Following the mass shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in July of 2012 and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December of that same year, the American Psychological Association (APA) enlisted a series of experts to examine ways to reduce gun violence.
The report—issued almost exactly a year after the Sandy Hook shootings—calls for a reasoned, public health approach to the multifaceted problem. The experts included in the report write about some of the roots of gun violence, as well as gun violence prediction and prevention at both the community and individual levels.
Susan B. Sorenson, a professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice, co-authored the final section of the report that examines gun policy, particularly ways that policy can be used to reduce and prevent gun violence.
“We know from human development that there are times when people are particularly receptive to growth and change—times that are called critical periods and they can be particularly compelling intervention points,” says Sorenson, who also directs the Evelyn Jacobs Ortner Center on Family Violence. “I used that sort of framework to write about the lifespan of a gun. I started from design—or birth, if you will—at the one end, and went all the way to the use of the gun. In between we have the manufacture of the gun, its distribution and sale, its ownership and possession, and then, finally, its use.”
Most existing policies, Sorenson explains, focus on the end point—specifically, criminal use, despite there being far more suicides than homicides by guns each year in the United States.
“I think psychology as a behavioral science is well-positioned to help address the suicide aspect, which has been vastly under-studied and largely unacknowledged,” Sorenson says.
She hopes the report also calls attention to the need for mental health services for those in crisis.
Working with co-author Daniel Webster of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Sorenson writes that rigorous scientific research about many gun policies is nonexistent. In 1997, Sorenson says, under pressure from the National Rifle Association and other advocacy groups, Congress rescinded the portion of the Centers for Disease Control budget dedicated to research on guns.
Much like states that sued tobacco manufacturers to recoup the heath care costs associated with tobacco use, similar efforts were made toward gun manufacturers, specifically focusing on the distribution of guns. In 2005, however, President George W. Bush signed into law the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which prohibits such lawsuits against manufacturers, distributors, dealers, or importers —protections that Sorenson says are unprecedented.
She also explains that the federal tool known as gun tracing allows law enforcement agencies to submit information about a gun that’s been used in a crime and trace the gun back to the first purchaser and retailer via the serial number. While it’s not universally used, Sorenson says it provides a first stop for investigators. Because of the request for a trace, gun manufacturers would also have an idea of which dealers were selling guns that disproportionately ended up in the hands of criminals.
“Are there things that can be done to reduce that flow of guns to people who are going to use the guns for criminal purposes? Perhaps so,” Sorenson says. “There was a basis in reality for thinking that the gun manufacturers could do something about this and they instead went to Congress and now have special protection.”
There are ways policy can help reduce gun violence, she adds, including the design of guns. So-called smart guns are firearms that are designed so only an authorized person can use them; the technologies tested include fingerprint or retinal recognition and keycodes. Gun manufacturers in the United States have not brought these guns to market because they say they do not trust the technology—but Sorenson doesn’t fully buy this argument, citing the precise, delicate technology that is widely used in various surgeries.
“If someone wanted a gun in their home for self-protection and they had children in the home, it seems that a consumer would choose a gun that only he or she could fire over another product that was not personalized,” Sorenson says. “I think there’s an economic incentive for manufacturers in terms of potentially increased gun sales.”
Sorenson and her co-author emphasize that individual laws can make a difference, but the idea that this problem can be solved with one sweeping law is naïve. Sorenson notes that it took a combination of policy, laws, and design to reduce motor vehicle crashes, for example.
After Sandy Hook, President Barack Obama signed 23 Executive Actions on gun control, including ordering the Centers for Disease Control to again fund gun violence research.
“One of the positive things that has come out after the Sandy Hook shootings has been that the federal government is starting to fund gun-related research again,” Sorenson notes. “Being able to bring research to the policymaking table will be a step forward.”