As think tank steps into gun-research void, a study finds safety when NRA members attend trade shows

RAND-logo-300x300There may be one surprising and modestly research-supported way to cut accidental firearm injuries: Get members of the National Rifle Association to go to more meetings instead of the firing range.

As Scientific American reported, “Anupam Jena, a health care policy researcher at Harvard Medical School, and Andrew Olenski, a Columbia University graduate student in economics, devised a clever strategy involving the NRA itself to test the oft-cited argument about gun safety.” They examined eight years of health insurance data to see what happens to firearm injuries when 80,000 or so NRA members flock to their annual meeting and “listen to lectures and peruse exhibit halls rather than hunt or practice shooting,” as the popular science publication reported.

The researchers, whose work has been published in the New England Journal of Medicine, compared firearm injury rates on comparable days before and after the gun group parleys. Here’s what SA said the experts found:

If guns were perfectly safe in the hands of trained NRA members, Jena and Olenski reasoned, they should have found no differences between gun injury rates on convention days versus other days. Yet injury rates were, on average, 20 percent lower on meeting days. ‘We believe this is due to brief reductions in gun use during the dates of these meetings,’ Jena says. ‘The main implication is that guns carry inherent risk even among individuals who we might consider to be skilled and experienced in the use of firearms.’ Importantly, they did not find any corresponding drop in firearm crime rates on convention days, which suggests NRA meeting attendees are not responsible for a large proportion of U.S. gun crimes—just gun injuries, many of which may be accidental. In 2015, the U.S. logged nearly 85,000 firearm injuries, of which 17,000 were unintentional.

The absolute reduction in firearm injuries is small, “one fewer gun injury for every 300,000 Americans.” But it may be more key because it shows how NRA members, a small slice of the nation’s total population, can in a short window, affect a real health harm. Their sway also may be magnified because, in their absence, gun ranges and vendors and other collateral enterprises may take a holiday.

This study may sound a bit tongue in cheek. It’s reminiscent of another provocative Jena publication, a 2015 work that found that “high-risk patients with certain acute heart conditions are more likely to survive than other similar patients if they are admitted to the hospital during national cardiology meetings, when many cardiologists are away from their regular practices.”

But, to be sure, Jena and Olenski are serious researchers, and they emphasize that their gun injury study shows associations, not direct causation. And while it may offer a great data point in a water-cooler debate with that favorite, extreme gun-rights proponent, it also underscores a point that rigorous studies are lacking about the gun violence that killed more than 33,000 Americans in 2016. Congress, of course, has barred the funding of gun violence research, notably by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So, as the country reels from yet another mass shooting, the RAND Corp. has said that it has spent more than $1 million and two years with its noted researchers launching into the careful scientific study that the well-respected, independent, nonpartisan think tank says will help “establish a shared set of facts that will improve public discussions and support the development of fair and effective gun policies.”

RAND says a lot more work lies ahead, particularly because its scrutiny of “thousands” of existing works on “defensive gun use, hunting participation, suicide rates, and other outcomes” shows “the data support … few conclusions.”

The think tank has built a big data base of existing research and state and federal attempts to regulate firearms. Here are some of the key points that RAND has found can be supported with available data:

  •  Available evidence supports the conclusion that child-access prevention laws, or safe storage laws, reduce self-inflicted fatal or nonfatal firearm injuries among youth, as well as unintentional firearm injuries or deaths among children.
  • There is moderate evidence that background checks reduce firearm suicides and firearm homicides, as well as limited evidence that these policies can reduce overall suicide and violent crime rates. There is moderate evidence that stand-your-ground laws may increase homicide rates and limited evidence that the laws increase firearm homicides in particular.
  • There is moderate evidence that violent crime is reduced by laws prohibiting the purchase or possession of guns by individuals who have a history of involuntary commitment to a psychiatric facility. There is limited evidence these laws may reduce total suicides and firearm suicides.
  • There is limited evidence that a minimum age of 21 for purchasing firearms may reduce firearm suicides among youth.

Gun violence has become a public health crisis, and like most Americans, I’d say we’re long past the time of offering “thoughts and prayers” alone. We need a reasoned and reasonable path forward, especially to prevent mass shootings that slaughter our young. We can respect Americans’ Second Amendment rights and privileges, while also ensuring that tens of thousands aren’t killed, wounded, or assisted in taking their own lives.

I’m glad to see RAND, and experts like Jena and Olenski, as well as the courageous students who survived the Parkland shooting, exercise their democratic rights and responsibilities by stepping up and engaging in thoughtful and real actions on an issue that can change and save lives — even as extremists vilify them for doing so.

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