Rates of firearm violence in the United States again reached historic heights in 2023, leading the issue to be top of mind for policymakers and the public alike. The conversation about how best to address the impacts of firearms was shaped both by a key Supreme Court decision and new federal legislation passed in 2022, as well as ongoing concerns over community gun violence and mass shootings. To provide greater insight, experts at the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium (RGVRC), a group of nearly 100 researchers from eight states and territories that was recently expanded with our new affiliate scholar program, sought to bring a research-focused lens to both the broader conversation about gun violence and the underlying issues more specifically. Here’s a look back at the work put forward by RGVRC members and affiliate scholars in 2023.
RGVRC executive director Jaclyn Schildkraut (NY) kicked off the year with a blog in honor of Gun Violence Survivors Awareness Week during the first week of February. Held each year in the United States since 2019, this week is designed to highlight the broader toll of gun violence. This includes not only those who survive physical injury, which translates to an estimated 115,000 US citizens, but also the countless others who lose loved ones to firearms and those who are exposed to gun violence within their communities. The adverse impacts of gun violence on these individuals include a range of physical health issues, psychological distress (including anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder), and other mental health concerns (e.g., depression, suicidality). Children exposed to gun violence also sustain other impacts, including poor academic performance, delinquency issues, and aggression. Importantly, as gun violence does not affect all communities the same, the adverse impacts fall largely on communities of color and, even more specifically, the women and children within them. This highlights the urgent need to reduce gun violence, particularly in those communities that are disproportionately impacted.
In March, the Consortium published its latest Insights from the Gun Violence Data Dashboard. This piece provided an updated and comprehensive look at firearm violence in the United States between 2000 and 2021. The analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Underlying Cause of Death database showed that firearm-related deaths were again at an all-time high but the continued increase was driven by both gun homicides and suicides in the most recent year analyzed. In 2020, by comparison, increases in firearm-related deaths were driven almost exclusively by homicides. Continuing to understand the historical trends of gun violence, including its distribution across Consortium member and nonmember states, is vital to working toward prevention.
In April, the RGVRC co-hosted a webinar with the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center and the University of Connecticut’s Center for Advancing Research, Methods, and Scholarship (ARMS) for Gun Injury Prevention. The conversation examined the policy priorities of gun violence for 2023. Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon (NY), Senator Troy Singleton (NJ), and Representative Steve Stafstrom (CT) joined the webinar as panelists to discuss the legislative efforts for addressing firearm violence in their respective states. Cohosts of the webinar and Consortium members Jaclyn Schildkraut (NY), Kerri Raissian (CT), and Michael Anestis (NJ) followed with a blog highlighting the key takeaways from the event. These takeaways included how federal inaction to address gun violence has created a burden for states, the need for legislation to continue to evolve, and how recent court decisions, particularly New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, is shaping the future of firearm violence prevention efforts.
Following a series of shootings that involved people being injured or killed after mistakenly knocking on the wrong door, turning around in the incorrect driveway, or opening the door to a car they thought was theirs, RGVRC member Robert Spitzer (NY) explored stand your ground laws and their impact on public safety in a blog published in May. These laws, which are built upon the castle doctrine dating back to the Middle Ages and are currently in place in more than 30 states, have created challenges for both law enforcement and the courts in investigating and prosecuting cases of gun violence where a person can argue they believed they or others would be harmed if not for their actions. As Spitzer highlights, this creates considerable impacts on public safety that are plagued by racial disparities with respect to whether the shootings are deemed justifiable, with those involving a white shooter and a black victim having the highest justification rate.
Also in May, Consortium members Daniel Semenza (NJ) and Richard Stansfield (NJ) authored a policy brief exploring the relationship between federally licensed firearm dealers (FFLs) and the acquisition of crime guns. This “primary market” involves retail sales of guns to private consumers, whereas the “secondary market,” which often is the focus of research, typically encompasses the sale or transfer of firearms to unlicensed or otherwise prohibited persons. Although nearly all firearm sales originate in the primary market, they then feed into the illicit secondary market through theft, straw buyers, private transactions (which do not require the same background check as those that go through FFLs), and trafficking. Noncompliance by FFLs, such as failing to require identification or selling to prohibited persons, leads to a near doubling of the incidence of homicides in neighborhoods. At the same time, the location of FFLs is important—their presence in communities with significant disadvantages (e.g., high levels of poverty and unemployment, low homeownership) also leads to more homicides occurring. As Semenza and Stansfield argue, enhanced oversight of FFLs, particularly those who are negligent, and coordinated efforts between local, state, and federal agencies, can disrupt the flow of guns through the secondary market and ultimately help to reduce the risk for gun violence in communities.
In June, RGVRC affiliate scholar Jacob Charles (Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law) authored a research blog offering new considerations about assault weapons regulations in light of the Supreme Court decision in Bruen. Specifically, as Charles writes, regulations of assault weapons can be challenging as firearms have drastically changed since the authoring of the Second Amendment, yet the Bruen decision requires courts to determine whether such weapons would be considered “common use” or “dangerous and unusual” using a historical test. To date, state courts have been divided on the interpretation of the standard from Bruen, and federal appellate courts—including the Supreme Court—have not yet addressed this question.
June also marked one year since the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the first significant federal gun violence prevention legislation passed in nearly 30 years. One key facet of the Act was dedicated funding for crisis prevention programs and efforts, including Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs). RGVRC affiliate scholars Lisa Geller and Spencer Cantrell (Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions) provided important updates in their piece on ERPOs in the one year since the Act’s passage. This included the establishment of a national ERPO Resource Center in partnership with the US Department of Justice and Bureau of Justice Assistance designed to assist states with their implementation efforts.
In July, the Consortium released an update to its flagship policy brief on mass shootings, authored by Jaclyn Schildkraut (NY) and affiliate scholar H. Jaymi Elsass (Texas State University). With an additional two years of data, this brief offers important context about mass public shootings in the United States amid the occurrence of a number of high-profile attacks in communities across the nation. Analyses of trends related to the perpetrators, locations where incidents occur, the weapons used, and victimization rates are presented alongside important takeaways for policymakers working to address this form of gun violence.
In August, as schools prepared to return for a new academic year, Consortium researchers examined different aspects of gun violence in educational institutions in a three-part series. The first piece, from RGVRC affiliate scholar Hunter Martaindale (Texas State University), compared different types of door locks that may be present in schools and their potential effectiveness relative to how quickly and accurately they can be used to secure a space. In a second policy brief, affiliate scholar Brent Klein (University of South Carolina), Consortium member Joshua Freilich (New York), and special contributor Steven Chermak (Michigan State University) provided updated insights from The American School Shooting Study, a database that catalogs all shootings at K-12 schools or on school grounds that result in one or more firearm-related injuries or fatalities. While high-profile mass shootings in schools often receive most of the attention, this analysis highlights how rare such incidents are; instead, most school shootings are nonfatal and involve just one or two victims. The RGVRC also released its latest data source, the School Lockdown Drill Dashboard, which provides insights into the requirements for lockdown drills and other emergency preparedness practices (e.g., drills for fires and natural disasters) for each state. Consortium members Jaclyn Schildkraut (NY) and Amanda Nickerson (NY), with Hannah Grossman (University at Buffalo), authored an accompanying blog introducing the dashboard and reviewing the research on lockdowns and their efficacy both in practice and during real-world shootings.
September is National Suicide Prevention Month in the United States. With suicides continuing to account for more than half of firearm-related fatalities, the importance of examining this issue remains a priority. Michael Anestis, Consortium member and director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center, provided new insight into the shifting nature of firearm-related suicides and who is most at risk. One way to prevent these deaths is through secure storage and messaging is critical for increasing buy-in. But, as Anestis highlights, who delivers the messaging and what type of secure storage options are promoted are equally important considerations. Further, ensuring that firearm owners are involved in this important conversation can help increase the likelihood that these interventions have their intended effect of preventing harm.
Consortium members Jennifer Paruk (NJ) and Esprene Liddell-Quintyn (NJ) authored a blog examining the dangerous intersection of firearms and intimate partner violence for Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October. There is a disproportionate impact of intimate partner homicide among certain demographic groups, not only including women, but those who are Black and American Indian/Alaskan Native, and the presence of a firearm in violent relationships significantly increases the risk of the victim being killed and the likelihood of additional casualties. Civil restraining orders, which are similar to ERPOs, can help reduce the risk of intimate partner homicide. Yet, as the authors highlight, not all intimate partner homicide is fatal—nearly 25 million US adults have experienced nonfatal abuse that involves firearms, including intimidation, fear, and coercive control.
Building from this piece, the Consortium released a blog by members Kaitlin Sidorsky (NJ) and Wendy Schiller (RI) that served as a primer for the upcoming Supreme Court case of United States v. Rahimi. This case, for which oral arguments were heard by the court on November 7, considers the constitutionality of federal firearm prohibitions for domestic violence offenders. Its outcome, which has yet to be determined at the time of this writing, could have life-threatening consequences for individuals in violent intimate partner situations and will shape the landscape of federal domestic violence policy for years to come. This also is the first time that the Supreme Court will be asked to consider the limits to the standards created in Bruen.
Finally, in November, affiliate scholar Ian Stanley (University of Colorado) considered the complex relationship between trauma exposure, PTSD, firearms, and suicide for veterans. Research has found that veterans are at an increased risk for both PTSD and suicide as compared to the general public. As Stanley notes, veterans with PTSD are also more likely to store their firearms in a nonsecure manner, a practice that in turn increases the risk of suicide. In this blog, Stanley explores the reasons that PTSD affects firearm storage practices and highlights different ways to encourage use of secure storage methods.
Collectively, the work of RGVRC experts in 2023 provide numerous insights for policymakers and the public seeking to understand and respond to the issue of gun violence in the United States. Addressing firearm violence requires a protracted conversation guided by empirical evidence and accompanied by policy and action. As we look ahead to 2024, we remain committed to continuing our in-depth analyses of persistent issues related to firearms in the nation, including community gun violence, mass shootings, domestic violence and firearms, and veterans and suicide. At the same time, we will continue to be responsive to emergent concerns, including new legal decisions and legislation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jaclyn Schildkraut is the executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium at the Rockefeller Institute of Government