Lack of data hinders firearms research
Policymakers consider how to implement recommendations from a panel that included Robin Jenkins of the FPG Institute.
A New York Times Magazine report in December revealed that gun violence recently passed car accidents as the leading cause of death for American children, with 3,597 children dying by gunfire in 2021.
But in explaining the reporting behind this grim news, the magazine’s editors pointed out another critical problem: “There is no comprehensive data describing the nature of each fatal shooting in America.”
It’s a problem close to the heart of Robin Jenkins, associate director and senior implementation specialist at the Impact Center in the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. He’s a co-founding board member of the National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives, whose goal is to work with federal and state policymakers to embed prevention strategies and prevention science in evidence-based policymaking.
“We should just better understand what’s happening with firearms and the consequences of having so many firearms in our culture. That’s the fundamental issue here. We just need to understand it. We need to better plan for a research infrastructure that informs decision-making concerning firearms,” Jenkins said.
As an implementation specialist and a former chief deputy secretary in the state’s juvenile justice system, Jenkins contributed practical experience to “A Blueprint for a U.S. Firearms Data Infrastructure,” 2020 report of expert recommendations on how to improve the collection of data about gun violence.
“It didn’t make much sense to craft high-vision recommendations in the report that weren’t going to be doable,” Jenkins said. “Fundamentally, you want to reduce every barrier possible. Implementation science really looks at how you create that fit — feasibility, usability, cost/benefit — that will make something more likely to be adopted, used as designed and sustained on a day-to-day basis.”
Some of the recommendations are now being considered for implementation at the federal level, he said, with Congress allocating several million dollars for gun violence research and firearms-related information systems building. A major step forward has been the transition to the National Incident-Based Reporting System, which includes more robust information about firearms activities and whether the incident was cleared.
The Well asked Jenkins to share his expertise about the lack of information on gun violence and how it can be addressed.
What are the major holes in the firearms data system?
There are four pockets of challenges here.
- One is the infrastructure and the databases themselves and the lack of integrated infrastructure across the federal government, which parallels itself at local governments. Hospital data systems don’t typically share information with local sheriff’s departments or public health departments or social services.
- Another is the access and appropriate use of the information. Even when people might have access to these databases, some of them don’t have the human resources to do the reporting or the technology, or resources to do it well and comply with expectations around these database requirements.
- A third area is the integration and harmonization of these data so that people can make sense out of it. It’s a technically sophisticated challenge to integrate these databases across federal and local infrastructures.
- The fourth has to do with insufficient resources and mechanisms to build the technical assistance and support for these local entities and have the local conversations about how to harmonize and integrate data for their local benefit while also complying with and informing national data reporting requirements.
How can these challenges be addressed?
You start with the doable. Building out systems like NIBRS and then reducing the federal barriers that get in the way of moving data and policy from federal levels down to local entities are the two biggest things that I would advocate for. It’s not just about creating the data infrastructure that NIBRS does, but it’s funding the technical assistance and coaching and supporting users all along the way — federal, state, local — relative to the benefits of NIBRS and how it could make their jobs easier and effective.
Utility at the national level includes abilities to see patterns, trends, and to inform research and policymaking. It would also be extremely helpful to fully support the National Violent Death Reporting System, which standardizes reporting from law enforcement and medical examiners where violent death circumstances exist. Well-implemented NIBRS and NCVRS could substantially improve many aspects of understanding regarding firearms in this country.
NIBRS will also open up research. It will create broader understanding of the tools available to qualified researchers so that better research studies can be done around firearm experiences. So these databases are not only theoretical, they’re also practical. They bring opportunity to make government better when they’re used in an evidence-supported way.
What should be the next steps?
We need not only to fully resource and support NIBRS but also fully resource and support integration of NIBRS with these other databases — behavioral health, social services, public health — where feasible and possible. Stronger databases, better integration of data across platforms and better support for the database systems and their surrounding infrastructures — they all speak to a better understanding of the research questions we need to go after and the problems we need to solve.
If we as a country can come to a place where we’re creating what the report called a “climate of transparency” around local and state firearms data, we’ll go a long way toward opening up the willingness to do this research and to build the resources needed to solve some very challenging problems. These are public health and safety questions that we really need to tackle. And the evidence is in the number of people that are injured or killed by firearms every day in this country, most notably children.