No clear way to stop gun violence

Research shows current methods may be largely ineffective
By: and | Issue: September, 2019
August 5, 2019
Jagdish Khubchandani is a health science professor at Ball State University in Indiana.

Following tragic school shooting events, leaders scramble to do something—anything—to make their schools safer. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to harden schools. We install expensive surveillance cameras and metal detectors. Sometimes, we arm teachers and school staff, hoping that “a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun.”

But these are costly and largely ineffective measures, says Jagdish Khubchandani, a health science professor at Ball State University in Indiana. Khubchandani and James Price, a professor at The University of Toledo in Ohio, examined the available research on violence prevention. They produced a report called “School Firearm Violence Prevention Practices and Policies: Functional or Folly?

“None of the currently employed school firearm violence prevention methods have empirical evidence to show that they actually diminish firearm violence in schools,” Khubchandani says.

Why did you take on a violence prevention research project?

When it comes to a school shooting, there’s a media side, there’s a politician side, and there’s a parent and community side. But there hasn’t been a scientific approach to learning what’s the best reaction to these events.

We started digging for evidence from the federal government, from scientists and from best practices across the nation. We measured the reaction of politicians, parents and some news media. Everyone wants something to happen, but what is that something?

What we found is that most of the reactions to school shootings—such as hardening schools and arming staff, among other solutions—are not grounded in science.

And each time schools and communities react, there are costs associated with their reactions. The question is: Are we investing money in the right places? What evidence do we have to show what actually works?
Unfortunately, that question was not answered.

You write that the most successful solution—if it could be pulled off—would be to restrict access to firearms.

Yes. That’s primary prevention. In medicine, we use that model, too. Consider a person who has had a stroke. Is it best to deal with them when they’ve had a stroke, or do we address it as soon as they have high blood pressure? Or should we start even earlier, at the primary stage, when people don’t exercise or don’t eat healthy foods? In the medical model, you start early, which is ultimately cheaper and more cost effective.
And it’s the same with gun violence. The best approach we’ve seen is to reduce access by children and prevent shootings from happening in the first place.

This year, HIV and AIDS will kill 15,000 people—which is unfortunate—but guns will kill 30,000 people. That’s a guarantee.

Mass school shootings are rare events, but that’s not how the media portrays them.

From my perspective as a physician and researcher, sometimes issues are prioritized in unexpected ways by our society. I get shocked when I hear of big drug companies that we deal with funding billions of dollars of HIV and AIDS research.

But here’s the thing: This year, HIV and AIDS will kill 15,000 people—which is unfortunate—but guns will kill 30,000 people. That’s a guarantee. Most of them, 18,000, will be suicides, and the other 12,000 will be homicides. Out of the homicides, a small proportion will happen in schools.

But because there are children, parents and communities involved, the larger focus is on schools. Statistically, these events are a fraction of the overall gun deaths in the United States, but that doesn’t mean that they should not be prioritized.

One strategy that you call “tertiary prevention” in your study—having armed teachers or school resource officers—is seen as the least effective approach.

Tertiary prevention seems to be very costly and ineffective. To actually stop an active shooter, you would have to be in the right place at the right time.

It shows that the preparations made throughout the years were ineffective because shootings did happen, despite the cameras and the security personnel. Someone can just break in and start shooting. So that seems to be more of a reaction and not a proactive step to preventing gun violence.

Instead, there could have been more resources allocated to building up school mental health programs, enriching academic environments, and doing better prevention surveillance. The U.S. Secret Service has admitted that in the majority of school shootings, there were prior warning signs.

You suggest that the media, politicians and special interest groups are pushing a false sense of security with the measures being taken.

Yes. The media showcases things in a way that forces politicians to have to come up with some quick solutions, and they’ll say, “Oh, we’ll throw more money and resources at the problem. We’ll arm our teachers.”

That does start giving a false sense of security. Imagine if someone goes to the hospital with a stroke, and we start doing some random things to prevent the person from dying. That would be unacceptable. What we do has to be grounded in science. Certain things work, and certain things do not work.

Congress isn’t making it any easier to find what works.

Right, because the research has been underfunded. There have been almost no government resources since the Dickey Amendment in 1996, which included a clause that said the Centers for Disease Control and

Prevention could research injury and violence prevention, but not gun violence. Every couple of years, we see some new initiative, but then it doesn’t get full approval, and it doesn’t get the required funding.

But I think that has begun to change in the past two years, as funding and resources become available through private donors and foundations. There are three or four groups across the United States that do this kind of research. The state of California has created a violence prevention center. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation has created a national collaborative on gun violence research. But there has been nothing from the government itself.

We read stories about plans for gun violence research, but there’s rarely any follow-up. People get the impression that things are being done when they’re not.

I never see the follow-up of anything being appropriated with an exact amount of what will be given out. That is the politicians’ problem. They react under media pressure, but then something else takes the spotlight and people forget what happened.

That’s why the media has to be careful and has to keep them accountable. Give them some scientific evidence, and they’d probably do a better job.

District leaders and principals are pressured to show that they’re doing something to make their schools safer.

I understand the pressures that they go through because they have to cater to a lot of different stakeholders. But if they take a moment and dig up some scientific evidence, they are the best people to serve as a voice for good science and good practice. And if they get resources, they always have some leeway to decide what’s the best thing to do in a certain situation.

And although it’s not in their job description, school principals can go out into their communities and have parent councils discuss these issues. Here in Muncie, Indiana, we have a small group of people—young people, parents and school personnel—who meet to discuss issues in our community, and it’s been somewhat helpful.

But until we have more research, there are no concrete next steps. I would tell leaders to look at the credibility of evidence, make decisions with the community, and have a collaborative approach to gun violence.

Some of this is the deeper problem of the social circumstances of children and mental health, and you cannot just address those alone. It would be nice to have a variety of perspectives and have a shared decision-making governance procedure.

I do find it surprising that we have the most industrialized country, the highest number of billionaires and the highest number of Nobel Prize winners in medicine, and yet we watch 30,000 people die each year by gun violence.

Tim Goral is senior editor