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Thursday, December 20, 2012

My (brief) research on gun-control.

Let me start off by listing my qualifications on the topic of guns and laws governing them: I have none. I am an undergraduate senior at Arizona State University studying Psychology and attempting to be accepted into any physician's assistant program that will take me. I am a research assistant at ASU's child psychology lab, which requires me to watch hours upon hours of videos and assess the behaviors of children as they interact with parents. As boring as all that sounds, it also affords me access to a large data base of research articles and statistics obtained by Arizona State University. Let me be clear that the research I include in this blog was done on my own accord and was not an assignment given to me by ASU or any of it's associates. I simply believe that before one takes a stance on any major topic, one should get informed. This was my attempt to become informed on gun control and its effects on society according to empirical data.

I am presenting this information, not in an attempt to convince anyone of any particular point of view, but as information which should be scrutinized and assessed in order to better understand how guns interact with human behavior. I have been around guns throughout my life, and do not believe they have had any negative consequence upon me.  In fact, I have contemplated buying my own guns (for recreation and home protection) over the last six months. If money was no factor, I would probably have one right now. Although I have my own opinion on gun laws and the second amendment, I made substantial effort to exclude such a view in this posting. I have done my best to provide articles where I was legally able to provide articles, and sources on each of the major topics I discuss. Again, I did this research on my own accord that I might be better able to make informed decisions in any laws/amendments which may be proposed in the future. Democracy does not work if the public is uneducated.

I do not watch the major media outlets, and I consider myself a moderate. I do not condone the fear inducing tactics of both left and right wing media. I believe much of the information given to us as "news" today is seriously jeopardizing the state of the union. This, of course, is a topic for separate discussion. However, I decided to do this research as a result of the amount of attention gun control has been receiving in light of the devastating tragedy which took place in Connecticut. My social media pages are full of a constant barrage of opinion on gun control which seem somewhat bias and uninformed; on both ends of the debate. For this reason I dusted off a few of my behavioral textbooks and sorted through dozens of research articles on the topic in order to better understand the facts. I will post references for all the studies I use, and attempt to link all the articles in PDF form to this posting. Those studies which did not provide PDF format, (such as those I use from government databases) I will paste html addresses for at the end.

This post is not an attempt to take a stance on the subject of gun control in the U.S. It is meant to be an informative tool which may help those who are seeking empirically researched facts. I understand many citizens, although intelligent, are unfamiliar with research and how to obtain scholarly written articles. I will attempt to make a few basic statistical and research method terms easier to understand in the process of my post. First, the most important thing for anyone reading research articles to understand is that correlation does not point to causation. For example, if I did a study in NY city in the months of July and August and found that there was a positive effect (as one factor increases, so does the other) between ice-cream sales and violent crimes I could not say that ice-cream causes violent crimes. Why? Because there is a third variable, the increased temperature, which has an effect on both the rise in ice-cream sales and the irritability of criminals. Thus, although a correlation was found between the two, the correlation is not causal. This is very important. Anyone who writes a thesis or dissertation asserting that they found a cause for variables A and B, better have some incredible evidence to back that up, or they will not be published.

Second, not all research is created equal. The journal which publishes the research and the institutions which support it, have a heavy sway on the quality of the article. I tried to pick articles which were published in prestigious journals by prestigious organizations. Researchers in these articles always seek for validity (how applicable is my study to the real world?) and reliability (can my research be replicated, and were my methods for obtaining data easily duplicated?). There is no such thing as a perfectly reliable and/or a perfectly valid experimental process. All experiments have flaws, although many (especially the ones I am citing) have fewer and much less severe experimental limitations. This is always important to keep in mind. Factors which contribute to high validity and reliability include: multiple, similar studies which agree with the findings of the article; high population random samples of subjects (A lot of participants who are randomly selected so that findings can be generalized to the entire target population); and peer review. If you would like further explanation of these terms please google them, as I do not feel it is appropriate to thoroughly examine them here.

Again, I hope this serves as a basis of information, not a source of my own opinion- please become educated before voting to make policy.

There are three major instances in which fire-arms are associated with human mortality rates; homicides, suicides, and warfare. I am not considering the latter instance in this posting as it seems separate from the issue of domestic gun ownership. That does not dismiss the tragedy of those killed in war, but acknowledges its topics as discrete from the ones I will discuss. I will discuss the issue of suicide first.

Research shows that those who would seek to end their lives usually make the decision quickly; commonly just after a major negative life event such as a relationship ending or loss of employment (Cummings, et al., 1992). Individuals who make such rash decisions, usually suffer a break in normal cognitive-behavioral realities and attempt to act upon their suicidal emotions in the most convenient way possible. Research found that when a gun was available to such individuals, the likelihood of successful suicide attempts increased. They also found that those who did not have a gun available were more likely than those who did to survive the attempt and rehabilitate successfully (Cummings, et al., 1992). Cummings found that statistically, legal gun ownership increased the likelihood of successful suicide by 1.9x that of the normal population rate. Simply put, owning a gun placed individuals at 1.9x the normal risk rate of successful suicide. Additional evidence by the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claims that children who have access to a gun in the home are 9x more likely than normal to commit suicide (Hahn, et al., 2003).

Further research published by the New England Journal of Medicine cited suicide as the 2nd leading cause of violent deaths in the United States for those below the age of 40 as of 2005 (Miller & Hemenway, 2008). Research found that gun ownership had a positive correlation with suicide rates in this population. Additional studies also found that mental health patients (those who reported a diagnosed behavioral condition such as anxiety, depression, antisocial personality disorder, bi-polar disorder, etc.) had the same access to guns as those without such disorders (Ilgen et al., 2008). Although, interestingly enough, those mental health patients with a history of suicidality were found to have lower gun ownership rates than those who had not previously attempted to commit suicide. It may be that those who unsuccessfully attempt suicide are usually referred to clinical help. Clinicians are often advised to determine whether or not such a patient owns a gun and what can be done to neutralize the weapon (Ilgen et al., 2008).

On the topic of gun ownership as a form of protection: 

Psychologists have observed that preemptive aggression, (otherwise known as self-protective aggression) such as carrying a gun or "striking" first, is counterproductive in protecting oneself from harm (Kleck, 1993., Kenrick et al., 2010). The weapon effect is a concept which has been studied in recent years in the field of psychology. The basic theory is that if a weapon such as a gun or a knife is in plain view- say, on a bench in the corner- subjects will consistently rate ambiguous comments from a confederate as more aggressive than if an object such as an umbrella, or plate, are in plane view instead. Weapons symbolize something to us that increase our fight or flight reflexes. They amplify our emotions and our decision making processes. This form of self-protection- carrying a gun for protection- has been found by researchers to cause a cycle of aggression.

An example of this cycle can be found in research done in U.S. schools. A study done by Cunningham in 2000 found that 1 in every 10 students (elementary school through high school) had carried a weapon to school at least once (the greatest portion of these weapons were reportedly hand guns). Weapons were carried to school most often by those worried about their own safety. Those who carried weapons to school were found to carry weapons outside of school as well, and a significant portion exhibited high risk anti-social behaviors. The cycle then, is as follows: I don't feel safe at school; I'll bring a weapon to school; increased weapon prevalence increases chances of violence; violence ensues; decreased feelings of safety follow; I don't feel safe at school; I'll bring a weapon to school; etc. Although this study focused on adolescent use of guns for self-protection, the concept carries through to the general public as well; as will be shown later in this posting.

I will address the issue of school safety in my last paragraph.

Gun ownership was correlated positively with homicide prevalence in a study done by Cummings (1992). The researchers of this article found that the risk rate of being killed by a gun when one owns a gun was 2.2. That is to say, those who own guns are more than twice as likely to be victims of a homicide than those who do not. Researchers wrote, "Legal purchase of a handgun is associated with long term risk of violent death" (Cummings, et al., 1992 p. 1). Miller (2008) performed an international study on industrialized societies and found that the population at highest risk for homicide were high-income subjects who owned a gun. The authors reminded readers that the findings were not causal, but nevertheless consistent with other research which suggested that gun prevalence in a home was associated with increased risk of homicide. The FBI uniform crime reports between 1980 and 2007 showed that there were 450,369 reported homicides in the U.S. Approximately 288,821 (roughly 64%) involved guns- mostly hand guns. This data shows that guns were the weapon of choice in homicides over the 27 year period. A study published in the Journal of Public Health showed that civilians who owned a gun were 5.45x more likely to be shot by a gun than those who did not own a gun. The report shows that statistical analysis of successful civilian intervention in crimes involving firearms were far too low to be considered plausible (Branas, et al., 2009). The researchers also noted that those who had extensive training with firearms (military, police, etc.) were not at as much risk as those without extensive training to receive injury during intervention with a firearm. The CDC found that those who owned guns were 22x more likely than those who did not to kill a member of their immediate family. Children in such households were 16x more likely to be victims of homicide and 9x more likely to die from accidental discharge of a firearm. These statistics were taken from U.S. databases. The U.S. had the highest rates of gun related deaths among 25 other industrialized nations studied by the CDC (Kegler et al., 2011). Further damage to children was found to be done in those homes which owned a gun, and in which domestic violence was recorded. Children in these households who witnessed violence being threatened using a gun were at a greater risk for severe behavioral problems than those children who witnessed domestic violence without a firearm involved (Jouriles et al., 1998).

I could find no primary source, peer-reviewed article which showed that gun ownership was correlated with a decrease in crime rates or gun related deaths. If anyone can find such an article, I would welcome it to be posted in the comments section.

What should be done about gun related violence? The most salient option is usually gun control laws. I found the following evidence on the topic of gun control laws. Gun control laws and the amount of gun ownership in the United States was found to have no correlation by Kleck (1993); although it was also found that as violence increased, so too did gun ownership. Further evidence of the cycle of aggression I listed above. In a study which observed the gun laws in Washington D.C. which prohibited handguns for a time, researchers saw a 25% decrease in gun related deaths; however, crime rates on all fronts persisted. That is to say, people still committed violent crimes, just by different means (Loftin et al., 1991). Another study found that the Detroit gun ordinances instituted in the late 80's and early 90's saw no significant decrease in gun related crimes. It was noted that such ordinances were almost never enforced by the courts through a longitudinal study covering several years (O'Carroll et al., 1991). Kenrick (2010) cites that increased punishment for severe behaviors are not effective in decreasing aggression (see also: Loftin et al., 1983). Perhaps the most forward statement on the subject of gun law effectiveness in decreasing gun related crimes comes from Piquero (2009) who said in the American Journal of Criminal Justice, "[I]t is much too early to draw any meaningful conclusion, much less specific policy recommendations" (p 5). Piquero was speaking in conclusion of his analysis of research studies conducted on the effectiveness of gun control.

Piquero (2009) suggests three courses of action for the future. First, more reliable data (data which can be successfully replicated) must be gathered. Second, more thorough assessments of gun violence prevention programs which are effective need to be carried out by researchers in order to determine validity. Third, more implementation and scientific evaluation of targeted experiments across the country must be performed. The CDC agrees with similar findings, suggesting that there is insufficient evidence to conclude an increase in gun laws will decrease gun related crimes (Branas, et al., 2009).

If such measures are in need of long-term studies and data collection before finding validity within our societies, what should be done about the violence which seems to be increasing in the United States? This is the only place I will insert my opinion within this posting. I believe the two major contributing factors of violence (that we as a society have all but ignored) are educational and mental health system failures. Evidence suggests that we as a nation use the correctional system as a means of mental illness rehabilitation (Fazel, et al., 2008. Institute for Court Management report, 2000. Piepgras, J.P., 2006). This is a mistake Statistically speaking, roughly 53% of adolescents in juvenile detention facilities meet diagnostic criteria for serious mental disorders. Court psychologists in the above mentioned studies estimate that roughly 30% of these adolescents receive any form of treatment. An even smaller percentage receive treatment from a health-care professional. The numbers are amplified in the prison systems across the nation.

More needs to be done to address the at risk youth who exhibit serious mental health disorders and violent tendencies. More outreach needs to be made to parents of such children, and more intervention needs to take place in the school systems. Educational reform is essential in the coming years. There is no way around the crisis we face on this front. Nearly half of the roughly 3 million teachers we have in this nation will be retiring in the next several years. Rates of incoming teachers who continue teaching past four years are decreasing at a rate which will not support the outgoing retirement numbers. Although this subject is separate by principle from the one mainly discussed in this post, there is a positive correlation between retention of effective teachers and educational success of students(Harwood et al., 2008). Education and mental health reform would be a long term and costly approach to the situation. However, so far, no other viable, research based options have presented themselves. I believe serious reform in these two systems would interrupt the cycle of preemptive and active aggression we see today.

This article is an interesting view point on the subject of mental health reform:

If you have any constructive suggestions or criticisms please feel free to leave them below. Uncivil discourse will be deleted.

Again, this is not an extensive review of all the literature. I put this post together in roughly three days. I am sure there are many issues and avenues that I did not cover. The subject is extensive and deserves further attention by both the policy makers in Washington and the general public.

Thanks for reading.

References along with the promised pdf files are posted on the following file hosting site: