the more guns there are, the more people they will kill, in nearly every context. If we want to save the lives of children and adults alike, we need to regulate weapons, and fund more research on the harm they cause.
Here’s how I see it: We can either take the results of this study and others and act on them, cautiously if we must, to enact some of the mild reforms they support, like background checks and ID laws, and then study their results and adjust legislation as they demand. Or we can continue to ignore the issue and hope that it goes away. Which of those two options leads us to a safer future? Some hard-line proponents of the Second Amendment may believe the latter does. But for most Americans, the first makes a little more sense.