'A New Era of Gun Violence Research' Transcript
April 1, 2021
Note: This transcript has been created with a combination of machine ears and human eyes. There may be small differences between this document and the audio version, which is one of many reasons we encourage you to listen to the episode!
Content warning: This episode includes descriptions of suicidal ideations. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. Both lines are free and open 24/7.
Dan Gorenstein: Mass shootings in Boulder and Atlanta have put guns back in the headlines.
But the truth is, America’s been quietly shattering gun records since 2020 began.
It’s happening on street corners and on playgrounds…
News Clip 1: Our grand ids can’t play outside, we can’t walk our dogs, we can’t even stand outside like neighbors.
News Clip 2: Our neighborhoods have now turned into cemeteries and we’re trying to turn it back into a neighborhood.
DG: Gun homicides are up 35% in big cities — the steepest one-year spike in history.
Records are breaking in gun shops and sporting stores too.
News Clip 1: I can barely keep guns on the walls, ammo can barely keep it on the shelves.
News Clip 2: The last few months of gun sales here has been bananas.
DG: Americans bought more than 20 million pistols, rifles and shotguns in 2020…an all-time high.
News Clip: It’s like 11 Christmas seasons in a row..
DG: And just like with COVID, researchers are scrambling to understand this epidemic.
News Clip: Somebody needs to do something to find out why all this is going on.
DG: For decades, gun researchers have been lacking the funding they need to answer basic questions.
That’s finally starting to change.
Today, a timely renaissance in firearms research…and the lives it could save.
From the studio at the Leonard Davis Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, I’m Dan Gorenstein, and this is Tradeoffs.
DG: Jonathan Jay is methodically charting this surge in gun homicides.
But when the public health researcher steps back, even he’s surprised by the picture that the numbers paint.
Jonathan Jay: What we’re seeing is akin to an outbreak. A jump of that magnitude from one year to the next is unprecedented.
DG: The jump he’s talking about…is the 35% spike in gun homicides that hit big cities in 2020.
Jonathan, who’s at Boston University’s School of Public Health, is quick to point out three things about that spike.
First, it’s had a disproportionate effect on people of color.
JJ: That’s an increase of thousands of lives lost, overwhelmingly of black and brown people and especially young men.
DG: Second, those murders impact more than just the victims.
JJ: We know that having a gun homicide happen in your neighborhood affects your mental and physical health.
DG: Third, Jonathan stands by that 35% figure but he says it’s at best a very educated guess….even rigorously validated…but still a guess.
JJ: We don’t have data systems that tell us what’s happening in anything close to real time.
DG: The data on gun violence in the U.S. are a mess.
According to a 2019 University of Chicago / Arnold Ventures report, federal agencies collect 25-plus data sets, each with some small piece of the puzzle, like the number of firearms licenses approved or crimes committed with a gun.
But many are incomplete, lagging by years or missing details. The report authors concluded that policymakers lack the full picture they need to make gun laws safer and smarter.
News Clip: In Chicago alone, 102 people were shot over the weekend…
News Clip: Cincinnati just saw its worst 28 days of gun violence in 4 years…
DG: Jonathan and his colleagues wanted to bring more transparency and visibility to the growing number of murders in 2020…
News Clip: Gun violence in Denver has been going up.
News Clip: Police in Miami-Dade say…
News Clip: A teenager from Queens is just the latest victim, since last Friday more than 60 people have been shot, 11 have died.
DG: Do-it-yourself dashboards were popping up to track the other surging crisis, COVID, in real time and on a local level. The team decided to track homicides in the same way, starting with America’s 100 biggest cities.
This March, they launched the Gun Violence 20/20 City Tracker.
JJ: So right now what we’re showing is similar to what everyone got used to seeing during the COVID 19 pandemic. What does the curve look like in my community? in a format that is user friendly and can guide community based responses.
DG: The interactive tracker relies on numbers from a nonprofit called the Gun Violence Archive, which scrapes data from public sources like media and press releases.
The hope is to show how useful real-time data like this can be…and convince local and federal agencies to make more official data available.
Good data isn’t the only thing policymakers are missing when it comes to reducing gun violence. The research on what works is limited too.
The roots of both shortcomings trace back to 1996. That’s when Congress passed a provision called the Dickey Amendment effectively forbidding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC from doing anything to advocate or promote gun control.
The clampdown also cowed the country’s other major funder of health research, the National Institutes of Health, or NIH. Since then, neither agency has spent even 1% of their annual research budgets on gun violence studies.
In a 2015 interview, former Congressman Jay Dickey, now deceased, told NPR he regretted the decades of progress his provision had thwarted.
Dickey: All this time that we have had, we would’ve found a solution, in my opinion. And I think it’s a shame that we haven’t.
DG: University of Colorado physician and firearms researcher Emmy Betz says she’s convinced the country has paid a steep price for limiting research.
Emmy Betz: I view firearm injury like any other public health problem and had we been able to apply the usual methods of sort of science and evaluation to it, absolutely, we would have saved lives.
DG: This idea, that more research over the past 25 years would’ve saved lives, is widely shared among public health researchers. Their certainty, says Emmy, comes in part from the success we’ve seen improving automobile safety.
EB: Our death rate from motor vehicle crashes has fallen drastically over the past decades. And that’s because we applied science. We made better cars. We put airbags in. We didn’t ban cars, but we used science to make it make driving safer and we did not do that with firearms. And we have a lot of catch up to do.
DG: And while the politics of cars are very different from the politics of guns, the freeze on federal support for firearms research has started to thaw.
News Clip: Tuesday, the House voted to fund more than $20M to study gun violence…the first time something like this has happened in more than two decades.
DG: Congress, in 2019, finally approved the first new federal funding dedicated explicitly to gun research…half to the CDC…half to the NIH.
EB: Having this funding, it just, it changes the whole game in terms of being able to build the science base and so it’s just thrilling.
DG: The first grants from that funding were awarded late last year.
And who was lucky enough to get a slice of that pie? Emmy Betz.
After the break, how Emmy’s using one of these new grants to test a solution to reduce suicides by gun owners. And a woman who’s living proof that Emmy might just be on the right track.
DG: Gun purchases and gun violence have both surged alongside COVID this past year.
We started the show talking about homicides. Now we’re turning to suicides, which account for 60% of gun deaths nationwide.
And before we get into this, we want to encourage listeners that if you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255…that’s 1-800 273-TALK.
Denver-based ER doc and researcher Emmy Betz just received some of the first federal dollars Congress has dedicated to firearms research in more than 20 years.
This funding marks a new chapter in Emmy’s career, which began under the shadow of a de facto funding freeze.
EB: When I was an early stage young investigator, I had multiple well-meaning mentors suggest to me maybe you should focus on something else, because if you cannot get grants, your career ends basically like you can’t, you just can’t do the work.
DG: Just like with other public health crises, Emmy is hopeful that as federal funding increases, we’ll learn more and that knowledge will ultimately save lives. She’s using one of her new grants to leverage what we already know about suicide among gun owners.
EB: Having a gun in the home increases the risk of suicide by about three fold, not because the gun makes someone suicidal, but because if they are considering suicide and can reach for a gun, it is likely they will die because it’s the most lethal method.
DG: And she’s studying one solution that could reduce that risk. It’s known as voluntary, temporary storage — essentially helping gun owners find safe places to leave their guns while they’re in distress.
EB: It’s really about working with adults, with their friends and family to talk about, hey, how can we make your home safer while you’re getting the help you need while you’re getting better?
DG: Gun rights advocates have resisted most efforts to tighten regulations, especially efforts to forcibly remove a weapon from someone’s home. Emmy’s optimistic a voluntary option will help.
EB: Sometimes in this highly polarized world, here’s this kind of almost like assumption that people who own guns simply don’t know the data. And if we just tell them the numbers, they wouldn’t own guns, like they’re just not educated yet. The hypothesis under all of this is that firearm owners do not want their friends and family dying by suicide. And so how can we work with the firearm owning community to find approaches that work for them?
DG: For people who struggle to imagine how guns can be made safer without just taking them away, Emmy tells them to think of all the stuff we’ve done to help people avoid drunk driving.
EB: You know, we think about we now have Lyft and Uber and we have whole designated driver programs and taxi discounts and all kinds of things that we put in place to make it easy for people to not get behind the wheel when they’ve been drinking. And so this is sort of similar, like how do we make it simple for places to both offer storage and for people to use it?
DG: Out-of-home storage is something clinicians often recommend to patients…
Emmy had seen a little data and heard a few stories about it working…a veteran hanging on to a pistol for a war buddy, a gun shop storing a rifle for a long-time customer.
She’d also heard about some of the barriers.
EB: People kind of calling around and they can’t find a place that offers storage or they call a shop and the shop says, well, you have to be a member. And the annual membership is X, Y, Z, dollars. And, you know, so I think for people who are maybe in the midst of crisis, it can be a confusing or complicated situation.
DG: Emmy’s team is using their federal grant to do the first large scale study of this voluntary approach to preventing suicides. They’ll interview and survey public health groups, firearm owners, law enforcement and others in Colorado and Washington state. Her ultimate goal: create a toolkit that states can use to make voluntary, temporary storage a safe and easy option.
It’s work that Emmy says took on even more urgency as she watched gun purchases soar in 2020. First-time buyers made up a record 40% percent of sales, people who don’t have as much training or experience with things like safe storage.
EB: And that raises the risk of suicide for everybody in the home, whether it’s kids, teenagers, the person who bought the gun, spouses and so forth, so that in the coming year, if there are rough times, that suicide risk remains elevated.
DG: There hasn’t been a clear spike in suicides during the pandemic, but researchers like Emmy worry one may be on the horizon.
It’s easy to imagine why. Isolation. Lack of support. Financial hardship.
The idea of giving up your gun when you feel emotionally unsafe may sound straight-forward, but 38-year old Autumn Parkin says doing it…turns out to be pretty tough.
Autumn Parkin: I was floundering. I woke up every single day. And every day was the same.
DG: Autumn’s world had begun to crumble by the spring of 2019.
AP: I’m putting out fires all day long, you know, whether it be broken walls or dealing with tantrums, screaming…I felt trapped and I felt no matter how hard I tried nothing was ever going to get any better.
DG: Two of Autumn’s three kids have severe autism and by then, she was no longer eligible for all the services she’d been getting from the state of Idaho.
Occupational therapy, speech therapy, respite care.
AP: It took us four years to get that support system set up and literally overnight it was gone. Hey buddy, you are making noise again, can you go upstairs?
DG: Autumn, who is doing this interview over Zoom, pauses to talk to her son.
AP: You are being loud again.. You’re alright buddy. Okay.
DG: Autumn and her husband decided she’d quit her job to take care of the kids.
So suddenly Autumn’s lost all that outside support, her work identity — also a nice break from the kids — and now she was shouldering a ton more.
AP: It really threw our family into chaos. I tried to act like I was okay, but I felt like I lost my sense of purpose. I had no hope. I really, really struggled.
DG: Autumn had attempted suicide in the past. She’d struggled with alcohol for years and had been diagnosed with depression, PTSD and anxiety.
Now, on her hardest days, Autumn found herself in the garage with her pistol thinking about ending her life.
AP: It was just a downward spiral.
DG: Autumn had turned to guns years earlier after surviving a brutal attack.
AP: I made it a goal that I was going to become proficient in firearms and self-defense so that I would never have to feel that weak and vulnerable ever again.
DG: Her training brought strength and solace and she wanted to share that, especially with other women.
Soon, Autumn was fully immersed in the firearms industry, working at gun trade shows, flying to Washington to lobby members of Congress, even appearing in instructional videos like this one for NRA Women.
Autumn in NRA video: Okay now I want you to get a good sight picture and then whenever you’re ready. [gun shot]
DG: Those nights in the garage, Autumn knew…she knew she was at risk of harming herself. She’d recently gone to a suicide awareness event at a local gun range.
AP: I really started to recognize. I’m I am in crisis, I am in trouble, and if I don’t get this out of my possession, I am going to get sad, drunk and then do it.
DG: Autumn felt like she was in a lose-lose situation.
On the one hand, she worried if she gave up her pistol she’d grow even further apart from the community and people she loved.
AP: In the gun community it’s a really shameful thing to talk about mental illness because then you get looked at differently.
DG: On the other hand, she thought if she kept her pistol and died by suicide she’d undermine her cause.
AP: I had made a promise to myself and the gun community that I would never shoot myself because I didn’t want to be part of the statistic that people were using against gun owners. I mean, I have the Second Amendment tattooed on my back. That’s how much it means to me.
DG: It was a terrifying tug of war inside her head. Then in May of 2019, while visiting a friend’s house, she acted on impulse.
AP: I didn’t go with the intent of saying, hey, I’m in crisis, I need you to store this for me. It was more like, I conveniently left, like, forgot it and left it with him. It was like an informal cry for help.
DG: Autumn’s friend ended up hanging on to her pistol…for over a year.
She was glad it was out of the house, especially in what she called a very dark year.
But in the fall of 2020, her friend texted.
AP: It was like hey I’m gonna be in town. I got your pistol. Let’s meet up.
DG: She wasn’t ready to have it back. But since she’d forgotten her pistol at her pal’s place, Autumn had done her homework.
She contacted Hold My Guns, a new project started by gun owners that’s creating a national network of vetted voluntary storage locations. Their website hadn’t even launched, but within 24 hours they connected Autumn with a local range to store her pistol.
AP: It was such a relief. It was such a relief. Because I know I have been so depressed lately. If I had access to my firearm, I would have used it. There’s no doubt in my mind that I would not be here.
DG: Autumn gets that by talking about the dangers of guns and suicide she may lose her standing in the firearms community.
But she believes gun rights advocates and mental health advocates must come together…a divide she’s trying to bridge.
AP: I just want to be as honest as I can, because I know there are other people out there who are hurting and, you know, if by sharing my story, it saves one person, then it’s worth it. I know right now people are really scared to speak honestly and I guess I’m willing to to sacrifice my reputation and never work in the industry again, if that’s what it means…because people are dying.
DG: Researchers are hopeful about what renewed federal support means for their work, and the people like Autumn whose lives it could eventually save.
Not only because it‘s more money, but it’s money arriving at a unique time. Our understanding of health, and the forces that shape it are changing rapidly, says Jonathan Jay.
JJ: This is a moment when it has become more deeply ingrained in public health research that social environments, physical environments and structural racism all shape people’s health outcomes.
DG: And that shift, says Jonathan, creates the room to reimagine the role that everything from the police to public parks can play in preventing violence.
Jonathan’s applying now for the next wave of federal grants, hoping to build on work he’s done showing that simply demolishing vacant buildings can significantly reduce local gun violence.
Still researchers like Emmy and Jonathan understand the limits of this new funding.
JJ: For me as a researcher, this is exciting to have these opportunities and at the same time it’s important to remember that people are dying every day and it’ll take time for this research to bear fruit.
DG: Late last year, Congress approved another $25 million for gun violence research.
In the three months since that bill passed, an estimated 10,000 more Americans have lost their lives to gun violence and suicide.
I’m Dan Gorenstein and this is Tradeoffs.
Before we end, we also want to share the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline one more time. That’s 1-800-273-8255…or 1-800 273-TALK.